May 202021
 

These days, most rumistas are aware of the Scandinavian company 1423 and their upscale rum brand of the SBS (Single Barrel Selections, even though they sometimes aren’t). In the last five years this small Danish outfit has become a much bigger Danish outfit, not just bottling the upmarket connoisseur’s series of the cask strength single barrel releases, but whole blended lines like the Compañero rums, and occasionally horse trading barrels and supplies with other companies (the Romdeluxe R.1 Wild Tiger, for example, was originally a 1423 import).

But back when this Barbadian rum came on the scene in 2016, they were known primarily in Denmark, even though they had already been in the business of bottling and distribution for eight years by then and had had some success on the larger European rum scene. Not surprisingly, they bought and buy barrels from European brokers (like Scheer, of course…after all, who doesn’t?) and perhaps what enthused them about the Bajan barrel were the stats: distilled in 2000 at WIRD, sixteen years old, a solid 54%, enough for 224 bottles, and deriving from a pot still. That last might have clinched the sale, since most of what the drinking public was getting from the island at that point was pot-column blended rum.  A pot distillate was something rather more interesting.

The year 2000 delivered quite a few Barbadian rums from WIRD to the indie scene: Serge looked at a Cave Guildive 2000-2015 version in 2017 (87 points), one from Whisky Broker a year later (86). Single Cask Rum has probably reviewed the most, here, here, here and here, with the attendant curiosity of referring to them as originating off the Rockley Still when they likely are not (see discussion below this post). Be that as it may, they were and remain quite unique in taste, and this one was no different.  The initial nose, for example, started off very traditionally with papaya, bananas, fresh whipped cream…and some light petrol, diesel on a hot asphalt road, and tar fumes. There were hints of something medicinal, iodine-like and almost peaty notes, but very much in the background (where it belonged, trust me). Resting and coming back suggested we had just gone down the rabbit hole and entered the Hatter’s Tea Party: cookies and cream with some green tea, cucumber sandwiches on white bread (no crusts), delicate florals, light fruitiness and it was all I could do to not to think that this had one of the most completely weird aromas I’d experienced in quite a while — which is not, you understand, a bad thing…just an unexpected one.

Anyway, it must be said that the taste was better behaved. Again there was that fruity line coiling around the slightly heavier creamier notes. Citrus, tangerines, kiwi and pears set alongside vanilla, salt caramel, dark honey and Danish cookies. Also bananas and papayas plus a touch of tart and unsweetened yoghurt, very well balanced.  The medicinal, rubber, petrol and tar notes took a step backward here, so that while they could be sensed, they didn’t overwhelm – still, they distracted somewhat, and the integration into the greater whole wasn’t of the best. The finish was fine, redolent of iodine and soya, gherkins and again, all those light fruits and a touch of whipped cream and cookies.

The rum, then, was quite original, and now, reading around the other reviews of that year’s products after tasting mine, it doesn’t seem my experience was unique. This was certainly some kind of pot still action, and while it could have been made better, it wasn’t a bad rum. Last week I remarked on the weakness and flaccidity of a standard strength 8YO WIRD rum released in 2003 at 42%.  I always hesitate to put the blame of such mediocrity solely on the level of proof and years spent sleeping — because many other things impact profile, light rums do have their charms, and those who specialize in wines and lower strength spirits can often find much to enjoy there.  But when one tries another WIRD that is aged twice as long and nearly half again as strong, from another still, the impacts of age and strength and apparatus are undeniable. The SBS Barbados 2000 is not a top tier rum, it’s still seeking a balance it never finds – but it sure isn’t boring, or forgettable.

(#822)(85/100)


Notes – The Rockley “Still”

Many producers, commentators and reviewers, myself among them, refer to the pot still distillate from WIRR/WIRD as Rockley Still rum, and there are several who conflate this with “Blackrock”, which would include Cadenhead and Samaroli (but not 1423, who refer to this rum specifically as simply coming from a “pot still” at “West Indies” – one assumes they were still getting their knowledge base up to scratch at that point, and Joshua Singh confirmed for me that it was indeed a “Blackrock style” rum).

Based on the research published by Cedrik (2018) and Nick Arvanitis (2015) as well as some digging around on my own, here are some clarifications. None of it is new, but some re-posting is occasionally necessary for such articles to refresh and consolidate the facts.

“Blackrock” refers to WIRD as a whole, since the distillery is located next to an area of that name in NW Bridgetown (the capital), which was once a separate village. In the parlance, then, the WIRD distillery was sometimes referred to as “Blackrock” though this was never an official title – which didn’t stop Cadenhead and others from using it. There is no “Blackrock Still” and never has been.

