Jan 282021
 

Photo used courtesy of /u/Franholio from his Reddit post

Every now and then a reviewer has to bite the bullet and admit that he’s got a rum to write about which is so peculiar and so rare and so unknown (though not necessarily so good) that few will have ever heard of it, fewer will ever get it, and it’s likely that nobody will ever care since the tasting notes are pointless.  Cadenhead’s 2016 release of the Caribbean Rum blend (unofficially named “Living Cask” or “1842” because of the number on the label) is one of these.  

Why is it so unknown? Well, because it’s rare, for one — of this edition, only 28 bottles were released back in 2016, and how this could happen with what is supposedly a mix of many barrels? For comparison, the Velier Albion 1989 had 108 bottles, and it wasn’t a blend. Only the Spirits of Old Man Uitvlugt had this small an outturn, if you discount the Caputo 1973 which had a single bottle. It’s been seen the sum total of one time at auction, also in 2016 and sold for £85 (in that same auction a Cadenhead from the cask series, the TMAH, sold for £116, as a comparator).  

But a gent called Franholio on Reddit, supplemented by WildOscar66, and then a 2015 review by the FRP on another variant explained it: this is a sort of Scottish solera, or an infinity cask. It is a blend of assorted rums, in this case supposedly mostly Demeraras in the 8-10 YO range, though these are never defined and could as easily be anything else. These are dunked into any one of several quarter-casks (about 50 liters) which are kept in Cadenhead shops in Edinburgh and London, constantly drawn off to bottle and then when it hits halfway down, is refilled from a bit left over from whatever IB cask they’re bottling.  What this means is that it is not only a “living cask” but that the chances of your bottle being the same as mine is small – I’ve picked up references to several of these, and they all have different bottling years, strengths, sizes and tasting notes.

That doesn’t invalidate the skill that’s used to add components to the casks, however – the rum is not a mess or a completely mish-mashed blend of batsh*t crazy by any means. Consider first the nose: even if I hadn’t known there was some Demerara in there I would have suspected it.  It smelled of well polished leather, dark dried fruits, smoke and cardamom, remarkably approachable and well tamed for the strength of 60.6%. It melded florals, fruitiness and brine well, yet always maintained a musty and hay-like background to the aromas. Only after opening up were more traditional notes discerned: molasses, caramel, burnt sugar, toffee, toblerone, a little coffee and a trace of licorice, not too strong.

I would not go so far as to say this was a clearly evident heritage (wooden) still rum, or even that there was plenty of such a beast inside, because taste-wise, I felt the rum faltering under the weight of so many bits and pieces trying to make nice with each other. Salty caramel, molasses, prunes and licorice were there, though faintly, which spoke to the dilution with other less identifiable rums; some dark and sweet fruits, vanilla, a hint of oaken bitterness, more smoke, more leather. The coffee and chocolate returned after a while.  Overall, it wasn’t really that interesting here, and while the finish was long and languorous, it was mostly a rehash of what came before – a rich black cake with loads of chopped fruits, drizzled with caramel syrup, to which has been added a hint of cinnamon and cardamom and some vanilla flavoured whipped cream.

This Cadenhead is a completely fine rum, and I’m impressed as all get out that a quarter-cask solera-style rum – one of several in shops that have better things to do than micromanage small infinity barrels – is as good as it is.  What I’m not getting is distinctiveness or something particularly unique, unlike those “lettered” single barrel releases for which Cadenhead is perhaps more renowned. I might have scored it more enthusiastically had that been the case.

I believe that the process of developing any blend is to smoothen out widely variant valleys and peaks of taste into something that is both tasty and unique in its own way, without losing the interest of the drinker by making something overly blah. Here, I think that the rum’s strength carries it further than the profile alone could had it been weaker: and that although that profile is reasonably complex and has a nice texture, sold at a price that many have commented on as being pretty good…it is ultimately not really as rewarding an experience as it might have been with more focus, on fewer elements.

(#797)(84/100)


Other notes

  • While the review ends on a down note, I did actually enjoy it, and that’s why I endorse going to any of Cadenhead’s shops that have one of these casks, and tasting a few. 
  • Nicolai Wachmann, one of my rum tooth fairies out of Denmark, kindly passed along the sample.
Oct 212020
 

Before delving into the (admittedly interesting) background of Tres Hombres and their “fair transport” concept, let’s just list the bare bones of what this rum supposedly is, and what we do and don’t know.  To begin with, it’s unclear where it’s from: “Edition No. 8 La Palma” goes unmentioned on their webpage, yet Ultimate Rum Guide lists a rum with the same stats (41.3% ABV, la Palma, Solera) as Edition No. 9, from the Domincan Republic.  But other La Palma rums made by Tres Hombres list the named rums as being from the Canary islands – Aldea, in point of fact, a company we have met before in our travels. Beyond that, sources agree it is a blended (solera) rum, the oldest component of which is 17 years old, 41.3% and the three barrels that made up the outturn spent some time sloshing around in barrels aboard a sailing ship (a 1943-constructed brigantine) for which Tres Hombres is renowned.

Well, Canary Islands or Dominican Republic (I’ll assume The Hombres are correct and it’s the former), it has to be evaluated, so while emails and queries chase themselves around, let’s begin. Nose first: kind of sultry and musky.  Green peas developing some fuzz, old bananas, vanilla and grated coconut, that kind of neither too-sweet nor too-salt nor too-sour middle ground.  It’s a little spicy and overall presents as not only relatively simple, but a little thin too, and one gets the general impression that there’s just not much gong on.

The palate, though, is better, even a little assertive.  Certainly it’s firmer than the nose led me to expect. A trace briny, and also quite sweet, in an uneasy amalgam akin to tequila and sugar water.  Definite traces of ripe pears and soft apples, cardamom and vanilla.  Some other indiscernible fruits of no particular distinction, and a short and rather sweet finish that conferred no closing kudos to the rum. It’s as easily forgettable and anonymous as a mini-bar rum in a downmarket hotel chain, and about as exciting.

Tres Hombres is now up to No. 34 or something, includes gin in the lineup, still do some ageing onboard for a month or so it takes to cross the Atlantic and certainly they have not lost their enthusiasm — they include rums from Barbados, DR and the Canary islands. Whether this part of their business will carry them into the future or forever be a sideline is, however, not something I can answer at this time – the lack of overall publicity surrounding their rums, suggests they still have a ways to go with respect to wider consciousness and acceptance.

And with good reason, because to me and likely to others, complexity and bravura and fierce originality is not this rum’s forte – smoothness and easy drinkability are, which is something my pal Dave Russell has always banged me over the head about when discussing Spanish style rums, especially those from the DR – “they like their stuff like that over there!” And so I mention for completeness that it seems rather delicate and mild – the low strength is certainly responsible for some of that – and not completely displeasing….just not my personal cup of tea. 

(#771)(75/100)


Other Notes & Background

This is one of those cases where the reviewer of the rum has to firmly separate the agenda and philosophy of the company (laudable, if somewhat luddite) from the quality of the rum they sell. In no way can the ideals of one be allowed to bleed over into the perception of the other, which is something a lot of people have trouble with when talking about rums made by producers they favour or who do a laudable public service that somehow creates the uncritical assumption that their rums must be equally good.

Tres Hombres is a Dutch sailing ship company begun in 2007 by three friends as a way of transporting cargo — fair trade and organic produce — across and around the Atlantic, and they have a sideline running tours, daytrips and instructional voyages for aspiring old-school sailors.  In 2010, while doing some repairs in the DR, they picked up 3000 bottles of rum, rebranded it as Tres Hombres No. 1 and began a rum business, whose claim to fame was the time it spent — after ageing at origin — abroad the ship itself while on the voyage.  Not just old school, then, but very traditional…more or less. The question of where the rum originated was elided – only URG mentions Mardi S.A. as the source, and that’s a commercial blending op like Oliver & Oliver, not a real distillery.

What the Tres Hombres have done is found a point of separation, something to set them apart from the crowd, a selling point of distinction which fortunately jives with their environmental sensibilities. I’m not so cynical as to suggest the whole business is about gaining customers by bugling the ecological sensitivity of a minimal carbon footprint – you just have to admire what a great marketing tool it is, to speak about organic products moved without impact on the environment, and to link the long maritime history of sailing ships of yore with the rums that are transported on board them in the modern era.  

Oct 082020
 

Rumaniacs Review #121 | 768

1893 was a year of some importance for the Botran rum-making concern of Guatemala – it was the date of birth of one of the founders of the company, Venancio Botran. He and four other brothers (Andres, Felipe, Jesus and Alejandro – their parents immigrated from Spain to Central America in the early 1900s) moving away from a purely sugar-based company, established the Industria Licorera Quetzalteca in the western Guatemalan town of Quetzaltenango back in 1939. It was geared towards making rones, and the company remains a family owned business to this day.  

This rum is presented in a decanter, not the current 2015-released bar-room bottle and I think it was likely the top of their line for many years – hence the flagon – before the 75th Anniversary Solera 25 came out and became the crown jewel. Interestingly, the label  does not mention the number 18 anywhere, just “1893” and “solera”, and so it’s reasonable to assume the blend was tweaked a little (but not much) and locked into the current version, with some 18 YO as the oldest component. I’ve sent them a note to check.

Colour – Gold brown

Strength – 40%

Nose – Silent and withdrawn sort of nose, not too much going on at the inception. Very gentle. Light fruits like pears and watermelon, plus green peas (!!), peaches and dried apricots.  Some cocoa, vanilla, with hints of lemon peel and cinnamon.

Palate – Cocoa and spices, vanilla, toffee, honey, tobacco.  Nutmeg dusting over a blancmange, sweet and firm, with additional notes of brown sugar, smoke and a strong mocha.  Fruits take something of a backseat with this aspect, though a bit of orange or lemon zest can still be discerned if you try (or care enough to bother).

Finish – Here today and gone today, vanishes faster than a 4S acolyte seeing Alexandre Gabriele at a rumfest.  Some nuttiness and more blancmange, coffee powder, vanilla ice cream, but the real question is, where’s the “rumminess” to this thing? Completely absent, really.

Thoughts – It’s got the flavours, just not the punch to make then pop and 40% simply does not provide the firmness such a profile needs. I tried the new 1893 version with the entire lineup in 2015 and liked it enough to give it a good score and recommendation. Somehow this one doesn’t quite come up to the same level for me (this may be four additional years’ experience manifesting itself), though for anyone looking for a relaxing drink from yesteryear that challenges less than it soothes, it admittedly remains a good buy.

