Sep 102020
 

It’s been many years since the first of those blended dark-coloured UK supermarket rums dating back decades crossed my pathback then I was writing for Liquorature, had not yet picked up the handle of “The ‘Caner”, and this site was years in the future. Yet even now I recall how much I enjoyed Robert Watson’s Demerara Rum, and I compared it positively with my private tippling indulgence of the day, the Canada-made Young’s Old Sam blendand remembered them both when writing about the Wood’s 100 and Cabot Tower rums.

All of these channelled some whiff of the old merchant bottlers and their blends, or tried for a Navy vibe (not always successfully, but ok…). Almost all of them were (and remain) Guyanese rums in some part or all. They may be copying Pusser’s or the British heritage of centuries past, they are cheap, drinkable, and enjoyable and have no pretensions to snobbery or age or off-the-chart complexity. They are a working man’s rums, all of them.

Watson’s Trawler rum, bottled at 40% is another sprig off that branch of British Caribbean blends, budding off the enormous tree of rums the empire produced. The company, according to Anne Watson (granddaughter of the founder), was formed in the late 1940s in Aberdeen, sold at some point to the Chivas Group, and nowadays the brand is owned by Ian McLeod distillers (home of Sheep Dip and Glengoyne whiskies). It remains a simple, easy to drink and affordable nip, a casual drink, and should be approached in precisely that spirit, not as something with pretensions of grandeur.

I say “simple” and “easy” but really should also add “rich”, which was one of the first words my rather startled notes reveal. And “deep.” I mean, it’s thick to smell, with layers of muscovado sugar, molasses, licorice, and bags of dark fruits. It actually feels more solid than 40% might imply, and the aromas pervade the room quickly (so watch out, all ye teens who filch this from your parents’ liquor cabinets). It also smells of stewed apples, aromatic tobacco, ripe cherries and a wedge or two of pineapple for bite. Sure the label says Barbados is in the mix, but for my money the nose on this thing is all Demerara.

And this is an impression I continue to get when tasting it. The soft flavours of brown sugar, caramel, bitter chocolate, toffee, molasses and anise are forward again (they really wake up a cola-based diet soda, let me tell you, and if you add a lime wedge it kicks). It tastes a bit sweet, and it develops the additional dark fruit notes such rums tend to showcaseblackberries, ripe dark cherries, prunes, plums, with a slight acidic line of citrus or pineapple rounding things out nicely. The finish is short and faint and wispyno gilding that lilymostly anise, molasses and caramel, with the fruits receding quite a bit. A solid, straightforward, simple drink, I would sayno airs, no frills, very firm, and very much at home in a mix.

It’s in that simplicity, I argue, lies much of Watson’s strength and enduring appeal“an honest and loyal rum” opined Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun in his review. It’s not terrible to drink neat, though few will ever bother to have it that way; and perhaps it’s a touch sharp and uncouth, as most such rums aged less than five years tend to be. It has those strong notes of anise and molasses and dark fruit, all good. I think, though, it’s like all the other rums mentioned abovea mixer’s fallback, a backbar staple, a bottom shelf dweller, something you drank, got a personal taste for and never abandoned entirely, something to always have in stock at home, “just in case.”

Such rums are are almost always and peculiarly associated with hazy, fond memories of times past, it seems to me. First jobs, first drunks, first kisses, first tastes of independence away from parentsfirst solo outings of the youth turning into the adult, perhaps. I may be romanticizing a drink overmuch, you could arguebut then, just read my first paragraphs again, then the last two, and ask yourself whether you don’t have at least one rum like that in your own collection. Because any rum that can make you think that way surely has a place there.

(#759)(82/100)

May 312020
 

Rumaniacs Review #116 | 0732

Dry Cane UK had several light white rums in its portfoliosome were 37.5% ABV, some were Barbados only, some were 40%, some Barbados and Guyanese blends. All were issued in the 1970s and maybe even as late as the 1980s, after which the trail goes cold and the rums dry up, so to speak. This bottle however, based on photos on auction sites, comes from the 1970s in the pre-metric era when the strength of 40% ABV was still referred to as 70º in the UK. It probably catered to the tourist, minibar, and hotel trade, as “inoffensive” and “unaggressive” seem to be the perfect words to describe it, and II don’t think it has ever made a splash of any kind.

As to who exactly Dry Cane (UK) Ltd were, let me save you the trouble of searchingthey can’t be found. The key to their existence is the address of 32 Sackville Street noted on the label, which details a house just off Piccadilly dating back to the 1730s. Nowadays it’s an office, but in the 1970s and before, a wine, spirits and cigar merchant called Saccone & Speed (established in 1839) had premises there, and had been since 1932 when they bought Hankey Bannister, a whisky maker, in that year. HB had been in business since 1757, moved to Sackville Street in 1915 and S&S just took over the premises. Anyway, Courage Breweries took over S&S in 1963 and handed over the spirits section of the UK trade to another subsidiary, Charles Kinlochwho were responsible for that excellent tipple, the Navy Neaters 95.5º we have looked at before (and really enjoyed).

