Feb 162024
 

“Oh wow!” I wrote with a sort of delighted and startled surprise when first nosing Archie Rose’s 40% white rum they called White Cane. I had not tried anything from the distillery before – indeed, I knew very little about it — but the rich and oily scent of a mechanic’s shop fumigated with vanilla flavoured acetones was really not what I had expected as an opening salvo. And it didn’t stop there, because the seeming light ‘n’ easy aromas it started out with contained quite a bit more oomph than was initially apparent – once it opened it up it was brine, olives, ripe and watery fruits, lots of pears and papaya, figs and persimmons, even a hint of caramel and some sweet yet tart apple cider. The nose displayed a thickness and depth that was quietly impressive – one does not often see this kind of profile in a standard proof rum very often.

Putting down my glass, I looked curiously at the sample label. Who was is this outfit? What was behind the name? Was it a left-handed nod to WW1 ack-ack fire, maybe, or a hat tip to Riverdale and the comics? An old but forgotten relative, perhaps, or a gone-to-seed second eleven cricket player from the past who nobody except the owners remembered? 

Apparently not. Some references suggest that “Archie” was a slang word, a pseudonym for an underground distilling bootlegger at a time in the 1800s when the temperance movement was ascendant in Australia and distillation was illicit, if not quite illegal; and since the founder, Will Edwards established the distillery in its first location in Rosebery, an inner suburb of south Sidney, the name seemed a good fit. A more prosaic alternative is that the neighbourhood itself was named after an uninspiring and obscure 19th century British PM, Archibald Primrose, and the distillery took the contracted form of his name, so take your pick. 

Anyway, it was apparently the first new distillery in the city since 1853 (one wonders what the previous one was) and comprised of several Italian made fermentation tanks (named after rappers), and three hand built gas-powered steam-boiler-heated 3600-litre pot stills made by Peter Bailey, who at the time was the country’s only still maker. It was mostly family financed, and sported a very good bar right next to the distillery to help make ends meet.

“White Cane” was and remains the company’s only unaged rum (there are some experimentals coming as well, however), and it’s interesting that they went with that name instead of the near universal “cane spirit” moniker everyone else has been using over there. The source cane came from Condong up in NSW just south of Brisbane, so the molasses likely originated from the Condong Sugar Mill, and the wash blended two kinds of molasses – high test and B-grade —  fermented with two different yeasts for 4-16 days, then run through their main and pilot still at least twice, with part being “cold” (or vacuum) distilled.

That fermentation and complex distillation was probably why the taste, as well as the nose, had enough chops to excite some curiosity, if not outright enthusiasm. It presented like a crisp, tangy, citrus-like 7-up, with green apples, pineapples, ripe pears on the edge of going off, red grapes and a subtle bite of ginger. The nose, I felt, was better, but for the taste to be this interesting at 40% did demonstrate that the awards the rum won (three so far) was not mere happenstance or flinging medals at everything that turned up. The palate continued to provide subtle and almost delicate notes: white chocolate, crushed walnuts some mint, fennel, sweet coconut shavings and some faint mustier cardboard notes, leading to a short, easy, sweet and spicy finish redolent of cinnamon and ginger and papaya. Nice.

Names and origins aside, currently the distillery boasts five different rums (and fifteen whiskies, ten gins, four vodkas and various other alcoholic products, lest you err in thinking their focus is on the Noble Spirit). Their origin was, and remains primarily in, whisky, for which they have won oodles of awards, and boosted their cash flow so well that in 2020 they were able to float A$100 million financing to move to Banksmeadow, a few kilometres south of the original location, leaving Rosebery to be a sort of visitor’s area for tours, classes and other events. Two massive new pot stills were also installed allowing production to be significantly increased.

As always, there is the downside that such a wide variety of spirits production dilutes focus on any single one. Not something I can blame a distillery for, since making payroll, paying rent and expanding the business is what it’s about, but lessening the attention that can be paid to developing and improving one product. Clearly whisky is the core business and everything orbits that priority (my opinion); and we must be careful not to over-romanticize the myth of the Great Little Solo Distiller Working in Obscurity, since commercial enterprises do make good juice, and not always by accident or as throwaways. Recent “Heavy Cane,” “Virgin Cane” and other experimental rums Archie Rose is playing with point to a committed and interested distilling team that wants to do more than just make another supermarket rum.

The White Cane, even at 40%, is pretty good and that’s an endorsement I don’t give often. I think the panoply of tastes — admittedly delicate and occasionally too faint and hard to pick apart — play well together, don’t overstay their welcome or allow any one element to hog the show, and provide a nice drinking experience. Sometimes just as much work goes into an unaged spirit as an aged one — perhaps more since there’s no backstop of ageing to improve anything so what comes off the still had better be ready — and it’s clear the distiller paid attention to the entire production process to provide both mixing and sipping chops. One can only hope the distillery expands the range and ups the proof, because then not only would it likely garner even more awards, but I’d  be able to bug Steve Magarry yet again…to get me a whole bottle, not just a sample.

(#1058)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar, Day 7. This is Batch #2 from 2023. Batch #1 was introduced in 2022
  • Production notes from company webpage.
Dec 112023
 

For a country that boasts a huge population of rum-swilling West Indians and a not inconsequential number of Maritimers out east who inhale dark rums with their Jiggs Dinner, it’s odd that rums are not more appreciated and available than they are. To some extent the paucity of decent rums from abroad is alleviated by the emerging local craft distillery movement, with tasty products coming out of Ironworks, Romero, Mandakini and Potters (among several others); too, the Newfoundland Liquor Corporation makes some really interesting blends (Cabot 100 and Young’s Old Sam remain personally appreciated mixing favourites) and there’s even an Indie bottler out in BC called Bira!, run by a friend, Karl Mudzamba which fields a cask strength South Pacific and Mhoba release, with more to come.

Against all of that you have the also-rans that clutter up the store shelves in their multitudes, and which occasionally tax my objurgatory powers and genteel vocabulary to the limit:  rums like Highwood’s Aged White Caribbean, Momento or the Merchant Shipping Co White, Minhas / Co-Op’s Caribbean White, all those cheap Lambs and Bacardis, and so on. There’s no shortage of low-cost fuel for the masses, yet an odd lack of serious attempts to go the Foursquare ECS route and produce a mid-level blended product of real class that can kickstart the premiumisation of Canadian rum.  And yet, as the Mandakini ersatz Malabari rum proved, go even a little off the reservation, take even a bit of a chance, target the right audience…and you can sell out every release you make.

The question the overlong preamble above poses for us today, then, is whether the first release of Secret Barrel Small Batch White Rum is gold or gunk, something that gives Canadian rum brownie points…or drags it down. Now admittedly, the presentation is nifty: it channels the old square shape of turn-of-the-century whisky bottles, as does the design of the label and its font.  And the narrative is amusing if nothing else: small batch, 40% and implying that maybe, possibly, it’s made in Canada (possibly in the south of Alberta, around Crowsnest Pass) by some mysterious old timer named John A. MacDonald. This is a gent who – so the back label helpfully informs us – is a cross between the Most Interesting Man in the World, and one who has exploits so off the wall that he’s obviously a relative of Chuck Norris, Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan…all at once. On the other hand, we get nothing about a true country of origin, a true distillery, a still, source material, ageing, nothing. 

Well, tasting blind sharpens the senses, I tell myself, so knowing the rum is standard strength, I waste no time, pour a glass and move on to how it performs. Nose first: faint nail polish and the light fruitiness of pears, papaya and watermelon start things off. It’s easy smelling, and way too light and pretty much in the wheelhouse of every bartender’s filtered white mixing rum. I expect more, somehow because although it starts off well, it fades really fast and soon it becomes more like a vodka than a rum, or some kind of mildly sweetish cough syrup.  Additionally there is vanilla, some sugar water, cucumbers in rice vinegar, a bit of tinned syrup minus the fruits, and there you have it. 

That taste is somewhat of a let down, to be honest, because the nose suggested there would be something there to enthuse, a bit of tart fruitiness maybe, some sweetness and edge, maybe a lone ester or two. Alas, no. One senses some sugar water and vanilla, a bit of overripe apple, a touch of brine, cucumber slices in alcohol, not a whole lot else; and adding water doesn’t do anything, least of all tease out more.  The finish is, at best, quick and lacklustre with vague hints of acetone, alcohol and sugar water, and so clearly it’s not a taster’s rum: and while two decades ago this might have been a great mixer, these days it fails when matched against the stronger and more distinct overproof cocktail rums many other distilleries are making.

So what’s the background? I mean, it’s surprising how little information there is about the thing and in this day and age no commercially made rum should deliberately chose to be so anonymous without having a serious quality behind it. The SMWS can get away with some of this mystery, but they’re in their own zone and do a decent job of it.  Not so here. 

However, I have managed to find out that the Secret Barrel is a Guyanese rum imported from down south (but not from where you think). It’s been aged a little, about a year or two, and imported as is, then bottled by Highwood Distillery in Alberta, though they themselves had no hand in the selection process – they did so on behalf of the owners of the Secret Distilling Company (see below for more details on company background). 

The whole business about John A. MacDonald is fun to read…and a cute fabrication, perhaps based on one of the founders’ relative or ancestors. Perhaps it’s just as well it’s a fireside yarn. Because although I genuinely wanted to like this rum – surely someone who had a sense of humour and a gift for tall tales would make a rum that’s just a bit off and good for raised eyebrows and a laugh or two? – it doesn’t really come up to scratch. Even with my limited experience in the world, my life is far more interesting than Old Mr. MacDonald’s, I have better tall tales and beer stories than he does, and for sure have had acquired far better rums than the one his name is on.

(#1045)(68/100) ⭐⭐


Company background

A few words on the company behind this little white rumlet. According to their slightly more informative website, Secret Distilling Company was started by a bunch of Calgarians in 2015 (I dug around and found out this was Adam MacDonald (the founder and man behind it all), and his friends Aaron Norris, Brendan O’Connor and Chase Craig, who all took over different aspects of the operation). They saw a market for rum opening in Western Canada, and rather than sinking serious money into a distillery and the concomitant years of development work, they went the blender’s route and looked around for stock. They found it in Guyana, and this is why their website speaks to them selling “Demerara” rums, as well as Banks XM rums.

Now this is where it gets interesting.  First of all, they never stated on the label of those Demeraras which operation supplied the rum, and most of you reading this would instantly think DDL. But it’s not. In fact, it’s from the other rum producing company in Guyana which gets far less attention, Banks DIH, who make the well regarded XM series of rums (which of course also contradicts the “Made in Canada” on the label). Secondly, in the About page they claim the rum is from the “Banks Distillery of Guyana” except that Banks is not and never has been a distillery – they’re a brewery and a rum blender, not a distillery, and have no plans to change that. But ok: let’s chalk that up to beginner’s enthusiasm and cut them some slack.

And thirdly — and this is what got me going down the rabbit hole in earnest — on the aged Demerara rum label, they added the signature of Mr. Carlton Joao, as the Blender. This is two faux pas in one, because (a) they did so without his permission and (b) he’s not a blender at all, but a marketing executive.  How do I know that?  Because I know the guy personally — I went to school with him in Guyana, consulted with him on the Banks company bio — and so as soon as I saw this I picked up the phone and called him and asked what was going on. He said he knew nothing at all about it; Banks sold them stock between 2015 and 2018 and they distribute the XM rum line, but that was all. The commercial relationship was pretty much over years ago.