(76/100)


Other Notes

  • The various components of the blend are aged in Spanish ex-Jerez casks, American white oak casks, and ex-Port barrels
  • Since “Guatemala” and “solera” are probably ringing some big alarms in your mind (or church bells, depending on how you view the matter), let it be confirmed that yes, they also produce the Zacapa line of rums, the most famous of which is of course the “23” — these rums have come in for equal praise and opprobrium in the last few years, because of the solera method of production, the sweetness and the light nature of the rums, and the problematic age statement.  You can read more about the issue here.
  • As always, thanks to the source, my old schoolfriend Cecil of the USA.

Jun 152020
 

Francisco Montero is, unusually enough, a Spanish rum making concern, and the website has the standard founding myth of one man wanting to make rum and going after his dream and establishing a company in Granada to do so in 1963.  Initially the company used sugar from cane (!!) grown around southern Spain to make their rums, but over time this supply dried up and now in the 21st century they source molasses from a number of different locations around the world, which they distill and age into various rums in their portfolio. Francisco Montero continues operations to this day, and in 2013 celebrated their 50th Anniversary with a supposedly special bottling to mark the occasion.

I say “supposedly” because after tasting, I must confess to wondering what exactly was so special about it. The nose itself started off well – mostly caramel, molasses, raisins, a dollop of vanilla ice cream, with hints of coffee and citrus, flowers and some delicate sweet, and some odd funkiness lurking in the background…shoes, rotting vegetables, some wood (it reminds me somewhat of the Dos Maderas 5+3).

But afterwards, things didn’t capitalize on that strong open or proceed with any kind of further originality. It tasted wispy and commercially anonymous, that was the problem, and gave over little beyond what was already in the nose.  Molasses, caramel, some fruit – all that odd stuff vanished, and it became dry, unimpressive.  Okay after ten minutes, it turned a tad creamy, and grudgingly gave up a green apple or two, toast, and some walnuts. But really? That was it? Big yawn. Finish was short, bland, faintly dry, a hint of dried fruits, caramel, brown sugar.

So what was this? Well, it’s a 40% ABV solera rum with differing accounts of whether the oldest component is five or ten years – but even if we’re generous and accept ten, there’s just not enough going on here to impress, to deserve the word “special” or even justify “anniversary”.

Reading around, you only get two different opinions – the cautiously positive ones from any of those that sell it, and the harshly negative from those who tried it.  That’s practically unheard of for a premium ron that marks an event (50th anniversary, remember) and is of limited provenance (7000 bottles, not particularly rare, but somewhat “limited”, so ok).  Most of the time  people whinge about price and availability, but nobody really seems to care enough to make it a cause. Even the the ones who disliked it just spoke to taste, not cost. “Turpentine” growled one observer. “Quite disappointed,” wrote another, and the coup de grace was offered by a third “Who in their right mind has been buying this stuff for 50 years?!” Ouch.

I’m not that harsh, just indifferent — and while I accept that the rum was made specifically for  palates sharing a preference for sherries, soleras and lighter ron profiles (e.g. locals, tourists and cruise ships, not the more exacting rumistas who hang around FB rum clubs), I still believe Montero could have done better.  It’s too weak, too young, too expensive, and not interesting enough. If this is what the descendants of the great Spanish ron makers who birthed Bacardi and the “Spanish style” have come to when they want to make a special edition to showcase their craft, they should stop trying. The nose is all that makes me score this thing above 75, and for me, that’s almost like damning it with faint praise.

(#736)(76/100)


Other notes

  • Master Quill, that sterling gent who was the source of the sample, scored it 78 and provided details of the production methodology.
  • Not much else for the company has been reviewed except by the FRP, who reviewed the Gran Reserva back in 2017
Apr 302020
 

By the time this review is read, digested and (incredulously) sniffed over and dismissed, somebody out there might well be sharpening pen, tablet or iphone and getting ready to verbally off me online.  And no surprise – were I to repeat the hosannas of my original 2012 review of the Millonario XO, which scored what would now be considered a near-unbelievable, is-the-Caner-out-of-his-friggin’-mind? 88 points, I would never be taken seriously again.  The rum has become a lightning rod for rum purists, on par with the Diplo Res Ex, Dictador, Zacapa 23 or the Zaya 21, all of which are from South America, feature big numbers and small type and fine print, are almost all soleras (named so or not) and worst of all, are all tarted up with additives of one kind or another to a degree that is off putting in the Age of Foursquare, New Jamaicans and the big Indies.

Such matters in any adulterated rum would itself wouldn’t be all that problematic if (a) these things were spelled out clearly and (b) the labelling wasn’t so self-evidently deceptive and (c) the marketing wasn’t so heavy on the bullsh*t.  Rum Nation, which until recently produced and distributed the Millonario (which is made from facilities in Peru), didn’t escape such opprobrium, but since the original XO came out more than ten years back, and since so much of what RN did since then was so well received, I’m guessing some slack was granted for lesser knowledge and expertise back in the day; and as time passed reviews dried up…and the Millonario brand, while it sold extremely well, fell into a sort of limbo.

But Fabio Rossi has sold off the Rum Nation name and portfolio to concentrate on this one line of rums, which he evidently prefers (he remains in a consultancy capacity for the RN brand) or which sells a whole lot better. This deserves some consideration since he does know his spirits and has been in the game of rum for over two decades, and undoubtedly picked up a thing or two. And so, when he handed me the 2018 release (which had been matured in 2nd fill sherry casks and was actually stated to have 20g/L of added sugar), although I initially backed off and mumbled something about this not being my cup of tea any longer, honour and curiosity demanded I give it a shot anyway…so later I snuck back and tried it.

Let’s be clear, this is not in any sense one of the headliners of the various FB fora where people boast about scoring one. The nose is, bluntly, rather blunt. It’s like sucking a fruity snickers bar. It has a solid, smooth and aromatic nose in which the sweet has – somewhat surprisingly – less omnipresence than I would have expected. With that also comes something of a darkish tone to the experience – chocolate, toffee, molasses, coffee, nougat, vanilla and some fleshy fruit – prunes and plums and blackberries I’d say, which lend a certain light citrus element that was unlooked-for and quite surprising. It’s demonstrably not a Demerara, though the resemblance is there…but a newcomer to rum might not see much difference between an ED 12 and this, were they both at the same strength.

What distinguished the taste of the rum then, and again now, through all the years, is its thick firmness which feels akin to having a solid weight brush across the tongue.  The original 40% of the XO fails it nowadays (my opinion) but the intriguing thing about pushing the strength up to 50% which this has, is that it kind of works.  The tastes on the palate, are, for one, much clearer: there are marshmallows, toblerone, almonds, nuts, coffee, bitter chocolate, caramel, anise, well balanced, melding pleasantly. To this are added berries, watermelon, vanilla and some breakfast spices and cumin if you focus, with a feather bed of a finish closing things off – apples, chocolate, bitter coffee grounds, and again, some fruits and vanilla.

A 50% ABV rum like this, a solera (I assume – there is no age statement), sweet, fruity, heavy, firmer than the XO, less elegant than the Solera 15…well, it’s not as brutal as a Caroni or New Jamaican, softer than the pot column blends of the Bajans (but not as good, sorry – Barbados still gets my coin in a head-to-head)…this rum is not as bad as detractors may feel, and reminds me a lot of what I’ve often said in defense of the XO – “there’s a lot more under the hood of this thing than most admit.” But that said, there’s no denying it’s not for everyone, for the same reasons. 

I make no apologies for this, offer no excuses, no defense – it is what it is. It’s been sweetened, it feels sticky, it leaves a residue of aromatic sugar in your glass that any insect would happily swim and drown in, and that’s the rum’s cross to bear.  Every person who reads this review and is thinking of buying or trying it, has to make their peace with that, to walk away, or give in and accept. What I maintain though, is that it’s not half bad for what it is (and as long as you come to it knowing that), which is why I score it at 79 and not below the median of 75, beneath which a rum is not at all to my taste.  I wouldn’t have it in quantity and some wouldn’t have it at all; others would quaff it by the bottle, and still more would have it after dessert only, perhaps with a cigar.  I don’t know all of you and what you would do. But you each know who you are.  Hopefully this rambling review helps you make up your mind one way or another.

(#722)(79/100)

Dec 152019
 

After all these years, there isn’t an average imbiber who hasn’t tried the Venezuelan Santa Teresa Ron Antiguo de Solera 1796 (to give its full and somewhat unwieldy title) at least once.  It’s a solera rum which usually sets alarm bells ringing for those who want both more disclosure and less additives, but somehow Santa Teresa has managed, through all the years, to navigate the treacherous shoals of too much or too little and remained a consistent, if not top tier, favourite of the entire tippling class. Given the rancour and fury that often attends such rums by the social media commentariat, that’s no mean achievement.

Consider: there are nine separate micro-reviews on reddit for this thing, and on the RumRatings site, it has 437 ratings, of which more than 80% rate it 7 points or higher. Online magazines and aggregators like Distiller, Flaviar, Tastings, WineMag, Got Rum, Drink Hacker and Proof 66 have written extensively about its voluptuous charms. Even the blogosphere has always looked at it, always reviewed it, sometimes as one of their first rum reviews. Alex of the Rum Barrel, The Fat Rum Pirate, myself, the Rum Howler, Refined Vices, Ralfy, All At Sea, Rum Shop Boy, Rum Diaries Blog, Rum Gallery, Inu A Kena…all of us between 2006 and 2019 have, at some stage, tried the thing, and its popularity shows no sign of fading. If there was ever a gateway rum for the Latin style that isn’t from Panama or Cuba, then this is it (the Diplo may be another).

I think part of that is because there’s nothing excessive about it.  Nor is there anything overly modest. It certainly evades the trap of turning into an over-sugared mess, or one where that’s all you taste, because the sweet, such as it is, is kept completely in the background.  An August 2019 hydrometer test – mine – rates it as 36.96% ABV, which translates into 12g/L – not good, but hardly earth shaking when compared to other latin rums which have twice or three times that much, and many earlier reviews and tests actually showed none at all (this suggests either batch variation or an evolution in production philosophy); a Santa Teresa rep as recently as 2018 in an interview with Simon Johnson, stated flat out they don’t adulterate their rum.  So, if you accept that, the only complaint that could be raised against it is that it really should be a few points stronger.

The nose is different from my admittedly fading tasting memories of ten years ago, when I first sampled it at a Liquorature get together in Calgary. Then I felt it had mostly standard South American aged rum components – vanilla, caramel, honey, light fruits, all rather low key.  Now the blend presented otherwise: I was tasting glue, sugar cane sap, floor polish, varnish right up front, and I know that wasn’t any part of what I was smelling before.  The 40% ABV still makes it too weak to mount an effective and aggressive nasal assault, and that is an issue they will have to address sooner or later – but at least, with some effort I also sensed very ripe apples, apricots, cherries in syrup, plus a dusting of cinnamon, molasses, caramel, and a little bite from oak, unsweetened dark chocolate and light orange peel.