Secondly, there is a “Rockley” pot still, which had possibly been acquired by a company called Batson’s (they were gathering the stills of closing operations for some reason) when the Rockley Distillery shuttered — Nick suggests it was transformed into a golf course in the late 1800s / early 1900s but provides no dates, and there is indeed a Rockley Resort and golf club in the SE of Bridgetown today. But I can’t find any reference to Batson’s online at all, nor the precise date when Rockley’s went belly-up — it is assumed to be at least a century ago. Nick writes that WIRD picked up a pot still from Batson’s between 1905 and 1920 (unlikely to be the one from Rockley), and it did work for a bit, but has not been operational since the 1950s.

This then leads to the other thread in this story which is the post-acquisition data provided by Alexandre Gabriel. In a FB video in 2018, summarized by Cedrik in his guest post on Single Cask, he noted that WIRD did indeed have a pot still from Batson’s acquired in 1936 which was inactive, as well as another pot still, the Rockley, which they got that same year, also long non-functional. What this means is that there is no such thing as a rum made on the Rockley still in the post-1995 years of the current rum renaissance, and perhaps even earlier – the labels are all misleading.  

The consensus these days is that yet a third pot still — acquired from Gregg’s Farms in the 1950s and which has remained operational to this day — provided the distillate for those rums in the last twenty years which bear the name Blackrock or Rockley. However, Cedrik adds that some of the older distillate might have come from the triple chamber Vulcan still which was variously stated as being inactive since the 1980s or 2000 (depending on the interview) and it was later confirmed that the most famous Rockley vintages from 1986 and 2000 were made with a combination of the Vulcan (used as a wash still) and the Gregg (as a spirit still). 

Yet, as Cedrik so perceptively notes, even if there is no such thing as a Rockley-still rum, there is such a thing as a Rockley style. This has nothing to do with the erroneous association with a non-functional named still.  What it is, is a flavour profile.  It has notes of iodine, tar, petrol, brine, wax and heavier pot still accents, with honey and discernible esters.  It is either loved or hated but very noticeable after one has gone through several Barbados rums. Marco Freyr often told me he could identify that profile by smell alone even if the bottler did not state it on the label, and I see no reason to doubt him.


 

Apr 082021
 

2016 seems like such a long time ago with respect to Hampden rums.  Back then we got them in dribs and drabs, from scotch whisky makers (who could rarely be bothered to mention the distillery) and the occasional indie bottler like Berry Bros. & Rudd, Compagnie des Indes, Rom Deluxe, Renegade or Murray McDavid. That all changed in 2018 when Velier concluded a deal to be their worldwide distributor and the PR machine roared into overdrive.  Since then, Hampden has become one of the boutique rums du jour, and they sell out almost as fast as the Foursquare ECS rums.

Back in 2016, though, this wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Hampden was known to the cognoscenti of course, those superdorks who paid close attention to the indie scene, knew their Caribbean distilleries cold and bought everything they could…but not many others from the larger mass market cared enough about it; and anyway, supplies were always low. The distillery was ageing its own stock and continued to sell bulk abroad, so most independents sourced from Europe. That’s how SBS, the geek-run rum arm of the Danish distribution partnership 1423, picked up this barrel.

SBS itself was only created in 2015, seven years after its parent came into being, to cater to the boys’ fascination and love for pure rums. Their business had gone well by this time and they decided to branch out into their first love – “our core DNA,” as Joshua Singh remarked to me – single barrel rums. And they picked up this continentally aged rum which had been distilled in Hampden’s pot still in September 2000 and bottled it in October 2016 in time for the European festival circuit, which is where my rum tooth fair Nicolai Wachmann picked it up and passed some on to me. 202 bottles of this 16 year old rum came out of the barrel and was left as is, at a cask strength of 58.9%.

Clearly, with the explosion of interest in both the SBS range and Hampden over the years, this is something of a find. It’s quite rare, seems to be relatively unknown, and has only turned up once at auction that I could find, and fetched a cool £150 when it did.  But when I tasted it, I thought to myself that these guys knew their sh*t, and chose well.  Consider the opening salvo of the nose – it felt like the Savanna 10YO HERR all over again (and that’s a serious compliment).  It had esters puffing and squirting in all directions, very light and clean.  A warm exhalation of rubber on a hot day, dunder and funk, formed a bed upon which sparkling notes of red currants, strawberries, crisp yellow mangoes, unsweetened yoghurt and over-sweet bubble gum competed for attention. It had that kind of cloying sweet to it, leavened with some sharper brine and olives and rye bread left to go bad and was the diametrical opposite of the rather dour and dark Caronis or PM Demeraras.

