May 012022
 

It’s an old saw that time grants experience at the expense of youth, and indeed the entire review of the El Dorado 21 YO rum was an extended meditation on this theme.  But perhaps, had I wanted to illustrate the issue more fully, it would have been better to reflect on the descent of the Barbados 20th Anniversary XO in my estimation over the intervening years since I first tried and wrote about it in 2012.  Back then I awarded it what by contemporary standards is an unbelievable 88.5 points and my opening blurb naming it “one of the top sipping rums of my 2012 experience” can in no way be repeated a decade later without causing howls of disbelieving and derisive laughter from all and sundry, and a recent re-tasting of the rum shows why this is the case.


The rum’s nose opens with a light, medicinal sort of aroma reminiscent of quinine, except that it’s sweet and not sharp at all.  It develops into hints of honey, caramel, blancmange and soft ripe fruits – flambeed bananas, raisins, apples on the edge of spoiling – that combine into a softly congealed sweetness that hides the sharpness one suspects may be lurking beneath it all. There are marshmallows, coconut milk, sweet pastries with a surfeit of icing sugar, but little acid bite or edge that would balance this all off. It’s a heavy dull, sweet nose, covering the senses like a wet blanket.


The deepening disappointment I feel about the rum has nothing really to do with the War of the Barbados GI (as I’ve heard it described), or the choice of Plantation as a brand name (with all its subsequent negative connotations), or some of the questionable business practices of the company. Those matters have been discussed and dissected at length and will continue to raise blood pressures for years to come. It doesn’t even have anything to do with Ferrand’s careful marketing, problematic labelling and the cold-eyed sales strategy, none of which, after all, is personal – it’s just business. But all these dodgy issues aside, the fact remains that if ever there was a poster child for how tastes evolve and how what was once a real favourite can turn into a symbol of so much that no longer works, this rum is it.


On the palate, the initial sensations suggest all is well.  The tastes are nicely fruity: sugar cane sap, vanilla, coconuts shavings, white chocolate, giving one the impression of a liquid Ferrero Raffaello Confetteria (but not as good). And yet, all the fruits striding forward to centre stage are too ripe, here – yellow mangoes, peaches, apricots, cherries.  Thickly sweet tastes overwhelm the sharper rummy notes of caramel and light molasses with a barrage of marshmallows, candy floss and sugar water and blattens everything flat.


That profile as described might surprise many emergent rum fans from America in particular. After all, if one were to consult those three great repositories of crowdsourced rum opinion – Reddit’s /r/rum, Rum Ratings and Rum-X – the vast majority of the respondents just love this thing, as the high consolidated scores on those platforms attest (the last one is the lowest with a 79 point average from 414 ratings). 

And on the surface, there’s no question that it presses many of the right buttons: it’s been widely available (since 2007) at a slightly-higher-than-cheap price, has got that faux-ultra-premium bottle and gold etching; and it’s not part of the “standard backbar line” of the 3-Star, OFTD or Original Dark but one level higher (the “Signature Blends”). It remains bottled at 40% ABV and continues to be touted as being a blend of “quintessential extra-old rums from Barbados”. The company website provides disclosure: the various ages of the blend, the pot/column still makeup, the dual-ageing regimen, and of particular note is the 20g/L “dosage” element, which is considered to be the sugaring that makes it sweet (it’s not, really, but serves as a useful shorthand). So all that provision and declaration and presentation, and it’s all good, right?  


The finish is smothering, though light, and thankfully escapes the kiss-of-death word “cloying”. There’s stuff going on here and it’s delicious: caramel, honey, brown sugar, vanilla, raisins, honey and even some tamarind, but there’s not enough of it, and what is sensed remains covered over by a sort of placid languor, a dampening effect of the sweetening that provides a sweet and warm conclusion, just not a memorable one.


Not entirely. For all its current disclosure, Plantation sure wasn’t talking any more than anyone else, back in 2012 and it was only after 2014 that they started to come up to scratch (trust me, I was there).  That’s when they and many (but not all) others belatedly came out of the closet in a come-to-Jesus-moment and said “Yeah, but we always did it this way, it’s been a long standing practice, and it makes the rum better.”1.