It’s inoffensive in the extreme, there’s little to dislike here (except perhaps the strength), and for your average drinker, much to admire.  The palate is quite good, if occasionally vague – light white fruits and toblerone, nougat, salted caramel ice cream, bon bons, sugar water, molasses, vanilla, dark chocolate, brown sugar and delicate spices – cinnamon and nutmeg.  It’s darker in texture and thicker in taste than I recalled, but that’s all good, I think. It fails on the finish for the obvious reason, and the closing flavours that can be discerned are fleeting, short, wispy and vanish too quick.

When rated against other rums of its type, the main competitors are the Zacapa, Zafra, Diplomatico Res Ex, the Kirk and Sweeney, or even the Millonario XO or Dictador. But I always found K&S to be too fixated on a particular “cinnamon-lite” profile; Diplo, Zafra and Zacapa were oversugared in comparison; and the Millonario XO was too excessive in both areas, as was Dictador with that coffee note it likes so much. Other producers of rums similar to the 1796 — solera or otherwise — are simply too small and lack market share, and impinge hardly at all in the larger popular consciousness (Don Q and Bacardi are different for other reasons). 

But I believe that after all the years since 1996 when it was introduced (for Santa Tersa’s 200th Anniversary), there are good reasons it remains a fixture in the global rumscape and a perennial popular seller.  As noted above, it can be found just about everywhere in a way that other Caribbean rums aren’t always; it’s extremely well known, and remains affordable to this day (around US$40 or so) — which is good for any average Joe who can’t always get or afford a New Jamaican or Barbadian or St. Lucian or Guyanese rum. Moreover, it just tastes good enough for most and can be used as a gateway rum for Latin/Spanish style rums in general and Venezuelan ones in particular.  Of course, like most gateway rums, if you stick around long enough you’ll inevitably think one day that it’s too weak, too easy and too simple and move smartly along to the next milestone on the journey…but for anyone now starting and not looking to go anywhere, this is as lovely a Key Rum of the World as any on the list before it.

(#684)(78/100)


Other Notes (adapted from 2010 review)

Santa Teresa distillery is located in Venezuela about an hour east of the capital, Caracas, on land given by the King of Spain to a favoured count in 1796. The estate ended up in the hands of a Gustavo Vollmer Rivas, who began making rum from sugar produced on nearby estates – owned by other Vollmerses –  in the late 1800s. The Santa Teresa 1796 was produced in 1996 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the estate land grant, and, produced by the solera method.

In the solera process, a succession of barrels is filled with rum over a series of equal aging intervals (usually a year). One container is filled for each interval. At the end of the interval after the last container is filled, the oldest container in the solera is tapped for part of its content (say, half), which is bottled. Then that container is refilled from the next oldest container, and that one in succession from the second-oldest, down to the youngest container, which is refilled with new product. This procedure is repeated at the end of each aging interval. The transferred product mixes with the older product in the next barrel.

No container is ever drained, so some of the earlier product always remains in each container. This remnant diminishes to a tiny level, but there can be significant traces of product much older than the average, depending on the transfer fraction. In theory traces of the very first product placed in the solera may be present even after 50 or 100 cycles. In the Santa Teresa, there are four levels of ageing. And the final solera is topped up with “Madre” spirit, which is a young blend deriving from both columnar and pot stills.  Seems a bit complicated to me, but sherry makers have been doing it for centuries in Spain, so why not for rum? The downside is, of course, that there’s no way of saying how old it is since it is such a blend of older and younger rums. The marketing for the 1796 says the rum has components of between 4 to 35 years of age in it.

Nov 142019
 

Three years ago I tried and later wrote a review of the 8-year-solera Cihuatán rum from El Salvador (bottled at 40%), and noted rather disappointedly that “this was a remarkably quiet rum.”  Essentially, I regarded it with some indifference. At the time, Paul Senft of Rum Journey and I were trading notes and he told me they had a 12 year solera variation slated to be released, and Cihuatán themselves told me they were working on some more limited editions of their own.

Well, I moved on, liking but not completely won over by the brand at that point, and while I never did source the 12 year solera, I kept a weather eye open for anything they made that might pop up in years to come.  Then in 2019, I caught wind of the special Nikté limited release — though one would perhaps be forgiven for asking what is so terribly limited about 17,914 bottles — and resolved to try it for a number of reasons. One, it was a follow-up to the 2017 review to satisfy my own curiosity; two, it was made by a maestra ronera, Gabriela Ayala, and that deserves respect and more than just a passing acknowledgement; three, it was issued at north of standard, stronger than the usual Latin rums I’ve tried in the past made by primary producers; and four, I just wanted to see if it really was special. Marketing works on impressionable young minds like mine.

The name of the rum (or ron, if you will) relates back to the Mayan motif that has been part of the brand from the inception: Cihuatán comes from the name of an ancient Mayan settlement that once existed very close to where the distillery is currently located.  It translates into “next to the woman”, referring to a mountain nearby which looks like a sleeping woman in silhouette.  The original glyph on the label (Tlaloc, the Mayan god of water) has been replaced by the moon goddess (Ix Chel), and a feminine version of the flower known as Sac Nicté in Nahuat (“sac” means white) as her stylized floral twin, all in homage to Kay Nikté, the Mayan festival of flowers. And I have to concede, that’s one really pretty label, colourful and well laid out – if the intention was to get me to see it on a shelf and stop, stare and maybe buy it, yeah, they succeeded pretty well there.

Based on its tasting, however, the case of unquestioning purchase is harder to make for those who have been part of the rum renaissance over the last ten years, and who prefer something more powerful and distinct (although not for those for whom it was made, perhaps). The ron is decidedly Spanish/Latin in style and influence and the strength — 47.5%, unusual for a rum from Central  America — only marginally raised it in my estimation. Consider first the nose – it was quite sweet, with scents of marshmallows, caramel, vanilla, ice cream and flowers (really light jasmine), and the warmth and depth of a loaf of bread fresh from the oven. What it was, was soft, and easygoing – quite an achievement for a rum dialled-up as this was. I had expected something a bit fiercer, but no…

Anyway, the taste was firm, but the soft easiness did not go away and to some extent that lessened the experience for me. It presented little in the way of aggression and was like chomping down on a freshly laundered feather pillow – there were sweet floral notes (jasmine again), the crisp smell of laundry detergent, delicate spices – dill, nutmeg – some lemon zest, cumin, tempered and somewhat eclipsed by heavier flavours of butterscotch, toffee, bitter chocolate and caramel, ending with the soft exhaling sigh of a finish that didn’t give much more, mostly caramel, nutmeg, sweet delicate flowers and a touch of light white fruits. 

Overall, this rum is a soft sipper’s dream, but won’t do much for a hogo-lover or wooden-still worshipper.  I’ve been warned by many in the past not to decry rums made for palates different my own, so I’ll simply make note of the matter and leave you to make up your own mind.  Personally, I think it’s better than the 8 year solera, and has more going on in its jock, but remains too soft and even too sweet and even the strength can’t entirely make up for that. Yet kudos have to be given for taking the brand in these directions to begin with – for anyone who likes the soporific, relaxed charms of the Spanish style rons, this is a step up the ladder that is a few orders more interesting, more complex and plain out better than its 8 year solera counterpart. 

(#675)(80/100)


Other notes

  • The Nikte is a blend of rums uniting 12 and 14 year old rums aged in ex-bourbon casks with a 15 year old rum aged in first-fill american oak barrels.  Cihuatan confirmed later that all components were true aged, not solera, and later told Ivar de Laat of Rum Revelations that it was also a cane juice/molasses rum blend.
  • Made by Licorera Cihuatan, a subsidiary of Ingenio La Cabaña, one of the larger sugar concerns in the country (established in around 1920).  It is a diversified company located north of San Salvador, and its main business is based on a sugar cane plantation, a sugar mill and a modern alcohol plant (built in 1999) with a multi-column still that produces various alcohols and liqueurs for both the leisure and industrial market.  Sometime in the early 2000s the company initiated their own brand, consulting with Luis Ayala (publisher of Got Rum? magazine) in the process. They began releasing the Cihuatán brand in 2015 and have added to its brand portfolio ever since. There are currently five rums in the portfolio, two stated soleras (8 and 12), an aged rum “Obsidian” and two special editions, the Nikte and the Nahual which are aged blends.
Apr 292018
 

Rumaniacs Review #076 | 0506

Ron Zacapa from Guatemala, now owned by Diageo, has been a poster boy for adulteration, over-sweetness and confusing (misleading?) labels for the entire time I’ve been reviewing rums.  The current late-2010s edition of the Centenario 23 (first introduced in 1976 and now dropping the “Años”) is still a crowd favourite…but here we have an older vintage, back when the wrapped bottle was still in vogue (Rum Nation copied it for the Millonario 15 when Zacapa discontinued it some years ago)…and if scuttlebutt is to be believed, this thing really is 23 years old, before they started solera-izing it in the current iterations. But about that I have my doubts – I respectfully submit it was always a solera, and it’s just that as everyone found out about it the label had to be changed.

Colour – Amber

Strength – 40%

Nose – Quite thick and rich, redolent of brown sugar, chocolate, molasses and coffee. Not overly complex, little in the way of additional flavours, except for some toblerone, vanilla, cinnamon and honey.  Some sherry and vague fruity notes.

Palate – Soft, very easy, almost no bite at all – I’d call it unadventurous. Walnuts and raisins mixing it up with chocolate and toffee with a little alcohol.  A faint bitterness of black tea, some honey, vanilla, a few raisins, brown sugar, caramel, cinnamon….overall, not so much tamed as simply easy, no effort required. However, note that it’s not as sweet as the current versions available on the market, just sweet enough to be noticeable.

Finish – Short warm and smooth, mostly caramel, a little (very little) fruit, coffee and liqueur. Gone in a heartbeat, leaving not even a smile behind.

Thoughts – I can see why it remains a crowd pleaser, but the decision to stop with this blend and go with the “modern” Zacapas now on sale was (in my opinion) a mistake. This slightly older version of the rum is marginally better, has at least some character and isn’t destroyed by additives or sweet quite as badly.  Even so, it remains a rum to appeal to the many rather than the few, and all it remains for the dedicated is a pleasant after-dinner digestif as opposed to something to place on the top shelf.

(75/100)

 

Dec 072017
 

#466

“Sample #18 reminds me of a Don Papa,” grumbled a Philippine friend of mine, who was blind tasting some samples I had sent over to Quezon City. “Hot distillate on the nose, very sweet.” In those few words he encapsulated something of my own unease about the Dictador rums out of Colombia, because while hydrometer tests reveal no adulteration for the 12 and 20 year soleras, and probably none for the Insolent and Perpetual (they measure 3-4 g/L which is within the margin of error), the plain fact is that they simply taste too damned sweet…a characteristic of most solera-style rums I’ve tried.  Which would lead any cynical rumhound, in these sad and suspicious times, to posit that maybe they understated the actual ABV so that a hydrometer test would register exactly what the label says.