My inference is therefore that Dry Cane was a financing vehicle or shell company or wholly owned subsidiary set up for a short time to limit the exposure of the parent company (or Kinloch), as it dabbled in being an independent bottlerand just as quickly retreated, for no further products were ever made so far as I can tell. But since S&S also acquired a Gibraltar drinks franchise in 1968 and gained the concession to operate a duty free shop at Gibraltar airport in 1973, I suspect this was the rationale behind creating the rums in the first place, through the reason for its cessation is unknown. Certainly by the time S&S moved out of Sackville Street in the 1980s and to Gibraltar (where they remain to this day as part of a large conglomerate), the rum was no longer on sale.

ColourWhite

Strength – 40% ABV

NoseLight and sweet; toblerone, almonds, a touch of pears. Its watery and weak, that’s the problem with it, but interestingly, aside from all the stuff we’re expecting (and which we get) I can smell lipstick and nail polish, which I’m sure you’ll admit is unusual. It’s not like we find this rum in salons of any kind.

PalateLight and inoffensive, completely bland. Pears, sugar water, some mint. You can taste a smidgen of alcohol behind all that, it’s just that there’s nothing really serious backing it up or going on.

FinishShort, dreary, light, simple. Some sugar again and something of a vanilla cake, but even that’s reaching a bit.

ThoughtsWell, one should not be surprised. It does tell you it’s “extra light”, right there on the label; and at this time in rum history, light blends were all the rage. It is not, I should note, possible to separate out the Barbadian from the Guyanese portions. I think the simple and uncomplex profile lends credence to my theory that it was something for the hospitality industry (duty free shops, hotel minibars, inflight or onboard boozing) and served best as a light mixing staple in bars that didn’t care much for top notch hooch, or didn’t know of any.

(74/100)

Dec 012019
 

Rumaniacs Review #106 | 0681

Mainbrace Rum is a Guyanese and Barbados blend released by Grants Wine and Spirits Merchants of London, one of many small emporia whose names are now forgotten, who indulged themselves by selling rums they had imported or bought from brokers, and blended themselves. It is unknown which still’s rums from Guyana were used, or which estate provided the rum from Barbados, though the balance of probability favours WIRR (my opinion). Ageing is completely unknowneither of the rum itself, or its constituents.

The Mainbrace name still exists in 2019, and the concept of joining two rums remains. The fancy new version is unlikely to be associated with Grants however, otherwise the heritage would have been trumpeted front and centre in the slick and one-page website that advertises the Guyana-Martinique blended rum nowin fact, the company that makes it is completely missing from the blurbs.

So what happened to Grants? And how old is the bottle really?

The “Guyana” spelling sets a lower post-independence date of 1966. Grants also released a Navy Rum and a Demerara Rumboth from Guyana, and both at “70º proof”. The address is written differently on their labels though, being “Grants of Saint James” on the Demerara label (Bury Lane is in the area of St. James, and a stone’s throw away from St. James’s Streetand BBR). Grants was still referring to itself as “of St. James” first (and until 1976 at least), but I think it’s the 40% ABV that’s key here, since that only came into effect in the mid 1980s in the UK.

Lastly, a new Grants of Saint James was incorporated in 1993 in Bristol, and when I followed that rabbit run, it led me to Matthew Clark plc, a subsidiary of C&C Group since 2018, and there I found that they had acquired Grants around 1990 and at that point it looks like the brand was retiredno references after that date exist. And so I’ll suggest this is a late 1980s rum.

ColourDark Amber

Strength – 40% ABV

NoseVery nice indeed, you can tell there’s a wooden still shedding its sawdust in here someplace. Cedar, sawdust, pencil shavings, plus fleshy fruits, licorice, tinned peaches, brown sugar and molasses. Thick and sweet but not overly so. That Guyanese component is kicking the Bajan portion big time in this profile, because the latter is well nigh unnoticeableexcept insofar as it tones down the aggressiveness of the wooden still (whichever one is represented here).

PalateDry and sharp. Then it dials itself down and goes simple. Molasses, coca-cola, fruit (raisins, apricots, cashews, prunes). Also the pencil shavings and woody notes remain, perhaps too much sothe promise of the nose is lost, and the disparity between nose and palate is glaring. There is some salt, caramel, brown sugar and anise here, but it’s all quite faint.

FinishShort, sweet, aromatic, thick, molasses, brown sugar, anise, caramel and vanilla ice cream. Nice, just too short and wispy.