Where their rums subsequent to 2018 come from is not mentioned anywhere, but since the original founders sold out to White Pine Resources in 2017 (this was reorganised into SBD Capital, the current owner, the following year; they invest in mining and minerals properties and for a while had alcohol and liquor sales as its prime cash generation unit), it’s possible that the Guyana route was closed down and local sources may have taken over. Gradually sales dropped, the share price of SBD dropped from three bucks a share to pennies and when I spoke to Brian Stecyk, the CEO (who was more than helpful, if understandably cagey about the affairs of the company) I got the distinct impression he’s wrapping up the show and Secret Barrel is no longer a functioning entity. In a few years the rum is likely to be a Rumaniacs entry.


 

Dec 022023
 

Almost all of Capricorn Distilling’s current line up of releases are good ones, and they haven’t even started a serious ageing program yet. Whether this is a matter of their desire to tinker and see what happens, or a clearly thought-out distillation philosophy, is unknown to me. What I do know, is that having tried their standard range (not the spiced, infused, gins, liqueurs or anything else) I can honestly state that if you get a white unaged Australian rum this year, you could do worse than buy a case of their juice generally – and the High Ester in particular. Because that thing is damned good: it channels Jamaica by way of Reunion, adds a measure of outback attitude, and sports serious rum making mojo on all levels. 

It’s on par with the overproofs of Black Gate or Killik (especially the latter’s Silver) in my estimation, and indeed it shares some of those rums’ DNA: molasses-based based, a 10-15 day fermentation using a different yeast from the Coastal Cane, some dunder for kick (and maybe a diced dingo or two, who knows? — with Warren, you get the impression that anything is possible). Then there’s a single pass-through on Rocky (the double retort pot still), after which it’s left to rest for a while and diluted down to 51% before bottling. 

If that sounds interesting, wait until you nose it, because while it’s not quite as well rounded as the Pure Single Rum, it’s hot, it’s spicy, it’s clean as new steel, and really crisp. There’s a sense of sparkling wine about it – chianti, Riesling, plus some 7up, and pineapples.  Lemony cumin, ginger, florals, cinnamon, which slowly merges with a damper aroma of rain on hot clay bricks and then softens into coconut shavings, oatmeal cookies and white chocolate crusted with almonds. The clear metallic sweat of someone who’s been exerting themselves in very cold weather after just having had a bath (yeah, I know how barmy that sounds). Juicy and ripe white fruits – papaya, guavas, pears, green apples and a few slices of pineapple. This is clearly a rum that enjoys Christmas.

The palate is somewhat more subdued, while still professing a certain originality. First there’s that clean scent of fresh laundry hot from the drier, followed by a sweet, tart, yoghurt, and citrus-y hints of ripe fruits that have not yet started to go. What distinguishes the taste is the way the sour miso soup or kimchi comes out swinging here, as does a kind of  sweet-salt tartness of, say, pickled tomatoes and bell peppers (with a reaper thrown in for good measure). Added to that are notes of pine, cinnamon, licorice, ginger, wet sawdust, fruits…it just keeps chugging along, one taste after another. This one rum packs a lot in its jock and isn’t afraid to sport it, right down to the aromatic, long, dry, fruity and crisp finish that immediately encourages another pour.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s occasionally hit and miss (that’s why I tried it multiple times), and the crisp sourness mixed with sweet and salt won’t be to everyone’s taste. And indeed, Wally told me that his own team liked the Pure Single Rum best; my friend and tasting chum Logan also felt it lagged (slightly) behind the Pure Single and even the Coastal Cane. 

I completely get that, because they are good rums in their own right, and I’ve reviewed them with genuine affection, scored them well. But for my money, those — while excellent in their own pitch — don’t break new ground with quite the same in-yer-face insouciance, don’t get hit outside the boundary, and remain satisfied with a solid bouncy four into deep fine leg. The High Ester Cane, in contrast, appeals to my love of the original, the offbeat, the new, and has no hesitation going for a powerful, lofty out-of-the-park six. It walks up to your wicket, hits you over the head and drags you off the field, and, love it or like it or hate it, you’ll always know you’ve had something different that day. That’s not a compliment in everyone’s book, but it sure is in mine.

(#1043)(87/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • My fellow Calgarian reviewer, friend and redditor, FarDefinition2, as well as another redditor FrostyThought8591 both felt the High Ester was not quite as good as the Pure Single or the Coastal Cane, but both agreed it would shine in cocktails. This is why sharing samples around and checking for feedback is so useful – it not only gives consumers another opinion, it also forces me to consider other points of view.

Company background (from Review #1029)

Capricorn Distilling’s origins date back to  2015 or so when Warren Brewer began distilling in his backyard with friends, using an 80-litre still from Spain (where he got it from is anyone’s guess). He released his first batch of premium rum in 2016 by which time he and five friends had bought the Saleyards motel in Rockhampton (the distillery was pushed into the pub and the idea was to use each line of business – motel, pub, restaurant, distillery – to provide a fuller experience for patrons), which is 650km north of Brisbane. This establishment is closed now and larger premises acquired in 2020 in the south of Queensland (in Burleigh Head on the Gold Coast, which is south of Brisbane and a mere stone’s thrown from the state border with NSW). Now the Saleyard company website redirects to Capricorn, but for a while in early 2021 both locations operated at the same time. From the beginning, it seems was rum was Brewer’s thing and indeed, his Capricorn Spiced Rum copped the top prize at the 2020 World Rum Awards. 

The distillery doesn’t stray too far away from the standard outputs we have observed in other small and newly-established companies: its stable of releases encompasses spiced and infused and flavoured rums, a liqueur, the unaged Coastal Cane, the High Ester rum and some experimentals we’ll talk about at some point; also Ready To Drink cans, and, of course, the ever-present cash flow generator of gins. The company runs two pot stills: one is a single retort copper pot still called “Burleigh”, the other a double called “Rocky” made in NSW.

Nov 252023
 

Rumaniacs Review R-160 | #1041

Few rum aficionados need me to elaborate either on Don Q, the “other” major distillery on the island of Puerto Rico which makes it, Puerto Rico itself and it’s peculiar status vis-a-vis the USA, or indeed, this rum. Any one of them is an essay in itself and can lead to any number of rabbit holes,

Let’s just stick to the basics, then. In brief: like Bacardi, Destilería Serrallés was founded by a Catalan emigre in the 1860s (the sugar plantation the Serrallés family first bought goes back three decades before that), though they lacked the global ambitions of the larger company’s operations and have stayed within Puerto Rico.  Don Q, named after Sancho Panza’s elderly sidekick, is the flagship brand of Destilería Serrallés with several expressions dating back to 1932 when it was launched to compete with Bacardi: however, let’s be clear – the Cristal was first released in 1978, when it was specifically designed to compete with the rising popularity of vodka. Before that, I think white rums were just called “Don Q” and had a distinguishing white label (my assumption), since I can’t find any reference to a specific one predating the Cristal.

The Cristal itself is a white rum, adhering to the Latin style of light ‘n’ easy rum making, and is the result of distillation on a multi-column still, aged in ex-bourbon barrels for between one and five years, filtered to colourlessness, blended, and then bottled at standard strength (40%). The review of the modern equivalent gives you some more details of the version you’re likely to find on store shelves these days – this one, as far as I can  tell, is from the mid to late 1980s, perhaps the 1990s (the label has undergone several revisions over the years and for different countries, so dating is imprecise at best).

Colour – white

Strength – 40%

Nose – Has a sort of light and creamy aroma, like custard drizzled with vanilla syrup.  Acetones and nail polish. Slightly sweet, somewhat warm. A few faint fruity notes – nothing really identifiable leaps out – which are just trembling on the edge of a flat cream soda.

Palate – Sharpish, mostly pineapple, vanilla and flavoured yoghurt, iodine. Not a whole lot going on here and while not really unpleasant, there are too many discernible medicinal and ethanol notes to make to a drink worth having.

Finish – Decently long, sweet vanilla milkshake and an apricot slice or two. Unremarkable, but at least there’s something here, which is already better than most of these bland, anonymous filtered blancos from the era.

Thoughts – My remarks about when it was issued and why, is the key to unlocking why the profile is what it is: inoffensive, bland, easy, vodka-like…and by today’s standards, rather uninteresting.  It remains what it has always been, a cheap bar mixer, without much of an edge to wake up a mixed drink. Older versions like this one seem even blander than the modern ones, and so my recommendation is to get one if you like to drink some rums from Ago, but don’t expect too much, and keep mixing your mojito with what’s on the shelves today.

(73/100) ⭐⭐½

Nov 152023
 

Brisbane’s Rum Revolution in Down Under has just ended last weekend, and among the many excited questions of “were you there?” and “did you drink this?” posted on social media, were a surprising number of accolades given to Capricorn, the little distillery run by Warren Brewer (also and variously called Walter, Wal, Wally, Warren and Wally Walter, depending on how he’s feeling on the day), south of Brisbane. People were getting all gobsmacked over the High Ester rum (rightfully so methinks) and I’m hoping we’ll see it at a rumfest in Europe next year, so we can see how others feel about it.

Alas, today I’m not reviewing that one (although I want to) but will instead focus on another very interesting experimental rum the distillery makes, the Dumpster Diver, which among other things, demonstrates that West Indians are not the only people out there with a sharp and obscure sense of humour. Now, this is an unaged rum, white, molasses-based, jacked up to the nines by using a cane juice acid, muck, and natural ferment to supercharge the thing; it was fermented for about thirty days, distilled in a single pass through the double retort pot still (that’s the one named Rocky), then left to snooze in a stainless steel vat for a couple of months. I’d like to think Warren then chucked it into a dumpster out back behind the shed for people to fish out when they wanted some, but naaah, he just bottled it…at 62%. It is not currently available in shops (it remains something of a trial release and not mentioned on the company website), and Wally tells me it can always be had to buy at the back door of his distillery where they sign waivers before tastings (well…not really: but they are warned what to expect so as to cushion the shock).

Normally at this point I’d tell you about the distillery and its background; however, that’s already available (reprinted below), and the only thing to add to it is that I think Walter deserves the praises, because this rum is really quite a blast to have neat…or, as he reminds me, in a totally awesome martini. This is one rum that’ll cure what ails you.

So, let’s just dive right in. Nose first: it’s redolent of cucumbers and a few pimentos in white vinegar, really hot and sharp. There’s an element of dusty houses, old cupboards, granny’s unused bloomers (best not go there) and a whole lot of dry and expired cereals. The smell is slightly sweet, and also sour, channelling gherkins and diluted balsamic vinegar: there is a sort of kimchi vibe here that’s quite nice, and even some ashlan-foo (which made Mrs. Caner sigh with nostalgia when I passed the glass to her to confirm). The intensity fades after it opens up and remains well controlled and rather quiescent most of the time. Towards the end, things get weird for a while — it could be just me but I thought I nosed some disinfectant, pine sol and even the slight acrid hint of a chlorine bleach, which makes it slip in my estimation, but overall, the nose is really quite something – not one you’ll forget in a hurry, and somewhat reminiscent of an agricole.