Given that the zero-additives-registered 12 and 20 somewhat predated the current sugar imbroglio, one could make the case they’re not pulling a fast one, but the question refuses to go away — because when Cyril tried the “Best of 1978” version it came out as 17 g/L and even if this were not the case, when you try this rum from a year earlier, you cannot help but feel that there’s more in its trouser pockets than a pair of hands. That does not make it entirely bad, and since many have said nice things about it, perhaps it’s merely one you should be wary about buying if your personal palate does not run to the lighter, sweeter Spanish style of rums in general, or soleras in particular. And if you want to know exactly what you’re buying, well, that’s a matter for my opinions down below this review.

Anyway, tasting notes: all those who have tried the various Dictador expressions have remarked on the coffee undertones: that remained strong here as well – it’s something of a Dictador signature. It was soft and rounded, exhibiting gentle, creamy notes of sweet blancmange, bon bons and caramel.  There was something of a red wine background here, raisins, and a vague fruitiness that was maddeningly elusive because it never quite emerged and came to the fore with any kind of authority.  The nose therefore came through as something of a sleeping beauty behind a frosted glass case – I could sense some potential, but was never quite able to get the kiss of life from it…the liqueur note to the smells, while not as overpowering as on the 20, kept getting in the way.

Things were slightly more impressive to taste, because here the strength of 45.5% worked better, and it presented as a little edgy, a little jagged, if lacking that smooth purring of velvet which we might have expected (and the ease of which were other defining characteristics of the 12 or the 20 along with that over-sweetened coffee which wouldn’t go away) – this, to the 1977’s credit, added some character: chocolate, coffee (again), cumin, a light lemony flirt of coriander, ginger, even sweet red paprika: but the core of it all remains the caramel-coffee.  Ultimately, however, it remained relatively uncomplex, fragile…even weak — the flavours were somewhat unassertive, flat, jittered around too much and fell away too quickly.  My personal opinion was that it lacked punch and staying power, which was most to be remarked on the finish which was a quick burst of caramel, coffee, chocolate and oaken heat mixed up with some black tea….and then it was gone.  Poof.

Now that’s not to say we’re sure, when all is said and done, the nose nosed, the palate palated and the finish finished, that we’re entirely clear what we had.  Certainly it was some of something, but was it much of anything?  I’m going to have to piss off some people (including maybe even my compadre in the Philippines) by suggesting that yes, I think it was…better, at least, than the preceding remarks might imply, or than I had expected going in.  For one thing, while it was sweet, it was not excessively so (at least compared to the real dentist’s wet dreams such as Don Papa 7, or the A.H. Riise).  It had reasonably nice tastes and smells, so as a dessert rum or smooth, sweet sipping experience, this will do the job.  It delivers for all those who like that profile — and from what I am led to understand by many correspondents of mine, this is the style that is preferred in South and Central America, and the Spanish Caribbean, hence its enduring popularity.  

So here’s what I’ll do. If you like this kind of thing, add five points to my score.  If you detest soleras, sweeter rums or underpowered blended drinks, subtract five.  Either way, you’ll probably come out with the perfect number to represent your own feelings on the matter.  Me, I rate it as a middling decent rum which needs less sweet, less coffee, more disclosure, more complexity…and the courage to stop with the solera moniker, call it a blend, age it for the full monty, and for sure add quite a bit of extra oomph. Then I might buy not just a bottle, but a case.

(80/100)


Other notes

  • Bottle #84 of 300.
  • In a curious coincidence, the Cocktail Wonk posted an informative article on the whole business of soleras for Punch Magazine just the other day. That and DuRhum’s (French) article on Dictador are useful background reading to my opinion below.
  • Note the “Cask Ref” field in the second photo.  The “P” stands for Port Cask aged; other variations are “AO” for American Oak, “W” for Wine, and “S” for Sherry
  • The RumShopBoy reviewed the Best of 1981 in September 2018 and made remarks similar to those here, scoring it 76

Opinion

The “Best of 1977” sounds real good, but is ultimately useless as any kind of standard by which to measure it since no additional information is given as to how old it is, even in solera terms.  I wish I could tell you it’s 1977-2016 or 1950-1977 or something, but there’s simply nothing to go on here. Dictador do themselves no favours in this matter by consistently naming their various rums as “Aged 12 years” or “Aged 20 years” (with “solera” in much smaller typeface on the label), when of course they are nothing of the kind by commonly accepted parlance – the oldest rum in the blend is that old  not the youngest, there is no mention of how much of that age is included, and even the average age is a matter of conjecture. It may be legal, but it is somewhat deceptive too. The same issue afflicts the entire “Best of…” series and dilutes their effectiveness in all the ways that matter to those who want to know what they’re buying.  Because we really don’t know, and can’t tell.

Quite aside from ageing (or lack thereof) consider the the whole question of tasted-but-untested additives. The “Best of…” series are an informational sinkhole of gargantuan proportions, an exercise in enormous frustration. Henrik Kristoffersen nailed it in November 2017 on the Global Rum Club forum where he asked where this stuff came from and were they really sitting on barrels from as far back as 1966 for this long? Others chipped in asking how ageing any barrels that long could possibly leave anything behind after the angels took their bite of the pizza.  Still others noted the same barrel reference on both the Best of 1981 and the Best of 1966 bottle labels.  Then there were the discussions on whether anything was actually distilled by Dictador or whether they (like Hechicera, also from Colombia) sourced distillate from around the continent.  And then there was Cyril’s take-no-prisoners French-language article on Dictador as a whole, which did not leave either the company or their big gun looking too good.

If this isn’t a poster child for the application of The Rum Chum’s First Law (“Drink what you like…know what you drink”) I don’t know what is. It sips well if you like that profile, but God help you if you want to find out what it’s made of, how old it is, or where it comes from.  And before you think that I’m being unreasonably snarky, note that a discussion like this is not a mere academic rum geek pastime – knowing what you’re looking at allows you to rate and assess its price in your local shop (the 1977 edition goes for north of $200, and the 1966, labelled as “51 years,” is closing in on €500).  If you can’t find out whether the damned thing is five years old or fifty, whether it’s pot or column, solera or true-aged, added-to or clean…then the producer has betrayed his trust with you; and you’re within your rights to not only demand more, but to ask the hard questions of anyone who is trying to regurgitate a bunch of marketing folderol without actually saying much of anything. For sure we’re not getting the whole story here and since we don’t know what we’re buying, I’d suggest you leave this review and opinion, with me having spent my coin so you don’t have to spend yours.

(Closing note: this Opinion dovetails with my other commentaries on the matter of trust, detailed in or as opinions below, the  reviews of the Malecon 79, Mombacho 19 and the Don Papa Rare Cask).

Apr 102017
 

#355

Back in 2015 I wrote about the Ron Maja 12 year old rum which purported to be from El Salvador based on the place of origin of the family behind it, but really wasn’t when one considered the location of the production process.  Here’s another one from that country, which earns its geographical appellation somewhat more, though overall, there isn’t much more to it than its cousin.

The dark gold Cihuatán is a molasses-based 40% Salvadorean rum aged in white oak ex-bourbon barrels, with the base distillate going into the 5-layer solera system in 2004 for eight years – that does not make it an eight year old rum, of course, just a rum with components up to eight years old inside it.  It is made by Licorera Cihuatan, itself a subsidiary of Ingenio La Cabaña, one of the larger sugar concerns in the country (it was established in around 1920).  It is a diversified company located north of San Salvador, and its main business is based on a sugar cane plantation, a sugar mill and a modern alcohol plant (built in 1999) with a multi-column still that produces various alcohols and liqueurs for both the leisure and industrial market.  Sometime in the early 2000s the company wanted to ride the wave of rum’s resurgence as a premium drink and initiated their own brand, consulting with Luis Ayala (publisher of Got Rum? magazine) in the process.  What came out the other end and hit the shelves in 2015 — mostly locally and in Europe — was this rum, which adheres to all the markers of a mid-tier solera without trying to reinvent the wheel.

I’m not making a case for there to be something fantastically original about any new rum to hit the market, of course, and one cannot expect that from a solera in any case.  Yet even by those standards, this was a remarkably quiet rum. There were no out-of-left-field smells emanating from the glass after the initial pour.  No arrogant or aggressive fumes of pungency and power.  No cask-strength olfactory bruising, simply a warm nose redolent of cherries, plums, some light florals, a touch of leather and somewhat of an excess of vanilla; plus, after some minutes, some oaken tannins. Nothing to write home about – rather simple, actually.

That impression continued with the taste, mild and pleasant though it was – initially it was simply too sweet, and the vanilla was too much in the forefront.  Some cocoa powder, coffee grounds stayed in the background, leaving the vanilla to duke it out with cherries and more plums, sugar cane sap and a touch of citrus, however indistinct it might have been.  As I’ve remarked on several soleras before now, they tend to be more sweet than the norm, and much lighter, though with a good one there’s always some edge to the experience, with sharper citrus and fruity notes that ameliorate the saccharine.  Here this was not the case, and even with water not much more could be picked it out, and so it all led to a soft and warm exit, with some floral notes rejoining the vanilla party.

All right, so I appreciate that it’s a solera (with all that this implies) and it may have some eight year old in it, and it may be part of the revival of rum production in the country (a laudable effort, as I remarked in a comment on the Maja).  But for me it needs some more work. Vanilla too much, sweet could be toned down, the overall gentleness could maybe be tarted up a touch.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine and easy rum with a decent, if uncomplicated palate – it reminds me of the Travellers rums, or Panamanians in general, or of a low rent Panamonte. Which might be why it didn’t make any kind of worldwide splash outside the festival and awards circuit.

In the first three years or so of reviewing rums, I started out with the commonly available, easygoing forty percent rums, which included quite a few soleras, and back then I liked them quite a bit.  Nowadays I think they’re good for lovers of easier fare (or of Spanish style rons) who either can’t get or simply don’t like rums of cask strength aggressiveness.  On that basis, this one works fine…if without flair. If you want a relaxing drink to have around a campfire somewhere, or to unwind after a bad day at the office, a soft, relatively uncomplex rum like this would be just right.  That may be why – much like with the Maja — I’ll take one if offered, but would prefer to save my dinero for its slightly older cousin, the 12 year solera when it comes out.