ThoughtsI could smell this thing all day, because that part is outstandingbut the way is tasted and finished, not so much. I would not have pegged it as a blend, because the Guyanese part of it is so dominant. Overall, the 40% really makes the Mainbrace fall down for mehad it been dialled up ten proof points higher, it would have been outright exceptional.

(#681 | R0106)(82/100)


Historical Note

Anyone who’s got even a smattering of nautical lore has heard of the word “mainbrace”probably from some swearing, toothless, one-legged, one-eyed, parrot-wearing old salt (often a pirate) in some movie somewhere. It is a term from the days of sail, and refers to the rope used to steadyor bracethe (main)mast, stretching from the bow to the top of the mast and back to the deck. Theoretically, then, “splicing the mainbrace” would mean joining two pieces of mainbrace ropeexcept that it doesn’t. Although originally an order for one of the most difficult emergency repair jobs aboard a sailing ship, it became a euphemism for authorized celebratory drinking afterward, and then developed into the name of an order to grant the crew an extra ration of rum or grog.

Other

Hydrometer rates it 36.24% ABV, which works out to about 15 g/L additives of some kind.

Sep 162019
 

Going back to familiar rums we liked back in the day is something in the nature of revisiting the comfort food of our youth. The memories are strong and consoling, recalling a time of less snark, less cynicism and a whole lot more enjoyment. Surely such positively-associated, fondly-remembered rums deserve a place on the high-scorers list? The problem is, that’s all some of these arememories. The reality, informed by a more discerning palate and more varied experience, tends to deflate such candidates and show us both what we liked about them then, and maybe don’t so much, now.

Which brings me to the Zafra 21 Master Reserve which is almighty peculiar in that I tried it a lot in the early years, yet never took notes on itand almost nobody else in the current rum-reviewing landscape has either. Back then, I really liked Panamanian rums, before their overall placid sameness eroded my enjoyment and other, more exciting, forceful, original rums came to dominate my pantheon. Taste-wise, I always associated and linked the Zafraperhaps subliminallyto Diplomatico, Zaya and Zacapaand (to a lesser extent) to Dictador and Santa Teresa. They all share certain similaritiesa smooth velvety mouthfeel, sometimes solera production, with an oft-accompanying sweetness so characteristic of the typeand a kind of amazing longevity and popularity. I mean, just take a gander at the notes on Rum Ratingsalmost 80% of the 201 respondents give it a score of 8 or better. That’s far from the massive 1,472 ratings of the Zacapa 23 or the 1,721 of the Diplo Res Ex, but it shows something of the way popular opinion bends for these soft Latin-style rums.

Still, it’s been many years, so has anything except my hairline and chubbier corpus changed in any significant way here? For example, is it still made the same way? Does it still taste as easy-going and slickly-smooth as my recollections suggest?

Based on research I had done at the time, and again for this essay, I’d say it is. It remains a rum whose original blend dating back to 2009 when it was first released, has not appreciably changed. It’s a Panamanian column-still rum created by Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez who is better known for both his moniker “The Minister of Rum” (not to be taken seriously, since there is no such position), and a true 21 year old aged in bourbon barrelsthough trust issues such as those which afflict other aged Panamanians in these sadly suspicious times might make one take that with a pinch of salt. In yet another odd thing about the rum, nobody has ever done a hydrometer test on it and post-2010, good luck finding a reviewer who’s written anything (back then the reviews were mostly positive, but of course Johnny Drejer had yet to upend the rumiverse for us).

Yet for its adherents the Zafra 21 YO remains a popularif fadedstar, and people like it, and trying the gold-brown rum makes it clear why this is the case. At 40% it’s hardly going to blow your socks off, and when inhaled, there was nothing I wasn’t already expecting: caramel, creme brulee, dark fruit, leather, sawdust. There were subtler notes of cinnamon, vanilla, brown sugar and ginger. The problem with itfor me at any ratewas that it was just too faintit smelled watered-down, weak, with hardly any kind of serious enjoyment available for the nose, and complexity of any kind was just a vanished dream.

Nothing about the palate and mouthfeel greatly impressed me either, though I must admit, it was nice. Inoffensive might be the kindest word I can come up with to describe the faint driness, saltiness and sweetness, too vague to make a serious impression (and I was trying this first thing in the morning before a single rum greater than 45% had crossed my glass). Caramel, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon led off, with some additional brown sugar, treacle, molasses. Trying to elicit and identify the fruity notes was as pointless as sniffing an orchard shut down for the winter. It simply had no edge, and stayed light, warm and smooth, with a finish that was short, sweet and light, with light oak, vanilla, pancake syrup and some peanut butter. Big yawn. How 21 years of ageing in the tropics can impart so little character is the great weakness of the rum, and raises all kinds of flags to the wary.