Photo (c) and courtesy of Josh Wall

It is also excellent on the palate: strong, firm, solid, and very dry.  Letting it stand to let the harsh alcohol burn off is probably a good idea, or alternatively, some might like to add a little water. This allows a solid taste experience to unfold, starting with an air of clean white laundry flapping in the breeze on a sunny day, white wine and tart fruits, plus unsweetened yoghurt, which presents a sort of crisp fruitness that is very pleasant.  Pomegranates, figs, dragon fruit, soursop and other unusual stuff like that, but also citrus, green apples and grapes, each snapping crisply into focus and then quickly moving aside for the next one. As for the finish, well, pretty damned fine: dry, dusty, fruity, nicely long, with acetones, nail polish remover and bubble gum – plus the usual fruit salad rounding things out.

New rums like this from far-flung locations are why I stay in the game.  It’s such an interesting dram, on so many levels. It shows a lot of rough edges – “like a country bai com’ to town” – and a demonstrable lack of couth is right there, front and centre – you can almost smell it sweating and sweltering in the heat.  And yet it’s a completely solid rum, channelling Hampden by way of Worthy Park with a little TECA thrown in, before adding its own exuberant Queensland twist. It’s rough, it’s brutal, it’s got tastes and to spare, attitude beyond reason and when you’re done you will realise that it’s also an immensely enjoyable drink on its own terms. And yeah, it really does make a seriously sleazy, filthy, barkin’ mad martini.

(#1039)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Disclosure: although Warren and I agreed I’d send him something from my stocks to pay off for the samples he sent to me in Canada, as of this writing I have not yet done so. Just waiting for my empty sample bottles to arrive, though, and all will be settled.
  • I’ve asked for a photo of the bottle and label, as none appear to be available online, even on the company’s social media pages. My sincere thanks to Josh Wall of the Brisbane Rum Club FB page, who kindly allowed me to use his photograph of the rum bottle and its label. Ta, and a hat tip, mate.

Company background (from Review #1029)

Capricorn Distilling’s origins began in 2015 or so when Warren Brewer began distilling in his backyard with friends, using an 80-litre still from Spain (where he got it from is anyone’s guess). He released his first batch of premium rum in 2016 by which time he and five friends had bought the Saleyards motel in Rockhampton (the distillery was pushed into the pub and the idea was to use each line of business – motel, pub, restaurant, distillery – to provide a fuller experience for patrons), which is 650km north of Brisbane. This establishment is closed now and larger premises acquired in 2020 in the south of Queensland (in Burleigh Head on the Gold Coast, which is south of Brisbane and a mere stone’s thrown from the state border with NSW). Now the Saleyard company website redirects to Capricorn, but for a while in early 2021 both locations operated at the same time. From the beginning, it seems was rum was Brewer’s thing and indeed, his Capricorn Spiced Rum copped the top prize at the 2020 World Rum Awards. 

The distillery doesn’t stray too far away from the standard outputs we have observed in other small and newly-established companies: its stable of releases encompasses spiced and infused and flavoured rums, a liqueur, the unaged Coastal Cane, the High Ester rum and some experimentals we’ll talk about at some point; also Ready To Drink cans, and, of course, the everpresent cash flow generator of gins.The company runs two pot stills: one is a single retort copper pot still called “Burleigh”, the other a double called “Rocky” made in NSW.


 

Oct 062023
 

This is not the first review to be speaking to a rum made or released by the western Canadian outfit Highwood Distillers: I’ve looked at the forgettable Momento, the guilty pleasure of Potters Dark, and a completely indifferent contract throwaway called Merchant Shipping Co. white rum (made for Wine & Beyond, a large local spirits shop chain), which some readers might recall I disliked intensely when I tried it earlier this year. At that same session I sampled their own simply labelled 40% white, and was a little more impressed than with the others…but I’m afraid that’s nothing to make you rush to the nearest store to go buy some.

The rum is a product that channels something of no-great-shakes median-scoring Plantation Three Star — without the character. It’s made from near neutral alcohol from Guyana that’s imported at 95% and aged for a year in ex-bourbon casks before being filtered to white and taken down to 40% (it remains an outstanding query with them as to where the ageing takes place). These facts, then, position it squarely in the cheap mixers’ blends section of the market that has no aspirations to be seen as an artisanal classic, so tempering expectations commensurately is a must.

Back in 2009 when my fellow rum chum The Rum Howler first looked at this product, he commented that he was able to discern its Guyanese nature: I assure you that no such profile attends to the one I tried 14 year later. It is redolent of rubbing alcohol infused with coconut shavings, with some subtle threads of sugar water, overripe white fruit, crackers, salt biscuits …and the musty, dusty scent of abandoned houses. There’s no wooden still action, no dark fruits, or tannins or raisins or licorice or sawdust. It’s really quite easy to smell, smoothly light and inoffensive…and here that means it’s simply bland. 

On the palate it retains a neutral character: tangy, lightly sweet, alcoholic. It tastes, at best, of a few indistinguishable sodden watery fruit in a graceless salad sprinkled with some alcohol and icing sugar. One can sense some pears, swank, a fine line of brine and light citrus (this is being generous), perhaps a touch of melon and coconut shavings, all of which serves to make it better than alcoholic water, but not by a whole lot.  The finish is smooth, light and relatively clean, just ultimately without much of anything.

Which, as has been mentioned to me before, is probably the point: for something made to be a cocktail ingredient, I should not ask for more. Maybe so. Expectations were low going in and the rum met them swimmingly. It is still being made almost two decades after being introduced, so it has to have something to recommend it. The problem for me is, that “something” is only price for purpose. It’s relatively cheap, it gets people buzzed and its blandness make it well suited for cocktails where it’s the other ingredients that shine, not the base rum.

Yet I take umbrage at the casual throwaway nature of the white, because I feel that if we are ever to grow the rum category in western Canada, local distillers have to stop with this “it’s cheap” one-size-fits-all mentality that is solely meant as a vehicle to move cases. Surely it’s possible to do more than just make a forgettable, affordable rum? How about an unforgettable one?

And I say that because I’ve seen what small rum companies in other countries do with lesser facilities and just some gumption and the desire to try making something interesting, something better. They’re making Jamaican wannabes in the UK and Down Under, using wooden pot stills in Japan, dicking around with Swedish oak in Denmark, to name just a few wild and woolly ideas that make rum more interesting: those guys experiment, they go off the reservation, they do it all themselves, and they make rums that sing in cocktails and enthuse aficionados the world over, and yes, they sell too.

In contrast, what do we get here? A Caribbean rum of zero taste and originality that doesn’t even channel its point of origin or advertise its source. It smells anonymous. It does nothing. It tells you nothing. It could be anything, come from anywhere, and be for anyone. Tell me, in what universe does that count as a successful product?

(#1030)(72/100) ⭐⭐½


Company background

The company is a distillery founded in 1974, originally called ‘Sunnyvale’. In 1984, it was renamed Highwood Distillers after the river that flows through the town of High River in which the distillery is located (in Alberta, just south of Calgary). Until 1997, both the distillery and sales offices were located at the distillery but then the sales office moved to town (which is to say, Calgary), while the distillery continues where it started, and where it remains to this day. In 2005 they bought the BC-based Potter’s distillery, as well as the brands they owned which is why Potter’s Light and Dark rums are part of Highwood’s current portfolio. 

The acquisition of Potters and the expansion into general spirits – vodka, rum, whiskey, gin, liqueurs, flavoured spirits – marked the limit of how far Highwood seemed to want to go, and no further purchases, acquisitions or portfolio increases attended the company for the next decade and a half. Interestingly, in 2022 the Nova Scotia based whisky distiller Caldera Distilling, bought out Highwood in a push to expand into western Canada, thereby creating what is touted as the largest family owned distillery in Canada; however so far it does not seem as if much has changed and if the two company websites are anything to go by, with neither company referring to the other, then it suggests a rather hands-off and independent approach to production.


 

Sep 222023
 

Don Q is the other big brand from Puerto Rico that many believe has bragging rights over the Big Bad Bat when it comes to quality, yet somehow does not inhabit as a deep a mindspace as Bacardi does. The brand is very well known in the US and Canada (though I don’t see it for sale out west very often) but I get the impression it’s somewhat less of a thing in Europe or Asia – probably because they have plenty of brands of their own and so don’t exist in the same spirituous desert.

Don Q is the flagship brand of the other huge distilling operation on the island of Puerto Rico, Destilería Serrallés: like Bacardi it was founded by a Catalan emigre in the 1860s, though they lacked the international ambitions of the larger company and have stayed within Puerto Rico the whole time. Destilería Serrallés produces three main tiers of this branded rum: the Traditional range of mixing agents (Cristal, Gold and 151); a series of flavoured rums, and the more upscale “Serrallés Collection”, which is where the aged, finished and stronger premiums live. Don Q as a brand is named after Don Quixote (one wonders where Sancho Panza is lurking), but the reason has little to do with the wannabe over-the-hill knight and more to do with the author and his masterwork (see below).

The Cristal is a white rum from the Traditional range: it is of course nothing like the robust white brawling full proof rums whose praises I have extolled in past lists of Great Whites, the ones that go out there sporting an attitude, showing off their glutes and spoiling for a fight. In point of fact it’s a light rum coming off multiple distillation runs on a five-column industrial still, aged in ex-bourbon barrels for between one and five years, filtered to colourlessness, blended, and then bottled at standard strength (40%). Therefore it adheres more to the ethos of relaxed and affordable backbar general mixers, a sort of workhorse of daiquiris and mojitos, hearkening back to the light rum period of the previous century, than something more primitive and elemental.

The tasting notes show why the above paragraph can be written. There’s vanilla, coconut shavings, some nail polish and brine.  Also, after some time, one can pick out citrus, light cream soda, cherries, some ripe juicy pears. It just kind of fades away at this point and there’s little more to be gained by hanging around

The palate shows off a similarly light and easy island charm: sweet, light, creamy, with some watermelon, papaya, cream soda, ginger, and again, the pears, maybe a couple of bananas.  A dusting of cinnamon can be discerned with care, and the finish is as expected – short, prickly, a touch of honey and coconut shavings set off by that slight twist of lemon. 

The Cristal, then, is a completely serviceable rum with just enough taste in there to lift it (slightly) above more anonymous fare that tries less, and I can see why some consider it a step above other whites, including Bacardi’s. There’s a bit of edge lurking behind the inoffensive first taste, a hint of undiscovered character. That said, the strength makes that difficult to come to grips with, and rums like this are never going to be my go-tos unless I just want to get econo-hammered. Overall they display too little of interest, being quite content to stay in the background, sink in the cocktail, and disappear. Thus, they play it safe and take no chances – the alcohol is delivered, the drink is ok, it goes down easy, no fuss, no bother, mission accomplished. 

That will work fine for people who don’t care, and I don’t cast any aspersions on either buyer or seller in this matter – the purpose of the review, then, is less to pass judgement than to simply tell you what you’re getting when you fork over your two bits. As with Bacardi Superior, Lamb’s and other lightly aged, filtered white rums, the answer is, “not a whole lot”.  But then, that’s also why you don’t pay a whole lot – it’s quite cheap, and you’re not getting a dated, decades-old rum of complexity and age which is old enough to vote and will take your an hour to come to grips with…just a relatively neutral, inoffensive rum that serves its limited purpose, and delivers exactly what you pay for, plus a few cents extra.