(77/100)


Other notes

  • The title Cihuatán comes from the name of an ancient Mayan settlement – it’s an archaeological site now — that once existed very close to where the distillery is currently located.  It translates into “next to the woman”, referring to a mountain nearby which looks like a sleeping woman in silhouette
  • The glyph on the label represents Tlaloc, the Mayan god of water
  • The 12 year solera variation, if also made from the 2004 distillate, should be widely available from 2017. My fellow rum chum Paul Senft of RumJourney told me that is is currently available in the USA and the company later confirmed that it is for sale in Europe and El Salvador as well.
  • After I sent some inquiries their way, Cihuatán responded with the following notes: small quantities of brown sugar from their mill are added to the batches in order to maintain consistency on an as-required basis (not as part of a deliberate sweetening strategy); multi-column still, not single as I had originally written (post updated for this fact); and they are working on limited single-barrel editions to be issued in the future.
Sep 222016
 

botran-18-1

For the bucks, you get a soft bang.

#304

***

There are two more Guatemalan Botrans I have notes for, and perhaps see if we can find points of commonality or differences among the set, so let’s get them out of the way, rather than go somewhere else this week.  I wrote that the blanca was an interesting if ultimately uninspiring white, while the solera 15 wasn’t bad for what it was, and had a few tastes that were worthy of note.  The 1893 Solera 18 is a step up the ladder of the brand – also 40% ABV, column still product, charcoal filtered, a blend of rums between five and eighteen years old, which were variously aged in bourbon, sherry port barrels.  It’s a solera through and through.

For those coming new to soleras in general and the Botrans in particular, a brief recap: soleras are a specialized form of blending hearkening back from Spain, where it is used to this day for ageing sherry; the system is one where a rum is progressively aged, and mixed with younger rums of the same kind at periodic intervals in a series. Every year (or other interval) one barrel is partly decanted into another barrel that was an earlier version of the same rum (but is now older), and the now (partly) decanted refilled with newer spirit. The average age of the rum which is finally bottled is therefore an exercise in mathematics, based on the percentage decanted, and the interval.  This is why any bottle marked “solera” should always be assessed cautiously when looking at the numerical “years” or “años” so prominent on the label, since this is whatever (miniscule) portion of the blend that is the oldest – and can be very small indeed.

botran-18-2One reason for the style’s longevity and popularity is that the resultant spirit is quite smooth and somewhat sweet (Botran states it adds nothing to their rums) – and they are rarely bottled above 40% – so that makes them extremely easy sipping rums, as the Zacapa 23 and Dictadors and Santa Teresas have proved. Does that make them bad rums?  Not at all, because the nose on this bronze coloured rum was a delectable mixture of caramel and burnt sugar, dry and clean, somewhat at odds with the meaty fullness of the Solera 15, though not precisely delicate.  There were some baking spices and nuttiness in evidence, with a coil of rather bitter oakiness lurking in the background but which – thankfully – never came forward to elbow all the other scents out of the way.  So it was good that way, for sure.

To taste, well, it was more or less what I expected from the line, not so much a revolution as a genteel, polite evolution – slightly deeper, richer, and lacking those mineral ashy notes.  Caramel, molasses and dark unsweetened chocolate led off, followed by prunes, pears, some butterscotch and toffee, plus breakfast spices, vanilla and smokiness.  But very little of the tart fruitiness that might have elevated it a bit, too little citrus or sharper stinginess to cut the heavier, muskier tastes…at most I was getting some fried bananas done over a smoky fire.  It finished with a medium long, dry, pleasant fade redolent of toffee and nougat and maybe some creme brulee.  Nice, tasty, soft, smooth…but not world beating. It lacked the originality for that.

For a rum that was marginally older than the 15 (in average terms), I felt the complexity wasn’t all that hot and indeed, fell behind the “younger” one in a few areas. Sometimes, when you taste a rum you get a mental sense of time and place (Clement XO was like that for me), but if Botran was trying to make you feel you were up in them thar montañas, I think they miscalculated, because I didn’t get clean, crisp scents at all — what I really felt was that I was in a disused, windowless kitchen where the spice jars had been left open too long. That’s not enough to make for a disqualification, but it does make it less value for money than the 15. Though it is, very slightly, better.

(84.5/100)


Other notes:

Botran kindly responded to my query about the name of the rum. The meaning of “1893” relates to the year that the first of the Botran brothers, Venancio Botran, was born. This edition is paying homage to him.

Sep 192016
 

d3s_3684

As soleras go, this one is pretty good, and is less sweet than many, which is to its advantage

#303

***

Sooner or later, everyone who drinks the good stuff passes through the solera style of rums.  Some brands have become behemoths, like the Zacapa 23 or Dictadors, and are adored and reviled in equal measure.  The key points for both sides are the taste and the age statement. Given the increasing polarization of the rum world between those who “like what they like” versus those who feel only “real rums” should be marketed as such (and drunk), and who advocate for greater disclosure, it’s important to understand that’s the main source of the discord.

In short, any solera-stated rum is a blend, and any age-related number included on the label refers to the oldest part of that blend (not the youngest), with nothing to help a discerning buyer establish how much rum of that age is actually in there – people who want to know what’s in their hooch hate this kind of marketing, where a number is posited – 15!! — without further embellishment. However, it must be said that Botran, with roots in Spain and its sherry tradition (which uses such an ageing regime), has always made soleras, and they hew to all the taste profiles this system is known for: smooth, soft, warm, sweet. And in this case, according to the brand rep in 2015 who ran me through the lineup, while the rum is a true solera, fully 50% of the result is actually fifteen years old.  Ummm.  Okay. That doesn’t square with the mathematics, but a blend is a blend no matter what you call it, so I take it without comment and move on.

d3s_3683Part of the reason for the sweetness in this case lies in the finishing regime. The Botran Reserva 15 is laid to rest for several months in sherry casks after having been aged in lightly toasted bourbon casks (although I’ve heard some age in port casks, but that may be anecdotal). Those soleras I have tried before hewed to certain markers of taste (coffee for the Dictadors, some lighter fruity notes on the Cartavio, generally firm mouthfeel and soft exit), but this one certainly went its own way.  The initial scents on the copper-brown rum were a rather startling charcoal and ashes mixed in with unsweetened dark chocolate: as full and luscious as a seedy lady of the night somewhat past her prime.  It was musty at first, warm, not hot, and rather grudgingly gave way to a subdued fruitiness  – the heavier notes of overripe cherries and light tartness red currants.  Not bad, really, since originality of assembly is something I enjoy if done right.

It also presented some rather good heft for a 40% rum (this is where the suspicions of dosing creep in), presenting a medium to full bodied mouthfeel that was quite soft, and smooth to a fault.  The initial taste was of caramel and burnt sugar – none of that ashes and charcoal taste carried over from the nose at all. Indeed, here the fruits took on a greater influence, with the heavier notes of plums, cherries, peaches taking their turn but mixing it up well with some chocolate and coconut shavings  – there was perhaps some smoke at the back end, leading to a finish where the slightest bit of wood and vanilla were back, breathing drowsily into a short ending.  All in all, there was no single backbone of flavour upon which all the other tastes were hung, more a commingling of individual pieces that tasted and smelled well, but were individually unassertive.  What that means is some will like it for that precise reason, while others will think it’s too wussy and too easy and meant for those lacking an adventurous yo-ho-ho spirit embodied by a higher and more intense proof point. But that, I believe, is to miss the point, since soleras are not brutally elemental monsters for connoisseurs, but lighter, gentler rums that seek more to go along and get along, than to make a point of raw drinking machismo. And this one does a good job.

Speaking for myself, I have no particular issues with a rum that is sweet (or sweetened, although Botran rums’ hydrometer test results suggest they don’t add anything)…it all depends on how I feel on any particular day, and (perhaps more importantly) who I’m chugging with.  If I want to introduce someone to rums, this one would be a very good place to start.  It’s perfect for an easy neat sundowner, to be sipped while we discuss how best to run the world and make it safe for rum. For those somewhat more dour drinkers of the Malt family who I’m trying to bring over to the True Faith (and who usually prefer their Hebridean hooch at cask strength), I’d probably not let them near this elegant but perhaps over-soft solera.

(84/100)

 

May 212013
 

D3S_5494

 

 

If rums were animals, this would be a faithful, doe-eyed spaniel with slippers in his mouth, who only wants to express his adoration of Master.

The Costa Rican Ron Centenario “Fundacion” solera rum is a poster child for rums which could easily be a bit more torqued up, and become better. Right now, this quietly excellent solera is cuddly, a bit pudgy, and is like soft velvet on the tongue – I think it could just as effortlessly go on a Charles Atlas program and beef itself up to something a lot more interesting, good as it is in its current iteration. I make this comment, of course, after having sampled the darkly dour Bristol Spirits Port Mourant 1980 51%, which addressed all such issues and pleased me more…but should that be enough to make me smack down the Centenario? Not at all. For a solera, for a 40% rum, there’s little to complain about here. It’s just a different kind of rum than the aforementioned beefcake, and takes its place comfortably in the ranks of the perhaps better-known soleras, like the Rum Nation Solera 15, the Cartavio XO, or maybe the Dictador 20.

The Ron Centenario is part of the family of rums from Costa Rica that seems to like breeding cautious 35% underproofs such as the Legado and others in the line, with which I was unimpressed, sorry. Here they must have realized that what with soleras tending to be sweeter, more full bodied and softer, bottling it that weakly was a dangerous indulgence, and dialled it up a notch. As with the Legado, appearance was impressive in and of itself, spartan box, zen like long bottle, well etched and simply stated, showing a dark mahogany and ruby red drink reposing within. That red colouring of box and rum is sure to catch your eye in any shop you’re lucky enough to find it.

D3S_5496

As with many other soleras, there was a soft pungency to the nose, yet remarkably little fruitiness one would expect. Some molasses and overripe pineapples brushed against each other, laced with a faint licorice, cinnamon and coffee. Smooth and rich and very pleasant – no aggressiveness or brutality here at all, this was certainly not the kind of rum that wanted to maul your schnozz.

As for the palate, wow. Very pleasant indeed. A lot of one’s final opinion would, I think, depend under what circumstances one would drink such a rum – my own take would be after dinner, not before, or even as a sundowner to be had without haste or urgency. It’s thick and sweet (though not too much so – the Fundacion has a really good balance on that score) and in its own way, even a little heavy. The olfactory pungency carried over well into the taste, being redolent of aromatic pipe tobacco, some smokiness, anise and blackberries, with that pineapple taste being just barely held at bay but lending some of its sweetness to the overall profile. And it segues into a gentle, warm finish, quite long lasting, flowering into final memories of orange peel, caramel, walnuts and a kind of creamy butteriness. Overall, a very impressive product – as I said, warm and cuddly and loving…and therefore, it must be said, perhaps a mite unchallenging if your tastes run to somewhat more assertive and complex drinks. A Doberman this is not, by any stretch.