It was, however, on the plate, that it shone. This was a rum to savour, to enjoy, to treasure.  It was a solid, serious rum of surprising complexity: just shy of hot, tasting of brine, avocados, kräuterquark, salt crackers, interspersed with pineapple slices, kiwi fruits and the tartness of unripe peaches and more mangoes.  There was a wisp of vanilla in there, some faint white chocolate and nuts and caramel ice cream that somehow stopped just short of softening things too much, and allowed the crisp tartness to remain.  As for the finish, it didn’t falter – it was long and hot (in a good way), and reminded me again of the HERR, though perhaps it was a shade deeper, tasting nicely of salted caramel, bananas, pineapples, fanta, cinnamon and lemon peel.

In short, quite a serious all-round rum, not quite so savage as to scare anyone away, while powerful enough to distinguish it from standard strength rums aimed at the larger non-expert rum drinking audience. 58.9% is a near perfect strength for it, permitting full enjoyment of the nuances without any pain. Could it be mixed? Probably…though I wouldn’t. Hampden has always managed to produce rums that — whether aged in Jamaica or in Europe — set the bar a bit higher than most others; and though nobody comes right out and says so, part of the attraction of a rum so bursting with flavours is to have it neat and wring every tasting detail from every drop. This is the way most people speak of Hampden rums now that Velier is distributing them, but it was no less true in 2016. 1423 sure picked a winner that year.

(#811)(88/100)

Aug 032020
 

The three wooden stills now all gathered at DDL’s Diamond facility are called Heritage stills, their wooden greenheart components regularly serviced and replaced, and the questions they pose about the matter of Theseus’s ship are usually ignored. That’s not really important, though, because they may be the three most famous stills in existence, and the taste profiles of the rums they create are known by all dedicated rumistas, who enjoy nothing more than relentlessly analyzing them for the minutest variations and then bickering about it in a never-ending cheerful squabble.

My own preference has always been for the stern elegance of the Port Mourant, and the Enmore coffey still produces rums that are complex, graceful and sophisticated when done right.  But the Versailles still is something of an ugly stepchild – you’ll go far and look long to find an unqualified positive review of any rum it spits out.  I’ve always felt that it takes rare skill to bring the rough and raw VSG pot still profile to its full potential…none of the familiar indies has had more than occasional success with it, and even Velier never really bothered to produce much Versailles rum at the height of the Age.

This brings us to the Danish company 1423: it makes many mass-market rums for the broader supermarket shelves in Europe, but is perhaps better known worldwide for its boutique rum arm the Single Barrel Selection, which specializes in single cask, limited bottlings. These aim squarely at the connoisseurs’ palates and wallets, and have gained a quiet reputation (and a following) for their quality rums and geographical range.  The Diamond 2003 is a case in point – it’s 12 years old (bottled in 2015), has a finish in marsala casks, comes off the Versailles single wooden pot still and is bottled at a completely solid 62.8% with an outturn of 264 bottles. And it’s quite a hoot to drink, let me tell you

“Something is rotten in the State of Diamond,” I wrote cheerfully after a good deep sniff, “…and just enough to make it interesting.” Which was quite true – it smelled of fruits and vegetables starting to go off, and added some deep oak tannins which thankfully did not get overbearing but receded rapidly.  To this was added almonds, peaches, prunes, anise, strawberries, some light vanilla and raisins, all tied together in a neat bow by a briny note and some zesty citrus.  

The palate was also quite good, irrespective of how much (or how little) additional taste the finish provided.  It had the creaminess of salted caramel ice cream, the dark fruitiness of raisins and prunes and black cake and overall struck me as a deceptively simple, very solidly-constructed rum. The good stuff came from around the edges – you could sense some fennel and licorice and vanilla, and perhaps some nuttiness, red wine, indian spices and cloves, all dancing around that central pillar without taking center stage themselves. The finish didn’t try for anything new or exotic, but was content to sum up all that had gone before, and gave last notes of toffee, cumin, masala spice, caramel, dark fruits and brine, a nice sweet-salt amalgam, without any sharpness or bite on the exit at all.  Nice.

There has been occasional confusion among the stills in the past: e.g. the SBS Enmore 1988 which I am still convinced is a Versailles; but this is (in my opinion) neither a PM nor an Enmore and if there’s any further confusion it may derive from the marsala cask whose influence is faint, but enough to skew one’s mind away from a pure VSG kind of aroma.

And it’s good, very good indeed. Even Duncan Taylor with their 27 YO 1985 couldn’t better it, DDL’s own Rare Release wasn’t significantly better (I’ve heard the Mezan and Samaroli variations are excellent but have not tried them). But it seems to me that the VSG marque is really not meant to be a standalone except for purists and deep divers – it works much better as part of a blend, which is indeed what DDL uses it for in its aged releases, rarely issuing it on its own.  