(#1027)(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The rum is cheap, yes: this also comes not only from economies of (large) scale, but from the impact of the cover-over tax rebate the company receives, which keep prices down.
  • This is not a much-reviewed rum; the Fat Rum Pirate rated it two stars in 2017 and he commented on its neutrality – he wasn’t impressed. Spirits Review gave it 7 olives out of 10 in an undated review probably coming from around 2010 (the design of the bottle is an earlier variant). Honestboozereviews, writing in 2018, figured it rated around 6.5 points and mentioned it mixed well, was easy to find, and cheap. Lastly, Dave Russell of the dormant site Rum Gallery scored it 8.5 points in 2012 and said that he asked Robero Serralles about the name Don Q, and was told it linked the brand — made by the descendants of Spanish Catalans — to Spain and its preeminent work of literature, and both were masterpieces.
Sep 062023
 

Bristol Spirits – also known as Bristol Classic Rum — holds the distinction of being one of the earlier independent UK bottlers who was and remains specifically not a distillery or a whisky bottler, such as the ones which held sway in the 1980s and 1990s. While Gordon & MacPhail, A.D. Rattray, Cadenhead and a few other companies from Scotland occasionally amused themselves by issuing a rum, few took it seriously, and even the indie Italians like Samaroli and Moon Imports and Rum Nation took a while to get in on the act. Of course, the worm is turning and the situation is changing now with the rise of the New Brits, but that’s another story.

Bristol Spirits, unlike those old houses, focused on rum almost immediately as they were founded in 1993, and while their earlier bottlings are now the stuff of misty legend and tall tales, I can tell you of some releases which are now considered near-classics of the genre: the 1980 30YO Port Mourant, the 1974 34 YO Caroni, and the pair of Very Old Rums from 1974 (Jamaica, 30YO) and 1975 (Demerara, 35YO); plus, some would likely add the Rockley Still 26YO 1986 Sherry Finish. Gradually as the years wore on, John Barrett – who remains the managing director of the company and runs it personally with his son in law Simon Askey – branched off into barrel selection and ageing and does a brisk sideline in trading aged rums or laying down new stocks with other small indies or private clients, and occasionally dabbles in the blending game…more to assuage a creative itch and see what will happen, I sometimes think, than to make the final sale (Florent Beuchet of Compagnie des Indes has also gone down this path).

One of these blends which Bristol came up with is this interesting overproof bottled at 59% – unfortunately there’s very little I can tell you about the off-white product, since there is literally nothing online anywhere that speaks to it. The strength and that it comes from Guyana and Guadeloupe is all I know, though Simon tells me it was released around the late 1990s / 2000 (after which, in an interesting bit of trivia, JB soured on doing miniatures such as I had scored for this review) and the Guadeloupe component was likely Damoiseau (to be confirmed) – other than that, the still of the former, the distillery in the latter, the proportions, the ageing, the source material, the actual release date…all the usual stuff we now almost take for granted is missing from official records.

Well, that makes it a really blind tasting, so let’s get to it.  Nose first, and it’s an odd one: charcoal, ashes and iodine, balanced by some brine, olives, figs and dates.  The fruits take their time arriving, and when they do one can smell green apples and grapes, tart apricots, but little of the crisp grassiness of any kind of agricole influence. The Little Big Caner, who was lending his snoot, remarks on smells of old bubbling oil leaking from a hot engine block, a sort of black and treacly background which I interpret as thick blackstrap molasses, but more than that is hard to pin down, and there’s a kind of subtle bitterness permeating the nose which is a little disconcerting to say the least.

The taste is more forgiving and if it’s on the sharp and spicy side, at least there’s some flavour to go with it. Here there is a clean and briny texture, that channels some very ripe white fruits (pears, guavas, that kind of thing), with some lemon zest and green grapes hamming it up with watermelon and papaya and just a touch of peppermint. There some herbaceousness to the experience, yet all this dissipates to nothing at the close, which is briny, spicy, sweet and has sweet bell peppers as a closing note of grace.

In assessing what it all comes down to, I must start with my observation that so far I have not found an agricole-molasses British-French-island-style blend that seriously enthuses me (and I remember Ocean’s Atlantic). The styles are too disparate to mesh properly (for my palate, anyway, though admittedly your mileage and mine will vary on this one) and the warm tawny wooden muskiness of Guyanese rum doesn’t do the ragtime real well with the bright clean grassy profiles of the French island cane juice agricoles. 

And that is the case here. There are individual bits and pieces that are interesting and tasty – it’s just that they don’t come together and cohere well enough to make a statement. At the end, while this makes for a really good mixing rum (try it in a daiquiri, it’s quite decent there), as a rum to be tried on its own, I think you’ll find that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

(#1023)(79/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The rum is a slightly pale yellow, almost white. The label blurb calls it a blend of white rums (on the left side) but below the logo of two intertwined Gs is a remark that they are “selected and bottled from the wood”, which implies at least some ageing. More cannot be said at this time.
  • It was confirmed that John Barrett blended this himself. As soon as I get more information on the sources, I’ll update the post. Many thanks to Simon, who helped out a lot on short notice.
Aug 292023
 

The real question is not so much how good this Malabari Vaatte is, where it originates, or what it purports to be…but what exactly it is. Part of the issue surrounding the Mandakini is that the wording on the label could equally well be describing a real rum, a disguised alcoholic beverage claiming to be one, a spiced spirit, or some peculiar amalgam of all of the above. 

The rum (I’ll use the term for now) is made in Canada, and therefore falls into the rabbit hole of the country’s arcane liquor laws, one of which, like Australia’s, states that a rum — assuming it meets the basic criteria of being made from cane derivatives like molasses, juice or vesou — can only be so labelled if it is aged for a minimum time of one year. That’s all well and good except for this catch: the same terms one would use to describe a true rum not quite meeting the criteria (for example by being a completely unaged one), are also used to describe a neutral spirit that is doctored up to be more palatable. In this case it is labelled as being an “unaged spirit from sugar cane extract” which could be either one or the other, or neither. So which is it, exactly? The producers never say. 

After scanning all available sources without resolution, I finally picked up the phone and asked them directly. The bottom line is that the Mandakini derives from a wash of blackstrap molasses fermented with natural yeast for two weeks or more, and is then double-distilled through a third party’s pot-still, after which a small amount of neutral spirit is added to the mix and it’s diluted down to 46%. There’s a reason for the addition, according to Abish Cheriyam, one of the founders who very kindly took the time to tell me all about it – it’s to bring the price down so it’s affordable to the target audience, as well as smoothening out batch variation.

Trying it out (with three other Indian rums on the table as comparators) makes it obvious that this is not a rum of the kind we know, even taking into account its heritage. The nose is all sweet light candy and icing sugar, some vague sugar water, swank, lime peel, peppermint, bananas, and the kind of weak syrupy essence they dash into your flavoured coffee. Unfortunately the neutral spirit takes away from what could otherwise develop into much more interesting drink: it smells too much like a lightly sweet vodka. Those who are into Jamaican high ester beefcakes or strong unaged indigenous white rums will not find the droids they’re looking for here, and will likely note that this does not channel a genuine product made by some village still…at least not what they’ve come to expect from one.

The taste also makes this point: it is quite inoffensive, and it doesn’t feel like 46%, which to some extent is to its credit. Light, sweet, a little sharp, yet the downside is that there is too little to distinguish it. Some light florals, sugar water, coconut shavings, bananas and maybe the slightest touch of allspice. There is nothing distinctive here, and the rum feels too tamped down and softened up. I try to keep an open mind and am not exactly looking for the raw nastiness and sweat infused crap that real moonshine (like, oh, say, clairin) is often at pains to provide – but at least a hint of such brutality would have been nice. It shrugs and coughs up a touch of mint, alcohol, medicine, cotton candy, it flexes its thin body a bit, and that’s pretty much the whole ball game. The finish is short, light, has some alcohol fumes, white fruit and light candy floss to recommend it, but alas is gone faster than my paycheck into Mrs. Caner’s hands when purses are on sale.


While members of the Indian diaspora would probably get this, the rum does not channel the subcontinent to me, and that’s not a guess, because Mandakini, irrespective of its Indian origins (all three of its founders are from the southern state of Kerala), is actually made by a small craft distillery called Last Straw, in Ontario. This is a small family outfit that was founded in 2013 as a whisky distillery with two small stills; it makes all kinds of spirits on its own account — whisky, vodka, gin, rum and experimentals (including the fragrantly named “Mangy Squirrel Moonshine”) — and nowadays also does contract distilling, designing products from scratch for any client with an idea.

Clearly Abish Cheriyam, Alias Cheriyam and Sareesh Kunjappan – engineers all, who have worked and lived in Canada for many years – had such an idea, one that they felt deeply about, though unlike the Minhas family in western Canada, they had no background in the spirits business aside from their own enthusiasm. They did however, identify some gaps in Canada’s liquor landscape: there was very little Indian liquor on the shelves aside from Amrut’s whiskies or their Two Indies and Old Port rums, and Mohan Meakin’s Old Monk; and none at all that was an Indian equivalent to vaatte, a locally distilled liquor native to Kerala (also called patta charayam or nadan vaattu charayam), which, though banned in the state since the late 1990s (a holdover from pre-independence days when the Brits forbade local liquor so as not to damage sales of their own), retains an underground popularity almost impossible to stamp out. Rural folks disdain the imported whiskies and rums and gins – they leave that frippery to city folks who can afford it, and much prefer their locally-made hooch. And like Jamaicans with their overproofs or Guyanese with their High Wine, no wedding or other major social occasion is complete without some underground village distiller producing several gallons to lubricate the festivities.

Since they could not afford to launch a distillery or wait for the endless licensing process to finish, they went to Last Straw to have them create it, and after experimenting endlessly with various blends and combinations, launched in August 2021, calling it a Malabari Vaatte (the similarity of that word to “water” is likely no accident), and aiming at the local Sri Lankan and Indian diaspora. Both the shape of the bottle and the lettering in five languages (Malayalam, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and Telegu) is directed at this population and the fact that the first batch sold out within days in Ontario – at the distillery, because they had not gotten a deal with the LCBO at the time – suggests it worked just fine. People were driving from all over the province to get themselves some.

In Kerala, Malabari vaatte is often made from the unrefined sugar called jaggery or from red rice like arrack, and also with any fruits or other ingredients as are on hand; it has a long and distinguished history as a perennially popular underground hooch, and that very likely comes from its easygoing nature which this one channels quite well. It shares that with other Asian spirits, like Korean shojus, Indonesian arracks, Cabo Verde grogues, or Vietnamese rượu: in other words, it is a (sometimes flavoured) drink of the masses, though Abish was at pains to emphasise that no flavourings or additives (aside from the aforementioned neutral alcohol) were included in his product.

As a casual hot weather drink and maybe a daiquiri ingredient, then, I freely admit it’s quite a pleasant experience, while also observing that true backwoods character is not to be looked for. To serious rum drinkers or bartending boozehounds who mix for a living, that’s an issue — some kind of restrained unhinged lunacy is exactly what we as rum drinkers want from such a purportedly indigenous drink. A sort of nasty, tough, batsh*t-level taste bomb that leaves it all out there on the table.

That said, I can see why it sells — especially and even more so to those with a cultural attachment for it – Old Monk tapped into that same vein many decades earlier. But that to some extent limits the Mandakini to that core audience, since people without that connection to its origins might pass it by. For all its good intentions and servicing the nostalgia and homesickness of an expatriate population far from their homelands, the Mandakini does not yet address the current market of the larger rum drinking population. It remains to be seen whether it can surmount that hurdle and become a bigger seller outside its core demographics. I hope it does.