D3S_5488

You’re going to look long and far to find a review of this rum that isn’t contained within the marketing materials and write ups of online shops (mostly, it should be noted, in Europe, with almost all that I could find actually being in Germany). I don’t get that. The Centenario is a sterling solera product, noses well, tastes excellent, finishes without bombast. It’s well known, won prizes, and an all-round good product. Why it would not be either reviewed or sold in quantity in North America confuses me. My recommendation is to disregard the lower-proofed 35% offerings further down the line of Centenario’s food chain, and get this one if you can. It may not be sold with the box (or so Stuart told me when he passed it on), but who cares? – as a rum, as a solera, as a well made addition to your shelf, it’s worth the money to acquire a soft sipping spirit that has zero ego and only seeks to please.

(#163. 87/100)


Other notes:

  • Aged in American oak barrels that once held bourbon. As a solera, treat the 20 Años with some care, since of course it does not represent the youngest part of the blend but the oldest, and therefore a large portion of what you’re tasting is less than two decades old..

 

 

 

 

Apr 122013
 

D7K_1244

A set of Bata flip-flops made out of Gucci-quality leather

Frankly, I just don’t get the point of underproofs. It’s like they aren’t quite sure what they want to be, and are deathly afraid of offending even one potential customer by being, I dunno, a real rum. If I wanted a light liqueur, I would have bought one, and to have a rum aged twelve years to be bottled at a strength like 35% makes little sense to me: the wussiness sinks an otherwise decent product. You can taste the underlying potential…it just doesn’t deliver.

Put aside the grumbling about oomph, and this 12 year old rum made in Costa Rica (presented to me by my compadres Mary and Stuart, who recently returned from there) is a pretty good product, mind you…it rises – barely – above its weakness, one might say. Consider merely the presentation: decent cardboard box of good paper, well designed, holding a frosted, dark, engraved bottle with a plastic screw cap. Solid all the way ‘round.

This was a rum too weak to batter your schnozz — so gentleness, warmth, lightness and softness were expected and received — and had intriguing and predominating scents of vanilla. Around that core swirled light floral hints, freshly cut ripe peaches and apricots (not rich enough for pineapple by any means, which was a good thing). Sweet, not cloying, and a faintly medicinal background, barely noticeable. Relatively unassertive, which may point to where underproofs usually unravel for me.

That gentleness carried on to the palate as well. This was a very smooth and light rum, and because of its delicacy, very difficult to pick apart. Almost no oak prescence, more vanilla and caramel and light flowers, all of which morphed into the androgynous nature of a papaya, skirting the line between a little tartness and none at all. There was hardly any finish to speak of, a short exit that left a quick last taste of oak and vanilla (but none of the raw smoke of older, more powerful expressions), and left me looking with some dissatisfaction at my glass. It gave too little, you see, and while a person casually trying something in this line would probably enjoy it, I preferred and continue to prefer, stronger and more intense drinks. This wasn’t one of them, good as its makers made it.

Speaking of the makers, Centenario Internacional SA from Costa Rica makes quite a range of these rums – five, seven, nine, twelve year and twenty year olds (plus a solera 25 40% not mentioned on their website). Aged in white oak barrels, the product of locally grown sugar cane, all except the solera are bottled at 35% according to the website’s photographs, so this is not an aberration, but a deliberate blending choice. I’m afraid I was not able to come up with much more regarding the company history – however, it did not seem to be one of those decades- or centuries- old distilling houses with traditions handed down through the generations, more a commercial spirits maker of relatively recent antecedents.

In fine, then, the general profile of the Centenario strikes an intriguing balance between the smooth lightness of some of the Colombian rums (like the Juan Santos 12, or the Ron Viejo de Caldas Añejo 8 años 38%) and the slightly more assertive Panamanians such as the Abuelo 12 or RN Panama 18. But bar the Viejo de Caldas, those drinks were bottled at par proof or better, had heft, hair and some hormones under the satin slinkiness. On this one, I can’t help thinking that they had a great product in the making , and for reasons known only to themselves, they dialled it back down to a puff piece I can barely call a rum without snickering. Much as I believe it to be a good product, I would only use it to introduce a newbie to the rum world, because at end, speaking for myself and knowing my preferences, that weakness of proof is its undoing – they have, alas, made a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.

(#155. 80.5/100)


Other notes

  • Scouring the online shops shows me that the 40% expressions of the Legado are available, mostly in Europe. I suspect I’d enjoy those a lot more and score them more highly than this one.
  • Josh Miller from Inu a Kena has reviewed the Centenario 25 and notes it as being a solera. No such notation for the Legado, either on box or bottle
  • This one can be had neat, no problem. It’s gentle and smooth enough not to bite. A drink for the calmly unadventurous who prefer navigate through less treacherous waters without any stress.

 

Apr 072013
 

D7K_6415-001

38% weakling, of pleasant taste approaching real complexity, but with no real assertiveness.

Originating in the Dominican Republic (home of the Brugal, Bermudez and Barcelo brands), the Opthimus 18 artestinal rum is a solera rum, quite good, but too weak for me. It’s made, like the excellent Solera 25 whisky-finished version, by the firm of Oliver and Oliver, a company in existence since the mid 19th century and founded by the Cuban family of Juanillo Oliver, a Catalan/Mallorcan emigre. Abandoning Cuba in 1959, members of the family re-established the company in the early nineties in the DR after finding the supposed original recipe for their forebears’ rum. They also produce the Opthimus 15 (which may be the best of the lot simply because it is a shade younger and has therefore not been smoothened out so much as to eviscerate its more complex nature). The 18 I tasted was bottle 4 of 316 in the 2011 production run, and cost €65 for the 500ml bottle pictured above.

The 18 twitches all too feebly. The nose, in spite of the rum’s relatively weak knees, did try its best to kick a bit, and evinced notes of cinnamon and breakfast spices, together with a faintly musty air, like biscuits and straw; a vegetal sort of nose, deepening gradually into caramel and burnt sugar notes. Quite gentle, all in all, with no heat or burn to turn one off, yet also lacking in a strong kind of aroma that would have made it score more highly. Want to know why I disdain underproof rums? Look no further, as this is a good example of the thinness and overall wussiness I don’t care for in rums (but full disclosure – my preferences run more to beefcakes greater than 40% these days, so your mileage may vary)..

The palate offered no real redemption. What struck me as sad about it was simply that while it tasted pretty good, had a scintillating background complexity that strove to emerge and recall the potential of both the 25 and the 15, it was too scrawny on the body and too weak on the taste buds to really tug at the senses; and therefore it could not offer a strong, assertive profile that would have made me appreciate it more. Caramel, sweet brown sugar, bananas and softer, riper fleshy fruits, some nutmeg and cinnamon and lemon grass, quite faint. Finish was short, aromatic, but like a one night stand, gave too little and was gone too quickly, taking your hard earned money with it.

D7K_6414

Opthimus 18 is aged by ex-Cuban master blenders via a solera process for eighteen years in total (so the oldest part of the blend will be that old, not the youngest). Oliver & Oliver uses rum stocks bought elsewhere, and ages them in oak barrels prior to final issue: they also have brands like Cubaney, Quohrum and Unhiq in the stable, though I have yet to try any of them, and they act as third part blenders to other companies as well. Given the plaudits they’ve received from other reviewers, all I can conclude that this is the runt of the litter, and somewhat of an aberration.

Summing up, a rum like this leaves me with too little. Those of you who bemoan my verbosity and essays that never end will love this one, because beyond the bare bones tasting notes, and my personal opinion, there’s not much I can give you. This solera rum shows all the evidence of being well made and well crafted, yet sinks itself at the end by not having the strength to go with its potential. In essence, then, this is an Opthimus that has yet to develop into a Prime.

(#153. 78/100)


Other Notes

  • Drinking the rum neat is recommended, it’s good enough for that. My relatively low score reflects a dissatisfaction with intensity and firmness of the tasting elements.
  • Distillery of origin is unknown

 

 

Mar 292013
 

A liquid, light peanut butter and jelly sandwich, heightened with unsweetened chocolate and displaying enormous smoothness and quality. Great product.

Ron Abuelo Centuria is the top of the line Panamanian rum originating from Varela Hermanos, the outfit that brought the 7 year old and 12 year old to the table, issued in late 2010 to celebrate their Centennial.

It’s said in some places to be solera-system-aged for thirty years in used bourbon barrels and in others that the blend of rums (some aged thirty years) was run through a solera: but one must always keep in mind that in any solera rum, only a small fraction of the resultant is actually that old (the math suggests it can be as little as 5% after less than ten years, and the average age of the blend trends towards seven). I make these remarks not to denigrate the product, just to inject some caution (and reality) into pronouncements regarding its age.

Not that you need to know all that, because taken by itself, this is quite a product. Ensconced in a wooden and cardboard box, in a neat bottle with a decent cork, there’s very little about it that doesn’t work. Except maybe the €155 price tag: considering that only 3000 bottles were made, this may be deemed cheap to some lucky fellows who have more money than I do.

Nose first: cherries, dark chocolate, coffee, walnuts and vanilla came right out of the initial pour of the bronze mahogany liquid. Really quite nice, but I suspect there may be some alien DNA in the Centuria somewhere, because after moving on and settling into a creamy, deep burnt sugar and caramel bedrock, there were some discordant background notes that melded uneasily with the core scents so well begun: salt biscuits and a certain musty driness (without being particularly arid) that just seemed, I dunno, out of place. It wasn’t enough to sink the Bismarck, but it wasn’t expected either.

The rum raised the bar for premiums by being phenomenally smooth, mind you. Bitch and bite were long forgotten dreams on the palate, as on the nose: the Centuria may lack the furious, focussed accelerative aggro of a Porsche, but that isn’t its purpose (especially not at 40% ABV) — it’s more a fully tricked-out Audi sedan, as smooth and deceptive as proverbially still waters. Caramel, nougat and burnt sugar flavours led in, followed by a slow segue into a combined smoky, salt/sweet set of tastes reminding one of pecans and dried fruits like dates and figs, not fleshier ones like peaches. In fact, this became so pronounced as to almost dismember the sweeter notes altogether (but not quite,which is to its real credit – great balance of the competing flavours was evident here).

The exit is more problematic: though quite long for a rum bottled at standard strength, there’s something of that buttery caramel salty-sweet tang that doesn’t quite click for me. Yes it was pleasantly heated and took its time saying adios, which is fine — I just didn’t care for the musky, flavours so remniscent of a peanut-butter-and-chocolate energy bar. I should hasten to add this is a personal thing for me, so you may like this aspect much more than I do. And I can’t lie – it’s a damned fine rum, a more-than-pleasant fireplace drink on a nippy night, leading to deep kisses and warm embraces from someone you’ve loved for a very long time.