Look, the Zafra 21 is a completely comfortable drink, like a worn pair of familiar slippers and if that lights up your wheelhouse, go for it, you won’t be disappointed. The thing is, that’s all you getit’s something of a one-trick pony, lacking in excitement or oomph of any kind. Thinking I was being unduly critical, I sampled nothing but 40% rums all day and then returned, but it still failed to impress. It’s one of those rums we enjoy for its unaggressive nature and decent profile, but sooner or later, when we have moved on and come back to it, we realize that the nose is anemic, the taste boring, the complexity a let down and the finish lacking any kind of fire. Then we sit back and wonder how we ever loved it so much at all.

(#657)(75/100)

May 252016
 

D3S_3878

A blue-water rum for the Navy men of yore.

This may be one of the best out-of-production independent bottlings from Ago that I’ve had. It’s heavy but no too much, tasty without excess, and flavourful without too many offbeat notes. That’s quite an achievement for a rum made in the 1970s, even more so when you understand that it’s actually a blend of Guyanese and Bajan rums, a marriage not always made in heaven.

I’ve trawled around the various blogs and fora and articles looking for references to it, but about all I can find is that (a) Jolly Jack Tars swear by it the way they do Woods or Watson’s and (b) it’s supposedly slang for undiluted Pusser’s navy rum. “Neaters” were the undiluted rum served to the petty officers onboard ship; ratings (or regular sailors if you will), were served with a measure of rum famously known as the tot, which was a quantity of diluted rum called grog, and if you don’t know the terms, well, brush up on your reading of rums.

The rum is bottled at 95.5º proof, and one has to be careful what that meansit’s not actually half that (47.75%) according to modern measures, but 54.5%. And that’s because originally 100 proof rum was actually 57% and so….well, you can do the math, and read a previous essay on the matter to get the gist of it. Beyond that, unfortunately, there’s very little information available on the rum itselfproportion of each country’s component, and which estate’s rums, for exampleso we’re left with rather more questions than answers. But never mind. Because all that aside, the rum is great.

D3S_3876

I have to admit, I enjoyed smelling the mahogany coloured rum. It’s warmth and richness were all the more surprising because I had expected little from a late ’60s / early ’70s product ensconced in a faded bottle with a cheap tinfoil cap, made by a defunct company. It started off with prunes, pepsi-cola (seriously!), molasses, brown sugar and black tea, and developed into cherries and purple-black grapescomplexity was not its forte, solidity was. The primary flavours, which stayed there throughout the tasting, were exclamation points of a singular, individualistic quality, with no attempt at subtlety or untoward development into uncharted realms. In the very simplicity and focus of its construction lay its strength. In short, it smelled damned good.

The heavy proofage showed its power when tasted neat. Neaters was a little thin (I guess the nose lied somewhat in its promise) but powerful, just this side of hot. No PM or Enmore still rum here, I thought, more likely Versailles, and I couldn’t begin to hazard where the Bajan component originated (WIRD is as good a guess as any). Still, what an impressive panoply of tastesflowers, cherries again, some brown sugar and molasses, coffee grounds, watermelon. The softness of the Bajan component ameliorated the fiercer Guyanese portions of the blend, in a way that I hadn’t seen before, and boy, did that ever work. It was smooth and rattling at the same time, like a mink-overlaid machine gun. With some water added, a background of fried banana bread emerged, plus more brown sugar and caramel, salt butter, maple syrup and prunes, all tied up in a neat bow by a finish that was just long enough and stayed with the notes described above without trying to break any new ground. So all in all, I thought it was a cool blast from the past.

D3S_3877A well made full proof rum should be intense but not savage. The point of the elevated strength is not to hurt you, damage your insides, or give you an opportunity to prove how you rock it in the ‘Hoodbut to provide crisper, clearer and stronger tastes that are more distinct (and delicious). When done right, such rums are excellent as both sippers or cocktail ingredients and therein lies much of their attraction for people across the drinking spectrum. Perhaps in the years to come, there’s the potential for rum makers to reach into the past and recreate such a remarkable profile once again. I can hope, I guess.

Company bio

Charles Kinloch & Son were wine and spirits merchants who were in existence for almost a hundred years when they joined the Courage Brewery group in 1957. That company had been around since 1757 and after many mergers and acquisitions was itself taken over by the Imperial Tobacco Group in 1972, eventually passing to the Foster’s Group in 1990. In 1995 Scottish & Newcastle bought Courage from Foster’s and it changed hands again in 2007 when Wells & Young’s Brewing company bought all the brands under that umbrella. By then Navy Neaters had long been out of production, Kinloch was all but forgotten, and the current holding company now is more involved in pubs and beers in the UK than in rums of any kind.

(#275 / 86/100)


Other notes

  • The rum had to have been made post-1966, given the spelling of “Guyana” on the label. Prior to that it would have been British Guiana. The metric system of ml and cl was introduced in 1980 in the UK, so this can reasonably be dated to the 1970s.
  • The age is unknown. I think it’s more than five years old, maybe as much as ten.