What’s often not addressed in the denunciations of dosage is exactly why the sugaring was and remains considered such a bad thing, so here’s a recap.  A common refrain is that it destroys the purity of rum, the way spicing does, so one is not getting an original experience – and worse, one may be paying a higher price for a cheap rum cunningly dosed to make it seem more premium. Secondly there’s a lesser but no less important point of reasons related to fitness and health. But those matters aside, it really is because rum chums hate being lied to: the practice was never disclosed by any producer, while being fiercely denied the whole time. These and other social issues surrounding the parent company go a long way to explaining the despite the rum gets, though at end, much of this is window dressing, and it’s how the rum works (or not), and perhaps how it’s classified, that’s the key issue, since disclosure is now provided. Other than that, the matters above don’t — or shouldn’t — impact on any evaluation of the rum at all (though no doubt many will disagree with me on this one).

By that exacting, laser-focused and narrow-bore standard, then, all the markers suggest a rum with luscious potential…but one which doesn’t deliver. It is really too faint to be taken seriously and too sweet to showcase real complexity — although this is precisely what many new entrants to rum, weaned on Captain Morgan, cheap Bacardis, Kraken, Bumbu or Don Papa, consider smooth, sippable and top end. As with earlier El Dorado rums, nowadays for me the real question is not the dosage per se (after all, I can simply chose not to drop my coin on the rum) just why it continues, since it is really quite unnecessary. The rum is discernibly fine and can be better with less additions, or no sweetening at all; and I think that the state of the rumiverse generally is now sufficiently educated and aware – in a way we were not back in the early 2000s – for it to be re-released as an adulterated / spiced rum or reissued without the dosage as something more serious…rather than pandering the way it does and having the best of both worlds.

That might make me a purist…but I chose to believe it’s more that I don’t think that a rum that’s already intrinsically decent needs to have such embellishment, which we never asked for, no longer need and really no longer want. It cheapens the whole category and lessens any kind of serious consideration of the spirit as a whole

All that, and it really is just too damned sweet.

(#904)(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • My hydrometer tested this out at 35.07% ABV, which works out to just about 20g/L so the website is spot on. This is a reduction from the decanter version I had originally reviewed a decade ago.
  • In this retrospective, I have deliberately chosen not to go deeper into the theme of “separating the artist from the art”, as that is a subject requiring a much more nuanced and opiniated exploration. It is, however, on my radar, and not only for this company.
  • What exactly the “20th Anniversary” is, remains debated.  Some say it’s of Mr. Gabriel’s becoming a master blender, others have differering opinions.  It’s not the age of the rum, though, which is a blend of 8-15 YO distillates. It may of course be simply a number put there for marketing reasons, or something of significance to Maison Ferrand.
Nov 092021
 

This is a re-post of an addendum to the review of the Cadenhead Green Label Barbados 1986 18 YO Rum, which went up in August 2021.  At that time, although much had been written or quoted about the “Rockley still rums”, some of it was out of date and some was plain wrong.   So I gave a brief rundown of the matter in that review — but now, after a few months, I feel it should best be in a small post of its own that can be updated as new information becomes available (as it has), hence this revised and separated post with relevant addenda.


 

Photo (c) WIRD, from their FB Page

Many producers, commentators and reviewers, myself among them, have occasionally referred to the pot still distillate from WIRR/WIRD as a Rockley Still rum, and there are several who conflate this with “Blackrock”, which would include Cadenhead and Samaroli (but not 1423, who refer to their 2000 rum specifically as simply coming from a “pot still” at “West Indies” – Joshua Singh confirmed for me that it was indeed a “Blackrock style” rum). 

They key write-ups that currently exist online are the articles that are based on the research published by Cedrik (in 2018) and Nick Arvanitis (in 2015) — adding to it now with 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 in fact 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, and was also long non-functional (in a 2021 FB post, WIRD claims a quote by John Dore’s president David Pym, that it’s the oldest rum pot still in the world, which I imagine would miff both DDL and Rivers Royale). According to their researches, it was apparently made by James Shears and Sons, a British coppersmith, active from 1785 to 1891, and in use between 1936 (date of acquisition) to the 1960s. What this all means, though, 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 even earlier – the labels are all misleading, especially those of the much-vaunted year 1986. 