I often make mention, with top end rums that cost three figures and up, about elements of character. What I mean by this is that the complexity of the parts should lead to a harmonious commingling of the whole in a way that doesn’t repeat old profiles, but intriguingly, fascinatingly, joyously seeks a new tier of its own, for better or worse. The Centuria has character for sure, and what that does is make it different, albeit in a manner that may polarize opinion, especially at the aforementioned back end.

Still, this rum would have, as many overpaid management types in my company would say, all the key performance indicators identified, the drivers nailed down and quantified, all the basic boxes ticked. But then there’s the fuzzier stuff, the weird stuff, the stuff that some guys would call “over and beyond” or “elevated performance”, boldly going where no executive has gone before. In this Anniversary edition rum made by a solid company with quite a pedigree, it’s clear that they’ve succeeded (all my bitching about the off-notes aside). This is an excellent sipping rum where components come together really well, are dead serious about their task of pleasing you, and have taken time out to address some real complex subtleties. This is not the best rum of its kind ever made – my own preference on the Panamanians edges more perhaps towards the Rum Nation Panama 21 — but if you’re buying what Varela Hermanos is selling, they sure won’t short change you.

(#151. 88/100)


Other notes

  • The business about the Centennial is somewhat confusing: Varela Hermanos traces its origins back to 1908 when Don José Varela Blanco founded the Ingenio San Isidro sugar mill, the first in Panama, with alcohol distillation beginning in 1936. So I’m unclear how this rum was first issued in late 2010 to commemorate a hundred years of operations.
  • According to online remarks made by others at the time, but not represented on the bottle or its box, the Centuria contains no additives for colouring or flavour. This is, however, contradicted by hydrometer tests here (27g/L) and by Drejer (20g/L) and PhilthyRum (20g/L).

 

Feb 092013
 

 

Attempts a fine balance, but topples ever so slightly at both beginning and end.

I had this 40% seventy-dollar Colombian rum after a fiery Indian food-fest served by the January Liquorature host who had selected Rohinton Mistry’s epic book, and really, what was I thinking? – the fiery heat muffled and deadened the taste buds…but it says a lot for Dictador that even under the assault of such tongue-numbing spices, I was still able to appreciate it. And after coming home, I tried it on and off over the next week just to nail down the nuances.

Coffee. Yeah, that’s what the nose led in from, immediately, like Juan Valdez was tapping me on my shoulder: not aggressively so, just…making hisself felt. Hola, amigo. Que tal? The overall balance between this cafe and the brown sugar, toffee, nougat and cinnamon was impressive as all get-out, because what you got was a subtle melody enhanced by additional notes that supported and defined it without overwhelming the thing. Note this, however: I gave it to my snub-snooted and far-too-clever son to sniff, and he pointed out an oddly discordant, and very faint rubbery note, not enough to spoil anything, but sufficient to throw me off. Plus it was smooth and heated (just enough), and though I have gone on record as getting somewhat snooty about 40% rums, here I think that strength was just right.

This is largely because the Dictador 20 is a solera, and made from (rather confusingly named) “sugar cane honey,” according to their website. Sugar cane honey is simply the rendered down juice resulting from pressing the cane, but with sexier, warmer connotations, mostly marketing-derived. Soleras, at least from the several I have tried, are also a bit smoother and sweeter than the norm, hence the perennial favouritism shown to Zacapa 23, Rum Nation 15 and others of their ilk. I’m not sure that making them stronger wouldn’t shred some of their underlying structural frailty – they are bottled at pretty much the correct strength for what they are, I think, though you can take that as just my opinion. Here it worked swimmingly.

The profile was quite professionally workmanlike: unlike the Juan Santos line, which hews to a more subtle palate that you have to work at to dissect, the Dictador was definitely a rum, a smooth and heated one, a shade astringent, just sweet enough (less than most soleras, more than most “standard” rums people mix or drink) and arriving with notes of caramel, some oak spice, nougat again, and nutmeg and cinnamon dusting around the edges. After I had let it rest for a bit, more earthy flavours came out – truffles, dark chocolate, unsweetened cocoa. Quite chewy and solid, actually, coating the tongue like an electric blanket with the voltage turned up. Not the most unusual or intriguing rum I’ve ever tried, no – but among the most solidly-crafted. The fade was perhaps this rum’s weakest point, short and generally lackluster, indolent without malice, leaving behind the memory of toffee, caramel notes, and a last flirt of licorice…but at least it didn’t try to maul me.

The Dictador line of rums includes the 12 (I keep seeing it floating around, but haven’t gotten around to buying it) as well as the XO “Insolent” and XO “Perpetual”, which at the least are intriguingly named…I might wan to try them just for those names alone. The line originates from the aforementioned “honey” which is then distilled partly in copper pot stills, and partly in continuous column stills, and then aged in oak barrels using the solera system – so what you are getting is a product where the oldest part of the blend is 20 years, not the youngest. I should note that I absolutely love the zen of the black bottle: very chic, very stark, impossible to miss on a shelf. The Distileria Colombiana which produces it is located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, at Cartagena de Indias, and was formed in 1913 by Don Julio Arango Y Ferro, whose ancestor (the eponymous Dictador) began commercial rum production in the 18th century.

Overall, I like the Dictador, but can’t say I’m entirely won over by it. It’s a straightforward, unadventurous rum that takes itself more seriously than  it should, and gains a lot of brownie points for cool presentation. Now, I know I give points for appearance and “how it looks”1 (and have taken more flak than you would believe for that attitude), but, like with every person that ever worked with or for me, in any office for the last thirty years, here’s the bottom line: if you can’t do your job professionally and well, your appearance matters not a damn.  So, perhaps this is what it is: the Dictador 20 is not so much brilliant as simply, conservatively solid in its display of rum making fundamentals. It is a well made, well-tasting solera rum that somehow finds a reasonable harmony between its earthy maturity, and the the sweetness and sprightliness of youth, but which misses the boat in overall enjoyment (for me). Over time, familiarity has made me move away from the better known Zacapa 23 and embrace slightly more unusual and less-familiar solera rums: the Dictador 20 may be neither unusual, nor less familiar, but that it is a decent, above-average rum to have on your shelf is beyond question.

What a pity that this isn’t enough to eclipse the other soleras in my collection.

(#144. 83/100)

 

Oct 232012
 

Like Bernadette from “The Big Bang Theory” – sweet, buxom, lovely…but with a slight edge as well. What a lovely, lovely rum. 

Is this the best solera rum currently in production?

Now there’s a statement guaranteed to raise the blood-pressure of lovers of Opthimus, Cubaney, Dictador, Ron Zacapa, Vizcaya, Cartavio, Santa Teresa or others, and draw hordes of disapproving comments from people who will inevitably and disparagingly ask “Well, how many have you tried, dude?” Making a statement like that is akin to throwing a defenseless Christian virgin into the Roman lion pit, isn’t it?

Soleras are a peculiar subset of rums. Dave Broom gives them scant mention in his book “Rum”, rather casually making them a part of the Spanish, Latin style of rums that are lighter and sweeter than more aggressive leather-and-tobacco Caribbean rums. Yet they are distinct in their own way and make as any rum deriving from cane juice, cane syrup, molasses or to which spices have been added…and they’re getting better all the time. Soleras are based on the Spanish sherry system, whereby every year a fraction of one barrel’s aged product is moved to another one down the line in strict sequence. The mathematics works out that after many years, assuming no further ageing of the final product, you’re getting a majority of seven to eight year old components, together with fractions of rums much older than that (the Santa Teresa Bicentenario claims there are rums as old as eighty years in its final product, which may be why it sells for over three hundred dollars up here).

The Peruvian 40% rum of Ron Millonario 15 is, without verbose embellishment, luscious. No, really. Issued from Rum Nation’s excellent stable of products, its Toquilla-straw-wrapped appearance alone is worthy of notice – though why such a product should then degrade itself with a tinfoil cap escapes me. When I poured it out, it was amber, almost walnut in colour, and smells of vanilla, hibiscus and lush sugary fruits arose to hug me and say hello. My dog (and sometimes my wife) growls at me when I return after a two day trip somewhere, but this rum will always have my slippers in its mouth, a drink waiting, slobber me with kisses and be happy to see me.

Ron Millonario is a company owned by the founder of Rum Nation: it was no coincidence that the first time I tried this was at the tasting where all the RN products were trotted out. The 15 is made from molasses in Peru and is the product of imported Scottish column stills, and the solera system is American and Slovenian oak barrels in four rows. Depending on how you read the website, they age the oldest part of the blend for fifteen years or the final blend for fifteen years, but truly, I don’t mind which it is, because the resulting taste is superb.

Beautifully smooth. Thick, oily, creamy. A shade spicy, cherries, toffee, bananas, red flowers, all sweet and luscious, dissipating after a bit to be replaced with a tartness right up there with the sharp rejoinders of my friend and colleague Mary B.-H. when faced with inimitable idiocy…and this saved it from becoming just another liqueur, thank God (otherwise I might have been snorting “Pyrat’s!!” into my glass). The 15 deepened and became even warmer and more inviting as it opened up, and quite frankly, the fade is remarkable for something this cheap: long lasting, slightly dry, very smooth, saying a pleasant goodbye with aromas of chocolate and pecans.

My father has often been quite vocal and disapproving of my hedging (he once asked me the same question seven times in order to get a definitive answer, which is either a statement about his persistence or my evasiveness). “Make a stand, dammit!” he would snap. “And live with it.” I thought of him as I wrote this: and so yeah, for all those who have been patiently read this far, let me say it out loud.

The answer to the question at the top of this review is “No”. I must concede this definitive answer not because it’s a poor product, but because I know there are more out there I haven’t sampled, and the XO made by the same company is on par. But my take from my experience, is that it’s without question one of the best soleras I’ve ever tried, the best value for money product of its kind. It’s a worthwhile addition to the cabinet of anyone who is tired of the standard fare, prefers a sweetish, smooth, deceptively complex rum with a shade of attitude…and is getting bored with the more well-known Zacapas of this world.

(#126. 86/100)


Update August 2016

In the years since this review came out — I tried it in 2012 — I’ve taken a lot of flak for my positive assessment of the two Millonarios. Fellow reviewers and members of the general public have excoriated this rum and the XO for being loaded – destroyed – with so much sugar as to make them a “candied mess.” I acknowledge their perspective and opinions, but cannot change the review as written, as it truly expressed my thoughts at that time.  Moreover, the profile I describe is there and cannot be wished away, and if the rum is too sweet for many purists, well, I’ve mentioned that.  About the most I can do at such a remove — short of shelling out for another bottle and trying it — is to suggest that if sweet isn’t your thing, deduct a few points and taste before you buy.