(#1021)(74/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The name “Mandakini” is a common female name, familiar to most Indians from north or south. It was chosen not to represent anyone in particular but to instantly render it relatable and recognizable.
  • The “Malabari” in the title refers to Kerala’s Malabar Coast, famed for its spices: it’s where Vasco da Gama made landfall in 1498 after rounding Africa.
  • There is currently a 65% ABV version of the Mandakini called “Malabari 65”, available at the distillery in Vaughn. This is one I wouldn’t mind trying just to see how it compares. If they were to make a high ester version of that, my feeling is it would fly off the shelves.
  • The range is now expanded to the original Malabari Vaatte, the 65, a Spiced Vaatte, and a Flavoured Vaatte. The latter two are apparently closer to the kind of drinks the founders initially envisioned and which are popular in Kerala, having ginger, cardamom and other spices more forward in the profile.
Aug 222023
 

Rumaniacs Review #R-157 | #1019

Somehow, in all this time of reviewing rums from around the world, from around Barbados, and from within the Foursquare oeuvre, I never got around to looking at the Doorly’s “Macaw” white rum. Not the new 40% 3YO and its 47% ABV sibling which is in line with the redesigned and now-consistently labelled range as it currently exists (3YO, 5YO, 8YO, XO, 12YO and 14YO, and if this piques your curiosity just head over to Alex’s excellent vertical review of the lot) but the rather older and more venerable one at 40% and a sky blue label. Maybe it’s just in time, because it’s now been quietly discontinued.

Note the care with which I define the rum: in spite of several online references to it, it is not, as sometimes described, a three year old rum, but a blended NAS (no age statement) workhorse of the bar industry that goes back a fair bit. It is a mix of various pot-column distillates some of which (according to Richard Seale, who was as forthcoming as ever) are in the three-years-or-so age range, but often with a jot of something older for oomph.

In a reorganisation of the Doorly’s line a few years ago, the idea was to replace this with a true 3YO and beef up the proof a bit; what ended up happening was that the 40% proved so durable and popular that the 3YO was released in two strengths, the standard and the now main edition, the 47% (no other rum of the line has this double release as far as I know)…and each of those is slightly different from the other one in terms of its blend profile. That, however, left the older Macaw as the rum that got overtaken by the times, as the light, inoffensive white rum style pioneered by the Bat became less popular, and more muscular and distinctive whites began to climb in favour. It’s a rum that if you like it you need not necessarily fear of running out any time soon, as it still remains reasonably available (as of this writing in 2023)…but a stock-up might not be a bad idea.

Colour – White

Strength – 40%

Nose – Quite soft and easy, like a cream soda or rock-shandy soda and a whiff of vanilla. A little strawberry bubble gum. Quite clean, though somewhat alcoholically sharp at the inception. Some mild glue and acetones and white fruits. 

Palate – Again, that cream soda like taste, light fruits, cucumbers, melons, papaya and maybe a ripe pear or two. Freshly grated and still damp coconut shavings, vanilla, bananas, an interesting melange of soft and sharp. Could be stronger.

Finish – Faint and short and easy. Mostly vanilla, sugar water and some mild fruitiness.

Thoughts – The Macaw remains what it always was: a mixing white rum from yesteryear that actually shows some character, and a profile more than just stuck in neutral. It shows what could have been done by all those bland and anonymous rum producers who slavishly aped Bacardi in the previous century, had they possessed some courage. I’m not a complete fan of the rum, but when compared against so many bland blends that characterised the period — soulless, tasteless, flavourless, characterless – it bloody well shines in comparison.

(#1019)(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Alex Sandu of the Rum Barrel blog met up with me in Berlin after this year’s rumfest, and we had a private tasting session where he very kindly brought this along.
Aug 042023
 

Unlike the completely unaged white “Hoolie” we looked at before, Outlier Distilling Co.’s Punk Croc is in fact aged, just a bit, in spite of its appearance that would suggest none at all.  Perhaps Rick and Ian, the insouciant distillers from that milkshed-based distillery on the Isle of Man, felt that the screaming vibes of the colourful label and the crazy title didn’t need any competition from some dark colouring. It is, on the other hand, just a bit stronger at 43%, but in most respects the hilariously named (and drawn) Punk Croc – these guys have a great sense of humour – is very much a slightly older, slightly blended sibling of the Hoolie.

Since we have already discussed the short history of the company in the Hoolie review (I reprint it in the notes below for convenience), it’s important to understand exactly what we’re drinking here. Punk Croc (I can’t even type that without grinning) is mostly, but not all, pure Hoolie – 98% of it.  The remaining 2% is composed in a ratio of 5:1:1 of Hoolie [a] at 75% ABV aged for one year in unused American oak barrels [b] at 63% for two years in Sauternes and [c] an unidentified 3YO rum at 46% ABV in an Ardbeg butt. “The rums have never been in another wood, so that’s the total maturation,” remarked Ian when I asked about such a peculiar admixture. “Pretty useful toolkit for blends, but I doubt any will make it to bottle on their own.”

He wasn’t kidding about that because what came out the other end was demonstrably Hoolie…just kickstarted a tad. Consider first the nose: it had that vaguely sulphurous smell of cordite and brimstone, the acridity of a licked copper penny, yet it developed pretty quickly into a crisp, fruity, olive-y scentbox that channelled fresh paint on old canvas, turpentine, and a gallon or two of tart yoghurt. Oh, and dusty rooms, the plastic peeled off a spanking new phone, light white fruits, licorice, cereal, and even some cinnamon.  That was quite a bit coming from such a slim ageing profile.

This was also the case when tasted; the new plastic took the lead without (thankfully) completely taking over, and it dovetailed with a light briny note, some pimento-stuffed olives, a fruit salad of crisp apples and overripe cherries. There was surely more than enough sour and sweet to be going around here and yet it never faltered or went seriously off the rails Even the finish was pretty good: light and reasonably long, consisting mostly of some acetones, light fruits and a syrupy note that combined with (again) new plastic. 

Overall, the rum was decent enough: sure, somewhat unusual, but it worked quite well, and even tasting it side by side with the original Hoolie, it was a tight race to determine which version was the better product. Both were tasty, both gave a good account of themselves, and both were well assembled in and of themselves, made for the cocktail circuit yet seeming slightly better. 

In the end, I’d have to give a slightly higher rating to this one, though. Even that little itty-bitty bit of aged rum added into the blend is enough to make a difference in the profile, and provides that slight filip of additional complexity that makes it a somewhat ore nuanced drink, a more interesting sip, even if it’s actually made for daiquiris with an attitude. It’s not every day you have a mad badass neon croc come waddling into your drinks cabinet, but colour or crazy notwithstanding, it’s not a reptile I’d want to kick out any time soon.

(#1015)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The guys couldn’t come up with a name for this rum, so they asked Meg, the graphics designer, to draw a suitably flashy mad-hatter design and then Ian’s wife Lydia came up with the name. 
  • First released specifically for the Manchester Rum Festival in 2023

Company background

Outlier is a recently-established tiny British craft distillery, which joins other new UK-based rum-making companies like Ninefold, Islay Rum Co, Sugar House, Retribution and J. Gow. These small outfits are showing that good rum doesn’t have a nationality and can be well-made in places that don’t immediately spring to mind when considering the spirit. It was founded in November 2019: they boys set up shop in the aforementioned milking shed with a small wood-fired 160-litre hybrid still, and began by issuing an instantly-sold-out elderberry- and blackberry-based schnapps called “Hedge Fund” and a 55% rum they called “Pudtroleum” for the 2020 Christmas season. By 2022 they released their next rum, the mild mannered 41% “Hoolie” and in 2023 the Punk Croc and the Hurricane.

Production is relatively straightforward: they ferment their molasses-based wash using local yeast for anything up to two weeks depending on the weather, then run it through their still twice, and reduce the resultant spirit down to a manageable strength. The still is small, but it allows 6-7 batches a week to be made, resulting in anything up to about 600 bottles and a whole lot of experimentation. They age in whatever barrels they can find and source – so far there is no major aged stock ripening, though its part of their long term plan, of course. Sales thus far remain mostly on the Isle of Man, the UK and more recently, the EU.

Jul 282023
 

You can bet your bottom dollar that every review or writeup about the cannily named Outlier Distilling Company will find some way to mention that it’s not in the Caribbean (see?) but somewhere strange off the beaten track – the Isle of Man in this case – and has a name that is completely appropriate to what it is. And without doubt, most will also note that the founders, Rick Dacey and Ian Warborn-Jones, set up shop in a small milking shed in a farm there, because, y’know, stuff like this just writes itself and it would be criminal to leave it out.

Outlier is another recently-established (and very tiny) British craft distillery, already making waves in the local rum world; it joins other new UK-based rum-making companies like Ninefold, Islay Rum Co, Sugar House, Retribution and J. Gow which are showing that good rum doesn’t have a nationality and can be well-made in places that don’t immediately spring to mind when considering the spirit. It was founded in November 2019: they boys set up shop in the aforementioned milking shed (one assumes the cows were long gone by this time, otherwise they might have redefined Manx terroire right there) with a small wood-fired 160-litre hybrid still, and established their credentials and their philosophy right away, by issuing an instantly-sold-out elderberry- and blackberry-based schnapps called “Hedge Fund” and a 55% rum they called “Pudtroleum” for the 2020 Christmas season (that they were able to do so in the middle of a global pandemic and lockdown is no mean feat).

By 2022 the still had been pretty much run in and the kinks worked out, and they released their next rum, the mild mannered 41% “Hoolie” – it’s a slang term meaning a high wind or a blustery day, as in “It’s blowing a hoolie,” which is something of a backhanded homage to their island, where such blows are constant. They ferment their molasses-based wash using local yeast for anything up to two weeks depending on the weather, then run it through their still twice, and reduce the resultant spirit down to a manageable strength. 

41% was chosen so as to allow for easier acceptance and there’s no ageing here, it’s a white rum straight off the still. In the hands of a someone still using training wheels this could result in a hot mess of keck, but here what we get is quite an interesting, tasty little rumlet, which starts right off  by channelling crisp aromas of flowers, cucumbers in sweet balsamic vinegar, soya sauce, brine, olives, figs and sugar water (and all that in the first thirty seconds).  The fresh cleanliness of the smell hints pleasingly at a cane juice rum, and throughout it remains soft, presenting light fruity notes – apricots, grapes, overripe apples, and even a touch of candy floss.

To taste, also very easy drinking.  It’s light and creamy, sweet, dusty and watery (which at first I regarded with some dismay, fearing a dilution of taste), but then it finds its legs as it opens up and more muscular aspects emerge (and that’s saying something, given it’s a relatively mild strength).  White fruits, guavas, lychees, melons, papaya, a touch of citrus for bite and some fanta and sprite to smoothen that out.  Marshmallows, slightly singed, and again, that candy floss element. The finish is short and breathy, mostly of cheesecake, marshmallows and citrus, and it’s gone too fast, which is a shame.

Naming this rum ‘Hoolie’ is an odd choice, I thought, given what it supposedly represents; and the rum is hardly a tempest, more a sprightly autumn blow that heralds the approach of colder weather, without actually being a wintry gale itself. Never mind, though: what I like about it is the integration of the various elements and how tasty they are: the rum samples like a cross between a beefed up Riesling and a mild unaged agricole, producing an off the wall love child that succeeds swimmingly by not trying to be too much to all people. The Hoolie makes a nice little daiquiri, and indeed, much of the company’s efforts surrounding its promotion have involved cocktail circuit demos and bar popups (it is a component in Trailer Happiness’s featured zombie blend, for example) – it is not made to be a premium sipper, and doesn’t pretend to be one.