Summing up then, with all those difficulties in trapping the best profile out of a notoriously temperamental still, it’s completely to its credit that 1423 managed to wring as much flavour and class out of a relatively young Versailles distillate aged in Europe as they did.  Perhaps their 1988 Enmore was in fact from that still also, but this one is no slouch on its own terms, has less ambiguities about its origins to boot and is an all ’round fine drink to have on the shelf.

(#749)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • The length of finish in marsala casks is unknown, if SBS responds to the query I sent, I’ll update.
  • Thanks to Nicolai Wachmann for the sample.
Apr 202020
 

It’s not often we see a multi-country or multi-style blend released by an independent bottler. The trend in IBs in recent years has more been towards the exacting individuality of a single cask from a single place (or a single still, in the case of the Guyanese rums). And that makes sense, especially for up-and-coming new micro-indies, who work with one barrel at a time, for economic reasons if nothing else.

That hasn’t stopped some companies from trying to push the envelope, of course, in the never ending Red Queen’s race to wring a few extra points of taste out of a barrel. Finishes or second maturations or fancy-cask ageing regimes have been the most common method and have grained broad (though not always uncritical) acceptance — that technique is practiced by many companies, old and new, large and small (like Renegade, or Foursquare). Blends from multiple stills, pot and column, are more common now than they used to be. And in some cases, blends have indeed been made by IBs, though quite specifically — multiple barrels from a single distillery. Velier, Rum Nation and others have all practiced this, quite successfully.  In a more restricted fashion, they follow the blending practices of the large international producers who keep their house marques stable for long periods and deal in hundreds or thousands of barrels.

Occasionally this tried and true recipe has been tampered with more fundamentally.  Navy rums from whoever have mixed up Guyanese, Jamaican and Trini pieces in differing proportions on an effort to cash in on the famed profile.  A few brave souls have messed around with different “style” blends, like mixing British and French island rums, or bringing Spanish-style rons to the party. The winning entry so far might be Ocean’s Distillery, which mixed nine different rums from across the Caribbean to produce their Atlantic Edition, for example.

1423, the Danish indie, has taken this concept a step further with their 2019 release of a Brazil / Barbados carnival — it comprised of 8- and 3-year old Foursquare rums (exact proportions unknown, both column still) to which was added an unaged cachaca from Pirassununga (they make the very popular “51” just outside Sao Paolo), and the whole thing left to age for two years in Moscatel wine casks for two years, before being squeezed out into 323 bottles at 52% ABV.

What we would expect from such an unusual pairing is something of an agricole-Bajan marriage. Those are devilishly tricky to bring off, because the light, clean, crisp cane juice taste of an unaged cachaca needs careful tending if it wants to balance itself off against the molasses profile of an aged column-still Foursquare. 

What surprised me when nosing it, is how little of the cachaca was noticeable at all – because it was new make spirit none of those peculiar Brazilian woods were part of the aromas, but neither was any sort of serious cane juice clarity. I smelled caramel, chocolates, a bit of light lemon zest, some ginger, and weak molasses.  When rested somewhat longer, there were dates, brine, some low-key fruity notes, brown sugar, even a touch of molasses. Were you to sniff it blind you would not be entirely sure what you were getting, to be honest. Not a Barbados rum, for sure.

All this did not entirely work for me, so I turned to the tasting, where tawny brown flavours mixed themselves up in abundant profusion.  The palate was not sweet or clear, so much, but like having a dessert meal of dates, nuts, nougat, and a strong latte doing a tango with a weak mocha.  The moscatel wine finish was problematic because here it become much more assertive, and provided a sweet red-grape and floral background that contradicted, rather than supported, the softer muskier flavours which had come before.  And as before, separating out the Barbados component from the Brazilian one ended up being an exercise in frustration, so I gave up and concentrated on the finish. This was relatively tame, medium long, mostly latte, breakfast spices, ginger, some pears, nothing really special.

When I asked why such an odd blend, Joshua Singh of 1423 remarked that they had such success with a Calvados aged rum in a previous advent calendar, that they thought they would try expanding the concept, and more were likely coming in the years ahead. Clearly 1423 were after a more adventurous taste-profile, and wanted to push things, go in interesting directions. Well…“interesting” this certainly was.  “Successful”, not so much, unfortunately. But for a company that has bottled as many good rums as they have, I think it might be worth following them down a dead-end rabbit hole once or twice, for the destination at least, if not the journey.

(#720)(79/100)