And a note for people now getting into rum: sweet is not a representative of all rums, least of all high end ones.  The practice of adding sugar in any form to rums, to smoothen them out and dampen bite (some say it is to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear), is a long-standing one, but gradually being decried by many who want and prefer a purer drinking experience (Plantation and Rum Nation are two companies which sometimes engage in the practice, which they term “dosing”).  It remains legal in many rum producing nations.  As with most aspects of life, sampling a variety will direct you to where your preferences lie.

Oct 192012
 
The lush voluptuousnes of Raphael, captured in a bottle with a bit of Peruvian sunshine

Soft. This rum is so soft. It is breezes in the warm tropical twilight, the lap of waves at low tide on a deserted Caribbean island, the first unsure, hesitant and oh-so-sweetly remembered kiss of your timid adolescence. It is your mother’s kitchen on a rainy day, fresh bread baking in the oven. It is a 40% Peruvian piece of magic, and if it costs a shade over a hundred bucks, I can only say that I believe it to be worth every penny. Want a slightly pricey introduction to sipping quality rum that seduces, not assaults? Here it stands.

I asked the question of the Ron Millonario 15 Solera whether that was the best solera in current commercial production, and had to say no, largely on the strength of this one – not because the XO is better: it’s simply as good in a different way. Note that both rums are made in the solera system from a Scottish column still distillate; the 15 is made from a four barrel solera, but the added richness of the XO makes me suspect (like my Edmontonian friend does) that either this is a five barrel system, or they aged it longer somehow. Details remain sparse. The two are almost twins with obscurely opposing characters, and while the 15 is cheaper and therefore better value-to-quality overall, I must concede that on a complete aesthetic, the XO probably has it.

Consider the appearance, which would probably make my departed Maritime friend the Bear weep with happiness: cheap black cardboard cutout that won’t add to the price, embracing a flattened squarish bottle that has handsomely gold etched lettering and a faux-golden tipped cork. It looks just classy enough to not be considered a cheap knockoff aspiring beyond its pedigree.

I should remark right at the outset that the XO is a rum deserving to be savoured, not swilled, because while the nose began just swimmingly – honey, a slight minty zest, mango and papaya and flowers – it only got better as it opened up, adding a delicate green and vegetal background, and subtle aromas of coriander and brown sugar. I tried this in tandem with the Millonario 15 solera and that one was excellent also, but it was eclipsed by the sheer complexity of this baby.

And the taste, nice. Again, gets more complex and interesting as time goes on: right off the bat I was enthused about its gentle, velvety smoothness (not altogether surprising for a 40% solera), and the arrival of white chocolate, buttery, creamy caramel. A shade heated without malice, spicy without bitchiness, which was a perfect offset for the sweet notes that coiled around it. That sounds straightforward enough but tek a chill and wait (as my brother back in Mudland would say). Just like with the nose, further flavours shyly emerge and when I tell you that I got a slight smokiness, old dusty leather, fresh fruit and white flowers all in tandem, you can understand why everyone I’ve ever shared this with sings its praises. I’ve already distributed a bottle or two in tasters over a mere few months (and that’s phenomenal given my hermitlike nature and how few friends I have who like rums). As for the exit, it is excellent, chocolate-like (of the milk kind), smooth, long and departing with a last mischievous fillip of those fruity notes.

In fine, unlike the 15 which began well but simply stayed at that level of excellence, the XO started slowly, built up a head of steam and then gently and powerfully released its character over time. For sure this is not a mixing agent, and it rewards the patient – it gets better as it opens up. I’m not sure a higher proof would improve this marvellously made Peruvian product, and I’m not asking for it to be made so (though I might not object either). It’s great as is…don’t mess with it, except perhaps to dial down the sweet a shade.

If you are a raw, uncompromising Caledonian or his Liquorature acolyte (did someone say “Hippie”?) who likes harsh briny sea salt in your beard and the wind in your face and peat in your cask-strength drink, then the softness and relative sweetness of this rum, harking as it does of sunlight and warmth instead of rocks and northern waves, is definitely not for you. The cask strength whiskies are savagely executed Goyas compared to Ron Millonario’s voluptuous females painted by Raphael and Titian, so it comes down to taste and character and preference. My own take is merely that the makers of Ron Millonario XO Especial, with this lovely rum, have pressed all the right buttons and made all the right incantations in producing a rum that raises the bar of rums in general, and soleras in particular. Yet again.

(#127. 88/100)


Other Notes:

  • Like most solera rums, this one is sweeter than the average and that may be off-putting to drinkers who prefer a drier, sharper and more ascetic “rum-like” profile. Personal preferences therefore have to be taken into consideration when deciding whether to buy it or not.
  • In 2019 the Millonario Cincuenta (“50”), a 10th Anniversary companion to this rum, was issued.  It was also added to. I reviewed it in 2020 with a much more modest sub-80 point score.

Update August 2016

In the years since this review came out — I tried it in 2012 — I’ve taken a lot of flak for my positive assessment of the two Millonarios. Fellow reviewers and members of the general public have excoriated the rum for being loaded – destroyed – with so much sugar as to make it a “candied mess.” I acknowledge their perspective and opinions, but cannot change the review as written, as it truly expressed my thoughts at that time.  Moreover, the complexity I describe is there and cannot be wished away, and if the rum is too sweet for many purists, well, I’ve mentioned that.  About the most I can do at such a remove — short of shelling out for another bottle and trying it — is to suggest that if sweet isn’t your thing, deduct a few points and taste before you buy.

And a note for people now getting into rum: sweet is not a representative of all rums, least of all high end ones.  The practice of adding sugar in any form to rums, to smoothen them out and dampen bite (some say it is to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear), is a long-standing one, but gradually being decried by many who want and prefer a purer drinking experience (Plantation and Rum Nation are two companies which sometimes engage in the practice, which they term “dosing”).  It remains legal in many rum producing nations.  As with most aspects of life, sampling a variety will direct you to where your preferences lie.

Oct 042012
 

Smooth, soft, voluptuous Tomatin-cask-finished solera rum that expresses its admiration for your awesomeness without coyness or complexity, just unalloyed, warm affection. And a bit of a quirky side.

You are entirely within your rights to ask what the number actually means in the context of a solera’s given “age”. Generally accepted useage holds that it does not mean the oldest or youngest component of the blend, but the average of them all: which is no more than proper given that the solera process is based on a percentage of the rums in one level of barrels being progressively poured (and mixed) with barrels containing yet other percentages in another level over a period of many years. The Bicentenario out of Venezuela, for example, claims that rums as old as eighty years of age are components of the final product (hence the price)…but no solera maker I’ve ever researched makes any mention of how much of each age forms the final blend, though sometimes you are informed of how long that final blend is itself aged.

None of this would be more than an academic exercise unless it was for the fact that since we are never quite sure what percentage of what age is in our “average x years” solera, we therefore are never certain whether the price we pay is worth what we are getting (unless we get a taste first, in which case…). However, some general observations I’ve made is that soleras are sweeter and smoother than the average, get better the higher the number is, a bit pricier, and are much liked (look no further than the Ron Zacapa 23)….yet lack something in the way of real complexity, real depth…real oomph. I like them just fine, and they sip quite well, mind you, so let these remarks not dissuade you. When I meet persons who know they want to try one of my rums, but not which one, it’s almost inevitably a solera I trot out, ‘cause I know they’ll enjoy it.

One of the best I’ve ever tried is the Opthimus 25, originating in Dominican Republic, home of the Brugal, Bermudez and Barcelo (and Matusalem) and bottled by Oliver & Oliver, a company in existence since the mid 19th century and founded by the Cuban family of Juanillo Oliver, a Catalan/Mallorcan emigre. Abandoning Cuba in 1959, members of the family re-established the company in the early nineties in the DR after finding the supposed original recipe for their forebears’ rum. They also produce the Cubaney line, and the sub-par Opthimus 18 (at a jelly-kneed 38%) and the fully awesome Opthimus 15 (which may be the best of the lot simply because it is a shade younger and has therefore not been smoothened out so much as to eviscerate its more complex nature). The 25 I tasted was bottle 795 of 1350 the 2011 production run, and cost an eye-glazing €108 for the 500ml bottle pictured above.

Like most soleras I have tried, this 43% ABV version was warm and soft and billowy to the nose, with scents of caramel and burnt sugar being subtly upstaged by nutmeg, banana and cinnamon…and an odd kind of brininess hinted at, not driven home with a bludgeon to the schnozz. And the label makes it clear why: the rum was finished in Tomatin malt whisky casks in Scotland (no info is given as to how long, alas). That’s quite different from many other rums, which finish in wine casks of some sort (though Cadenhead, you’ll recall, does have the Laphroaig-finished Demerara rum). I shrugged and passed on – after all, the feinty wine notes of the Rum Nation products enhanced the overall profile, so who was to say this was bad?  Not I.

The arrival was also a bit off the beaten track, with the brininess I had noted sticking around as if to see wh’appenin’ (as my West Indian squaddies would say); a bit sweet, a bit salty, like biscuits in a teriyaki sauce (I kid you not). There was a touch of iodine-like peat in there, but the rum itself was brown-sugar-sweet and smooth and strong enough not to be overwhelmed by it, and that sly touch of mischief appealed to me a lot, a fact aided by a lovely, warm finish with no hint of malice or bile in spite of the 43% strength, redolent of caramel and breakfast spice (and yup, that touch of brine again, sneaking in through the back door). Honestly, this reminded me nothing so much as of the lovely brown-skinned, dark-eyed Guyanese lasses I regularly fell in and out of love with in my teenage years…warm, friendly, smart, inviting, funny and with just a touch of the flirt to keep me at bay.

I’m going to go on record as saying this is a pretty good rum, it beats out the embarrassingly underproofed 18, and yup, it’s a bit pricey; still, for my money it is eclipsed by the cheaper 15, the same way some believe the El Dorado 15 is a better rum than the 21 or 25 (my father among them). I don’t often hold with such uninformed opinions from my supposed elders and purported betters, dogmatically held and long (and loudly) proclaimed. Yet in this case I have to concede that while the 25 is a really well put-together rum which presses all the right buttons (and loves me, unlike all the aforementioned lasses, who probably had better sense), it somehow, through a subtle loss of alchemy, fails to quite be the Prime it may have been meant to be. Note that there are other variations of the 25 out there, some weaker, some finished in different casks

Let that not stop you from trying it if you have a chance, though. You won’t be sorry. It’s a lovely rum.

(#124. 86/100)


Other notes

  • I sampled this in 2012, and going at it again in 2016 suggested how my preferences and perceptions charged.  There’s an undercurrent of sweetness to it I had not paid enough attention to before.  I have not done an in-depth check for additives but it’s likely (based on taste alone), so caveat emptor.