Just as the Australians a world away are doing, the new crop of British distilling entrepreneurs who have sprung up in the last decade are eschewing mass-market sales and redefining small-scale quality rum in their own way, while never losing sight of the spirit’s basic DNA. What Outlier has done is rejig the pieces and the techniques they are using to make rum, just a bit, and here have succeeded in making quite an interesting and tasty rum that speaks well for their abilities. Better yet, the stuff that came after this rum is even better: for now, though, I’ll just leave you with my appreciation for the Hoolie’s succulent charms, and save other reviews from the brand’s expanding portfolio for the future.

(#1013)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Neither of the two founders is actually from the Isle of Man: both now call it home
  • The two heads on the label channelling Aeolus and blowing wind, are caricatures of Rich and Ian. 
  • Label design is, in a nice touch, actually credited for once: to Meg ‘Stedhead’ Hindley.
Jul 252023
 

Sometimes I get the uneasy impression that slowly the 151s are fading from common collective rumconsciousness. These long-lived, much-used and oft-feared high proof rums – bottled at what was for years almost the standard for really strong rums (75.5%) and outdone only by a few – were once the kings of the stronger drinks mixes (like the B-52 and the Zombie for example), and many cocktails called for them by number, not name or brand. Yet in my lifetime, we have seen more and more strong rums at high proof invading the market, and even some regular blends are inching closer to – if not past – 70% (and if you doubt this, feel free to consult the list of Strongest Rums in the World), so it’s no surprise that it’s been occasionally bruited about that 151s have lost some shine and may be on their way out. 

Yet the 151s cheerfully persist and continue to get made, and one of the reasons why is probably the amount of cocktails that call for them (as ingredients or floats), which traditionalists are loath to mess with. Many companies around the world continue to make them, and one of the brands that has stuck with it is Diamond Distillers out of Guyana — the source of many other brands’ stocks for their 151s — which has something of a love-hate relationship with the spirit: sometimes years it’s easy to find and sometimes you’ll search long and hard without success. Fortunately, it always comes back. 

The Diamond range of rums from DDL is their entry level blended rum collection: rubbing shoulders with the standard white, gold and dark are three additional variations at 75.5% – the puncheon, the dark overproof and the white overproof. The puncheon and the white seem to be the same product (French savalle still, 6 months’ ageing and filtration to white) and possibly named for differing markets; while the dark is somewhat more interesting, sporting 1-2 years’ age on a blend of Enmore, PM and French savalle distillate.

My own preference for the dark’s intriguing makeup aside, it was the white that I was handed, and that’s what we’re looking at.  And indeed, it’s not a bad rum, at first blush.  Nosing it reveals a profile nowhere near as “throwaway cheap” as many other brands are wont to make – it starts off with hot notes of alcohol, quickly burning off, leaving clean aromas of nuts, almonds, flowers and strawberries, with vanilla and coconut shavings, and a weird faint background of earth and wet leaves. Nothing too complex, but nothing to throw down the sink either. Like with the Sunset Very Strong, there’s more here than initially seems to be the case.

This is also evident when (very carefully) tasting it. It has a sharp yet very solid series of simple and quite powerful tastes: cherries, unripe mangoes, light flowers, icing sugar, vanilla and not a whole lot else.  Very strong on the attack, of course, but bearable, with a long and epic finish that unfortunately doesn’t present a whole lot but is content to just recap the preceding without adding any flourishes of its own. Like I said – nothing spectacular here, just solid workmanship.

Since there are several affordable rums we all have access to these days which are more emphatic, individualistic and close to this in strength (the Jamaicans come to mind, no surprise), the question arises whether a 151 with a profile so relatively straightforward serves any real purpose any longer, outside its core cocktail making base (and brainless college students who want to get loaded fast). They are not all that easy to make well at scale, lots of competition is out there, and getting them on board a flight (especially in the US) is a real pain. It’s no surprise they are not as common as they once were, and while they’re not impossible to find, it is becoming difficult to locate them on physical store shelves. Bacardi got out of the game in 2016 entirely (too many lawsuits), yet one can still find DDL, Lamb’s, Goslings, Don Q, Lemon Hart, Cruzan, Tilambic, Takamaka Bay and several others with a little searching (mostly from online shops), and even Habitation Velier paid tribute to the type by issuing one of its own. So not quite ready to be counted out just yet.

Where does this one land, then?

All in all, it’s very much like a full proof entry level rum with some rough edges and too little ageing, which I say from the perspective of one who tastes many cask strength rums on a regular basis and therefore has no particular issue nowadays with the proof point when trying it neat. There are more tastes than one initially expects, which is welcome, and if it is too simple and uncomplicated for serious appreciation, well, at least it leaves its heart out there on the table and doesn’t hold anything back. What you are getting is a very young, uncomplicated, filtered, high proof white rum which can’t class with an equivalent agricole (for how could it?) but which nevertheless gives a good account of itself and seeks only to do what it was made for: to spruce up some dynamite cocktails and to give you a seriously good drunk, seriously fast, and maybe both at the same time. Fine by me.

(#1012)(76/100)


Other notes

  • For those with a historical bent, there’s a small history of the 151s available to provide more backstory and detail than this review would allow for.
  • This rum intrigued me enough that I’m scouting out the Dark Overproof now.
  • My sincere appreciation to Indy Anand of Skylark and Ben Booth of Tamosi, in whose pleasant, ribald and laughter-filled company I sampled this one (it came from Indy’s stocks, which meant it was fair game for all of us).
  • It’s interesting how things change: back in 2010 when I wrote the humorous Bacardi 151 review, 75.5% was a breathtaking and titanic proof point, and a rum issued like that was regarded with near awe, sipped with trembling care. Nowadays a rum sporting such an ABV is regarded with caution, yes, but it would not be considered strange, or even particularly unusual.
Jul 192023
 

HSE – or Habitation Saint Etienne – is a small distillery on Martinique whose products I dally with on and off like a lovelorn swain who can’t make up his mind. They have all the usual products attendant upon Martinique’s distilling scene: unaged blancs, aged agricoles of various years with a finish or special barrrel ageing thrown in here or there, the occasional millesime, indie bottlers’ outputs and even a parcellaire or two for those who like to take apart miniscule deviations in a single distillery’s profile. All of the rhums from the distillery which I’ve tried have been very good, at any age and any strength, so it’s a wonder we don’t seek them out more assiduously.

They are the real deal, and produce a full suite of AOC rhums, yet I sometimes get the impression that they lag somewhat in people’s awareness or estimation behind other French island outfits such as, oh, J.M., Saint James, Damoiseau, Labatt or Clement (disregard this comment if you are already and always have been an HSE fan). Not that this matters much because like with any quality product, those who know, know.  And clearly they know why.

The stats, then: the rhum is blend of unaged whites made on Martinique from cane juice on a column still, distinguished by being reduced after distillation down to 50° over a period of (get this!) six months. It is named after Titouan Lamazou, a French navigator, sailor, artist and writer who was famous for his sailing exploits (he won the arduous round the world Vendée Globe race in 1990 and gained the title of world racing champion in 1991). Also an accomplished artist, in 2015 he staged an exhibition of his portraits of women created over a number of years for his “Women of the World” project in collaboration with Habitation Saint Etienne, and since the first references to the rhum come right around this time, it’s reasonable to suppose the first edition came out in that year, or in 2016. It continues to be made as a limited release, which makes it a millesime rhum (this one is from 2021), and the label design is supposedly his own.

All that is fine, yet we’ve been burned by sweet smiles and pretty dresses before: sometimes the adornment is the best thing about it. I come before you to say, fear not, for this rhum is great. When nosing it at the Berlin Rumfests’s pre-festival group tasting (I had sneaked in and was invited to hang out with the cool kids) it started with an elegance I was not expecting, with a sweetly rounded aroma combining perfumed flowers and salt with lovely deep notes of sugar cane syrup. Keeping it on the go for an hour, it developed more muscular smells of dark red olives, hot olive oil just at the smoke point, sugar water, cucumbers, sprite and watermelons, all overlain by that light and almost delicate floral, even herbal aroma that made me think of sun-dappled flower-strewn clearings in green forests, steaming after a warm rain.

The depth and intensity of the palate was really quite superlative as well, and demonstrated no fall off from the way it smelled. It presented with a smooth texture, tasting of solvent, bubble gum and and melded the crisp tart sweetness of unsweetened yoghurt with lemon meringue pie, green grapes and apples. There is a clean snap of citrus and coffee grounds, a touch of sweet soya and a nice sort of understated sourness to it all, leading to a long and languorous finish redolent of lemon peel, pastries, laban and a very sweet and mild balsamic vinegar.

All this from a white unaged rum. It’s really quite amazing and a standout at every level, even while you’d strain to find a single point of excellence about it. It raises the bar all at once so the singularity I search for is tough to describe, except to say – it’s really good and can function well as a sipper, while not losing its ability to turbocharge a mix in fine style.

That a rhum with such a top notch profile doesn’t ring more bells or launch small cults, that it sells at an insanely low price of around or less than €40 is, on the face of it, incredibly fortunate for us rum proles, because for once we can actually get us a good one and not sell a kidney to do so. Sure it’s a branded product commemorating a sports figure, sure it’s a blend whose stats seem to make it just another blanc, and sure it’s unaged and taken at agricole’s standard strength – nothing besides the beautiful label design really marks it out. But I maintain that through some subtle alchemy known only to the makers, HSE created a quietly, sweetly, unprepossessing little masterpiece that lit up my eyes and brought a grin to my face from the moment I nosed it. It was the first really top rum I sampled at the beginning of my 2023 rum festival experience – and was still one of the best at the end. 

(#1011)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • The bottle notes it is a limited edition without elaboration, so for now I can’t tell you how many bottles are out there. Apparently there’s a 40% version out there as well.
  • Brief distillery background: Habitation Saint-Étienne is located almost dead centre in the middle of Martinique.  Although in existence since the early 1800s, its modern history properly began when it was purchased in 1882 by Amédée Aubéry, who combined the sugar factory with a small distillery, and set up a rail line to transport cane more efficiently (even though oxen and people that pulled the railcars, not locomotives). In 1909, the property came into the possession of the Simonnet family who kept it until its decline at the end of the 1980s. The estate was then taken over in 1994 by Yves and José Hayot — owners, it will be recalled, of the Simon distillery, as well as Clement —  who relaunched the Saint-Étienne brand using the original stills from HSE but relocating them to Simon (ageing remained at the Habitation), adding snazzy marketing and expanding markets.
  • Of course I’m not the first to mention the rhum. My good friend Laurent Cuvier (he of the now-retired poussette) mentioned it enthusiastically way back in 2019 on a distillery visit when he got a try way before it was released, and again in his 2023 Paris Rhumfest roundup. Serge, ever ahead of the curve, tried an earlier edition back in 2016 – it may even have been the first – and liked it to the tune of 86 points which for him, back then, was well nigh unheard of.
Jul 032023
 

Rumaniacs Review R-155 | 1010

By now we’ve looked at Hana Bay and its other incarnations like Whaler’s and Spirit of Hawaii from Hawaiian Distillers a few times (here, here, here, and here) and there’s nothing new to say abut it. It is no longer being made and the company bio is brief.

Hawaiian Distillers made Hana Bay rum from around the 1980s forwards and in 2002 it switched to being made in Kentucky by the brand owners at the time, Heaven Hill, who had acquired the brand from the Levecke Corporation in that year…though they may have just tossed it on the scrap heap, since I can’t find much that says it was made into the new century by them. 

However, Hana and Whaler’s returned to Hawaii…Maui specifically, where Hali’imaile was founded in 2010 by a branch of the Levecke family and has its premises…I’ve heard they began making rum again in around 2014. Although the sugar industry, family connections and tropical climate would suggest it, rum is not actually their focus there – whisky, vodka and gin are, which is probably why their distillery makes rums of zero distinction. Hali’imaile’s claim to fame is to have worked to develop Sammy Hager’s Beach Bar rum, but that’s hardly an endorsement of the other rums they make and it’s been suggested that the Hana Bay wasn’t even made on Maui anymore. They don’t bother saying much about any rum on their website which may be an implicit statement about it, or simple embarrassment.

This rum is different from the Original Hana Premium (R-144) in that it is a white, with all that meant before (slight ageing then ruthlessly filtered to colourless blandness). So it lacks that pale hay colour of the Original, and the label is also not gold-edged but-silver edged, a sort of subliminal messaging as to what it is, if one is colour blind or too drunk to pay attention.

Strength – 40%

Colour – White

Label Notes – Silver edging (not gold), different medals from “Premium Rum”

Nose – Weak, wispy and thin. Acetones, pears, sugar water, yet mostly the sense one gets is of bitterly astringent alcohol.  Some nail polish and the smell of  plastic film stretched over new furniture.

Palate – It’s a rum with some bite. White fruits, sugar water, vanilla, coconut shavings.  There’s an odd touch of brine here and there, but mostly one strains to find much beyond alcohol

Finish – Neutral spirit burn.  One could as easily be tasting vodka with some added elements that remain difficult to identify

Thoughts – You can probably get more out of the nose and the taste if you have it first thing in the morning (as I did, to taste it for this review without anything getting in the way). That said, who would want to? There’s too little even with that, to make a sip worthwhile.  Best to dunk it into a personal (or indifferent) cocktail experiment where you don’t want to waste a good (or even a real) rum.

(70/100)⭐⭐

 

Jun 072023
 

Rumaniacs Review #150 | 1002

This series of Rumaniacs reviews (R-149 to R-154) we’ll be looking at over the next week or so, is a set of Bacardis from the 1970s to the 1990s that were all part of a small collection I picked up, spanning three decades and made in Mexico and Puerto Rico – they display something of what rums from that bygone era was like, and the final review will have a  series of notes summing up what few conclusions we may be able to draw.

Dating this one was interesting. The Legendario Carta Blanca brand (sometimes just called Carta Blanca) has been made since at least the 1920s, and it takes a detailed look at the label, place of make and the changes in the bat logo to establish a rough estimate of when it was made.  Here we know that the bottom line has to be 1961 since that was when the Tultitlan factory in Mexico was completed and in 2006 the name Carta Blanca was globally discontinued. Too, the bat logo on this bottle was changed in 2002, so…

One collector suggested it was perhaps made in the 1990s but I tracked down a label precisely  matching this one that seemed, with the notes I have from the seller, to place it more conclusively from the 1970s, and so unless someone has better information, I’ll leave it there (note that the labels changed almost not at all during those decades).  

The Legendario Carta Blanca is a blend of light and  heavy bodied rums, aged between one and two years then charcoal filtered to remove the colour – it is therefore a direct descendant of the original rum Bacardi made in the 19th century, which established the brand.  Nowadays, it’s been rebranded, and is called the Superior.

Strength – 40%

Colour – White

Label Notes – “Carta Blanca”, “Tultitlan Edo. De Mexico”

Nose – Almost nothing here, less than the 1970s Superior we looked at before (R-149), and that one, while decent, was no standout. Starts off with some brine and olives, to the point where we feel some mescal has sneaked its way in here (very much like the Limitada Oaxaca, just weaker). Noy sweet at all – oily, slightly meaty, opens up into some nice cherries and flowers. 

Palate – By the time we get to taste, the brine is starting to disappear and the rum transforms into something sweeter, lighter with a bit of light fruits (pears, red cashews), sugar water and very light melons and citrus, though you have to strain to get that much/

Finish – A little sharp, briny, the slightest bite of some woodiness, coconuts shavings.

Thoughts – This one might benefit from some time and patience, because it develops better once left to open for a while. That said, nailing it down is not easy because it’s faint enough that the flavours kind of run together into a miscellaneous mishmash.  Disappointing.

(73/100)


Other Notes

  • The city of Tultitlan’s name shows it’s a very old part of Mexico (the name is Toltec). It is now a northern suburb of Mexico City and was built by a famous firm of architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Felix Candela between 1958 and 1961 (van der Rohe designed the corporate Office Building, and Felix Candela designed bottling plant and distillery cellars). The fact that it was constructed so long ago suggests that the family was already expanding (and hedging its bets) way before they were exiled from Cuba after the Revolution.
Jun 052023
 

Rumaniacs Review #149 | 1001

This series of Rumaniacs reviews (R-149 to R-154) we’ll be looking at over the next week or two, is a set of Bacardis from the 1970s to the 1990s that were all part of a small collection I picked up, spanning three decades, and made in Mexico and Puerto Rico – they display something of what rums from that bygone era was like, and the final review will have a series of notes summing up what few conclusions we may be able to draw.

This Bacardi Superior noted as being “Silver Label” is the doddering uncle of the set. The label refers to an 80 proof 1/10 pint white rum, which suggests the pre-1980 dating after which ABV and a metric system common (in the USA) – the rum of that title continued to be made until the 1980s after which it just became Ron Bacardi Superior. Puerto Rico is where the facilities of the company are headquartered, of course, so there’s little to be gathered here. It’s entirely possible that it goes back even to the 1960s – something about the label just suggests that dating and I’ve seen a similar one from 1963 – but for now let’s stick with a more conservative estimate.

It’s not a stretch to infer some fairly basic facts about the Silver Label Superior: it’s probably (but very likely) lightly aged, say a year or two; column still; and filtered.  Beyond that we’re guessing. Still, even from those minimal data points, a pretty decent rum was constructed so let’s go and find out what it samples like.

Strength – 40%

Colour – White

Label Notes – “Silver Label”, Made in Puerto Rico

Nose – Weak and thin, mostly just alcohol fumes, sweet light and reeking faintly of bananas, Some slight saltiness, acetones, bitter black tea and a few ripe cherries. There’s a clean sort of lightness to it, like laundry powder.

Palate – Interesting: briny and with olives right at the start; also some very delicate and yet distinct aromas of flowers.  Some fanta, 7-up and tart yoghurt, the vague sourness of gooseberries and unripe soursop, papaya and green mangoes.

Finish – Again, interesting, i that it lasts a fair bit. Nothing new really – some light fruits, pears and watermelons, a dusting of acetones and brine. Overall, it’s thin gruel and slim pickings.

Thoughts – Although most of these early Bacardi’s (especially the blancas) don’t usually do much for me, I have to admit being surprised with the overall worth of this older one. There are some characterful notes which if left untamed could be unpleasant: here the easy sweetness carries it past any serious problems and it comes out as quite a decent rum in its own right.  Original and groundbreaking it’s not, and certainly not a standout – but it is nice.

(76/100)

May 222023
 

Few even within the rum world and almost nobody outside it, will remember the small UK indie bottler El Destilado about which I and a couple of others wrote in our reviews of the fascinating, off-the-reservation Aguardiente de Panela, a rum from a tiny back-country distillery in Mexico. The three British guys who run El Destilado are unabashed agave lovers and dabble with rums only as a kind of sideshow; yet so enormous was the impact that that single limited edition artisanal rum made, that not only did I immediately try to buy all available rums which the little indie had released, but added the word panela to my vocabulary, started researching artisanal Mexican spirits like aguardientes and charandas, and marvelled yet again at the sheer diversity of sugar cane spirits.

This white unaged rum is another from the southern state of Oaxaca in Mexico, and originates in a small hill town of some three thousand inhabitants called Santa Maria Tlalixtac, which is remote enough not to have any highway coming anywhere near it; one wonders how on earth the guys even found the place, let alone the third generation distiller who makes it, Isidore Krassel Peralta1. As with the Aguardiente noted above, the rum shares some DNA with grogues, clairins, backwoods cachacas, kokuto shochus, arrack and charandas – which is to say it is made individually according to their own methods, and primarily for local consumption (see historical notes below) and with tastes blasting out in all directions.

Consider the production stats: the masterfully minimalist label states it derives from cane juice made from Java cane, itself grown on small fields at altitude, hand harvested, crushed with a gas-powered trapiche, fermented with naturally-occurring (“wild”) yeast for five days2 in seven 1200-liter stainless steel tanks, and then squeezed through an 8-plate steel column still which is of the founder’s own design and make dating back to the 1930s (it’s been tinkered with ever since), and which produces no heads or tails.

What comes out the other end and bottled for El Destilado is nothing short of amazing. There I was in the Black Parrot bar in London (with the itinerant Richard Nicholson, both of us making occasional sheep’s eyes at the helpful and very pretty bartender Marine who was pouring our flight of five and laughing at our seriousness), and when I took my first sniff of the white rum that is the subject of this review, so astounding was the initial nose that my first tremblingly written and near disbelieving comment was “Would you just smell that!!”

Aromas jetted and frothed out of the glass in all directions – nicely intense musky and tart white cane juice spiked with alcohol were the first; then plasticine and rubber and brine, extremely dry and very very clear, stopping itself from being blade-sharp and dangerous by a mere whisker. Pine needles, lemon juice, yoghurt, olives and dish washing soap clashed and banged together without apology with crisp green apples, grapes and gooseberries, to say nothing of iodine, florals and even a touch of grass and herbs. The low strength — 41.5%, should have mentioned this before — which I would occasionally see as a problem, actually helps here because it tames what would otherwise be a hurricane of rumstink and tones it down so it actually becomes quite good and really accessible.

The fun doesn’t stop there, and the palate takes the handoff neatly, then sprints ahead.  It tastes dry, arid, minty, and reeks of alcoholic cane juice, like a mojito or a ti-punch but without the additional ingredients (no, really). There are tastes of watery sugar cane syrup, licorice, crushed mint, ripe apples, grapes and even green peas (!!), tart, briny, pine-y and smoky all at once. “It’s almost a mescal,” observed Richard sagely, his eyes crossed and his speech slurred (though it was only our first rum of the evening), as he tried masterfully not to upchuck his lunch of South Island orc flank. I concurred in principle, but honestly, you’d not mistake one for the other – this is a rum through and through and it concluded with a sort of rough, slouching grace: sharp, firm and gnarly, redolent of spearmint, sugar water, thyme, brine, half-ripe tart fruits and a bag of pepper-stuffed olives.

Man, that’s some experience, let me tell you, the more so because it does kind of come at you so unexpectedly, with all the in-your-face kinetic aggro of a 1970s Amitabh Bachchan movie. It’s a smorgasbord of smells and flavours that collapse together with a bang and the only real mystery is how a rum of a mere 41.5% can show off so much. Taken aback at first, I ended up with a completely positive opinion of the thing: because, at end, I truly felt that it was not some feeble attempt to copy nobler sires, but a celebration of gusto, of gumption, from a company unafraid to make bold gestures. Trust me, this is a rum from which you will not walk away unmoved. Unshaken you might be, but I can almost guarantee that you will be stirred.

(#998)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Historical background

The distillery of make doesn’t seem to have a name or a company title.  It looks like it’s just called “Krassel’s” and they also make rum under their own brand of Cañada which is primarily marketed in the USA.  If the name sounds vaguely Teutonic, that’s because it is: the paterfamilias left Germany just before the First World war and came to Veracruz in 1917.  Working various odd jobs and constantly moving to where there was employment, he ended up in the Cañada region of Oaxaca, got married and assisted in small batch distillation on the distillery of the farm where he worked.  After he gained sufficient expertise, he designed and built his own still and began distilling aguardiente on his own account in Santa Maria Tlalixtac, where he settled down.

That still is understandably famous, not the least because it continued to be tinkered with and improved upon as the years passed by Max’s three sons (Max Jr., Isidoro and one other).  As the rum he produced improved in quality its reputation spread, but the lack of roads proved to be a hindrance to distribution and using mule pack trains to transport lots of 40-litre jugs was impractical.  By the 1960s and beyond, the sons got pilot’s licences, bought a Cessna and used it to ferry their rum around the small surrounding communities for their fiestas and local shops. The third generation continued to be involved in the family enterprise, mostly Isidoro’s four sons.

It’s unclear when this happened — my guess is over the last decade ort so — but two American distributors now manage the rum brand’s importation into the USA, so its profile is definitely increasing there. El Destilado is, however, a UK company run by a trio of young enthusiasts and is separate from these; they do not mention the Cañada brand at all and distribute mostly in the UK and Europe.


Other notes

  • The company website for Krassel’s is quite informative and is worth a read through
  • Alex over at the The Rum Barrel Blog has reviewed the overproof version of this rum in 2021 and scored it 81/100 on his scale (about 86 on mine).  Rum-X has two ratings, one of 7/10 and one of 8/10. Not much else out there
  • Good background notes on aguardientes and Mexican rum culture can be found in the Panela review mentioned above.

 

Apr 242023
 

It’s almost a foregone conclusion that 99% of the readers of this article won’t know a thing about this rhum and its brand, and until I started researching the bottle, I didn’t either.  That’s an increasingly rare thing these days, considering that the writings of so many stellar bloggers over the last decade, combined with Rum Ratings and Rum-X, make it almost impossible for any brand to escape notice. Yet here we are, sipping at a peculiar bottle of white rum I bought completely on a whim (mostly because I can’t resist not knowing more about it).

The company that released it was once an independent French bottler in Bordeaux called William Pitters who mostly specialised in cognac, and occasionally rums as well – a couple of years ago Oliver Scars procured a 1970 HSE they had released, for example. They appear to have mostly issued rhums from Martinique as well as some punches and whiskies (Sir Pitterson whisky was a thing even if we don’t know who he was either) and on top of that, been something of a distributor too – but the source of their rhum was never disclosed. The date of formation of the company looks to be 2001, from a coming together of many tiny brands, and nowadays a much larger conglomerate called Marie Brizard Wine & Spirits is the owner1. This is more tangential to the review, though, so I provide their history below.

Exactly what we have in the glass is unclear – for one thing, I’m not entirely sure the brand exists or is being made any longer. The source distillery is a mystery – as noted, Pitterson did issue a rhum from HSE before, and Marie Brizard, the subsequent owner, had a distribution relationship with La Mauny – so we don’t know source or still or (maybe) age. Yet, although no review or online store is to be found carrying this rhum, I suspect it’s still around, and if it’s been discontinued then it was in all likelihood fairly recently; the bottle and label design is too sleek and modern, the price paid was too low, and several small restaurants, bars and cafes in France mention on their menus that they have it. 

Leaving aside the murkiness of the rhum’s origin, I can see why they would. It may “only” be a standard strength white rhum, it has a lovely opening nose of white chocolate, praline, almonds and nougat – in other words, a bar of white toblerone (of the kind Grandma Caner reliably sends me every year at least once). It’s creamy and delicate, hardly seemingly dry at all; there is a light herbal aroma, grassy notes and sugar water that characterises an agricole, but here it’s mixed in with Danish butter cookies, chocolate cake batter like your mother allowed you to lick off the spoon after she was done; and unsweetened yoghurt. 

The way it goes down is nice as well – nothing too bombastic, nothing too aggressive, just an easy sip, tasting of vaguely salty butter cookies, sugar water, vanilla and blancmange, plus a little toasted wonderbread and cheerios cereal (go figure). The herbal aspects of the aroma don’t really carry over here, and there are few if any citrus or acidic notes – what one gets is mostly ‘neutral’ fleshy fruit like sapodilla, melon, dates, papaya, and the finish is mostly without distinction, being short, easy and mild, giving a last dash of cereal and sugar water fruits, with perhaps a bit of watermelon thrown in.

Overall it’s a rum that plants its flag firmly in the midrange. It appears made to be a mixing rum and is just good and easy enough to sip on (though this would not really be my recommendation). It may only be 40% ABV, but feels somehow heavier, firmer, a tad stronger and even if you’re used to more powerful cask strength fare, it can’t be denied that the rhum tries its best, gives a good account for itself, and is a decent price for what it does deliver. As I say, it’s not clear whether it remains a commercially manufactured product, but if you see a bottle for sale someplace on your rumshop excursions, it’s no loss if you get one.

(#991)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The rum does not claim to be an agricole – it implies such by the use of the “rhum blanc” on the label.  Yet, given it supposedly hails from Martinique, the wording and spelling is not unjustified. Overall, based on taste, I’d say that it is indeed an agricole.
  • My bottle has a Portuguese tax stamp; I bought it with a batch of Madeira rhums so it may have simply ended up there.  The lack of production and geographical information is unfortunate.

Historical notes – Marie Brizard

The firm of Marie Brizard was founded way back in 1755 by (you guessed it) Marie Brizard whose anisette was hit among the members of the ancien régime and who soon branched out into citrus liqueurs. The company stayed privately held by her descendants, and moved into sales all over the American continents over the following century; they started their own modern advertising in the late 1800s and were even exhibited in several World’s Fairs. Expanding the portfolio to include other spirits (as well as fruit juices and cordials) were good business decisions for the company, and by the post-WW2 years, due to canny product placement in French films of the time, the brands became near-iconic. William Grant bought in with a minority stake in the 1980s as a consequence of their distributorship arrangement for whisky dating back to the 1950s, but were so excluded from any decision-making that in 1994 they relinquished their association.  

This situation of familial ownership, control and decision making continued until 2013, when a severe downturn in the market and mounting losses forced Marie Brizard to convert debt to shares…which were then snapped up by an American investment firm Oaktree Capital Management, who held nearly 20% of the voting rights. Continuing cash flow problems opened the doors for capital injections and share purchases by Compagnie Européenne de Prize de Participation (COFEPP, holding company which heads the La Martiniquaise Bardinet group), which as of 2019 held a majority shareholding of 51% while aiming for more, and can therefore be said to own the company…and so also the Pitterson brand. 

Apr 172023
 

After more than a decade of writing about rhum agricole, its not entirely surprising that I’ve written more about Martinique rhums than Guadeloupe’s or Reunion’s or Madeira’s…yet more about Damoiseau’s products than any other distillery on any of these islands.  There’s just something about the subtly sumptuous roundness of their rhums that appeals to me, which is an observation I’ve made about Guadeloupe rhums as a whole before. Martinique rhums may be more elegant, more artistic, more precisely dialled in…but Guadeloupe’s rhums are often a whole lot more fun.

Therefore my statistical appreciation for Damoiseau makes it peculiar that I’ve never actually written anything about one of their solid, down to earth island staples – the 50º rhum agricole blanc, in this case, which is one of their regular line of bartenders’ rhums that also comes in variations of 40º and 55º (the numbers represent the ABV). And oddly, I’ve been keeping a weather eye out for it, ever since Josh Miller did his personal agricole challenge back in 2016 and the 55º came out on top.

Today we’ll get to that, and to begin with, let’s run down the stats. It is a cane juice rhum (of course), immediately set to ferment after crushing for a day or two (24-36 hours is the usual time), before being run through a traditional column still to emerge frothing, hissing, spitting and snarling at around 88% ABV (this is what Damoiseau’s own site says, and although there are other sources that say 72%, you can guess which one I’m going with). Here’s where it gets interesting: the rhum is in fact aged a bit – except they don’t call it that. They say it’s “rested” – by which they mean the distillate is dunked into massive wooden foudres of perhaps 30,000-litre capacity and left to chill out and settle down and maybe play some dominos while being regularly aerated by constant stirring and agitation. Then after it’s considered to be ready — which can be anywhere from three to six months — it’s drawn off, diluted to the appropriate strength, and bottled. It’s unclear whether any filtration takes place to remove colour but somehow I doubt it – there’s a pale yellow tinge to it that hints at the wood influence, however minimal.

Anyway, what does it sample like? In a word – lekker. It reminds me of all the reasons I like unaged white rhums and why I never tire of sampling agricoles.  It smells of gherkins and light red peppers in sweet vinegar; brine and olives and sweet sugar water.  Then of course there are pears, cooking herbs (parsley and sage and mint), green grasses, watermelon, and papaya and it’s just a delight to inhale this stuff.

While the stated purpose of such white rhums is to make a ti’punch — at which I’m sure this does a bang up job — for consistency’s sake I have to try ‘em neat and here too, there’s nothing bad to say…the heated pungency of the rhum is amazing (I can only imagine what the 55º is like).  It is unapologetically rough when initially sipped without warning, then calms down quickly and ends up simply being strong and unyielding and flavourful beyond expectations. There is the obligatory note of sugar cane sap, the sense of new mown grass on a hot and sunny day with the sprinkler water drying on hot concrete alongside. There are the watery fruit the nosed promised – pears, white guavas, papayas; some delicate citrus notes (lime zest and cumin); a touch of basil and mint; and overall a smooth and almost-hot potency that slides on the palate without savagery or bite, just firmness and authority. And the finish is exactly like that – a bit shortish, sweet, minerally, and herbal with sugar cane sap, light fruits…the very model of a modern major agricole.

 

This is a blanc rhum that still surprised with its overall quality. For one thing, it was more civilised than other such rhums I recall (and I remember the Sajous), and there were subtle notes coiling through the experience that suggested the foudres in which it rested had a bit more to offer than just sage advice.  For another it’s quite clean goes down rather more easily than one might expect and while never straying too far from its cane juice roots, still manages to provide a somewhat distinct, occasionally unusual experience.

So, rested or aged, oak or steel, unaged or not quite…it doesn’t really matter – my contention is simply that any time in a reactive environment, however short, does change the base distillate, if only a little. That’s merely an observation, mind, not a criticism; in any case, the taste profile does support the thesis — because the 50 is subtly drier, richer and more complex than some completely fresh unaged still strength cane juice popskull that I’ve had in years past. It tastes pretty damned fine, and at the end, it comes together with a sort of almost-refined rhythm that shouldn’t work, but yet does, and somehow manages to salvage some elegance from all that rough stuff and provides a tasting experience to savour.

(#989)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½