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.

The actual, long non-functional Rockley still has long been sitting on the WIRD premises as a sort of historical artifact – that’s the picture, above.  In November 2021, it was noted they were shipping it off to a coppersmith in France for inspection and potential refurbishment, with view to (possibly) making it useable again.

[This post will be updated as more information becomes available]


 

 

Nov 122017
 

#399

For decades Mount Gay was considered the premium rum of Barbados, and rested its claim to fame, among other things, on being the oldest rum distillery in the Caribbean (there are papers stating its antecedents going back to the mid 1600s).  Its flagship 1703 was the halo rum of the island and the XO was perhaps the standard mid-priced high-quality Barbados rum with which everyone was familiar – and certainly Sir Scrotimus’s hating on anyone who didn’t champion that rum didn’t hurt (after all, why else would he be such a dick about it if it wasn’t good, right?).  Back when I started writing this was an ongoing situation, and while many extolled the virtues of Doorly’s or Cockspur, Mount Gay was firmly in the driver’s seat as it related to defining the Barbados rum brand.

Now, nearly ten years later, it is Mount Gay which is playing catch up.  They, like DDL and many other national-level brands, misread the tea leaves and came late to the party initiated by the nimble, fast-moving independent bottlers – aged, cask strength bottlings, fancy finishes, single barrel or millesime expressions…all this must have caught them so off guard that it wasn’t until 2016 or so that an effective response could be mounted with the XO Cask Strength (a very good rum, by the way).  

Be that as it may, even for those coming to the rum scene now with so many other options on the table (Foursquare being the largest and best from the island), one cannot simply ignore the XO.  It remains widely available, very affordable, and pretty much the same as it used to be — the 8-15 year old blend has undergone alterations over the years, sure, but the taste remains recognizably the same; the bottle is now the sleek ovoid one introduced some years ago; and in the Caribbean and the Americas it is remains a perennial best seller.  Many new writers and emergent rum junkies cut their baby rum teeth on it, even if in Europe most indulgently pass it by in favour of more exciting rums to which they have access.  And while its star may be fading in the heat of increased competition, this in no way diminishes what it is – a key rum of Barbados, setting the standard for a long time, almost defining the style for an entire region.  All current rums from there to some extent live in its (waning) shadow.

Is it still that good, or, was it ever as amazing as the wet-eyed hot zealots claimed?  I didn’t think so back in the day (as I’ve noted, my preferences don’t always run to indeterminate Bajans, really), but as this series grew shape in my mind and the mental list of candidates grew, I knew it was due for a re-taste and a re-evaluation, and Robin Wynne of that fine Toronto bar Miss Things stepped forward to provide a hefty sample a few months ago when I came sniffing around (and as an irrelevant aside, you could do worse than drop into the joint, because it’s a great bar to hang out in and Robin loves to help out with an interesting pour for the rabid).

Much of my seven year old mental tasting memory of the 43% rum remained the same: the nose began with a smoky sort of butterscotch and toffee flavour, quite soft and easygoing, underlain with a gentle current of coconut shavings and bananas.  Its softness was key to its appeal, I thought, and as it stood there and opened up, some brine, avocado, salty caramel, dates and nutmeg crept out. It was just complex enough to enthuse without losing any balance or being too sharp.

Palate-wise it was also reasonably well put together. Seven years ago I thought it somewhat sharp, but by now, after imbibing cask strength juggernauts by the caseload, I’m a more accustomed to heftier beefcakes and here, then, the XO faltered somewhat (which is a factor of my palate and its current preferences, not yours).  Much of the nose returned for an encore: vanilla, nutmeg and a delicious caramel smokiness, more nougat, toffee, and some salt crackers.  Bananas, papayas and some cinnamon made themselves known, with a little nuttiness and coffee grounds and molasses providing some depth, all leading to a short, warm and (unfortunately) rather bland finish that merely repeated the hits without presenting anything particularly new. It lacks something of an edge of aggressiveness and clarity of expression which might make it rank higher, but in fairness, its overall quality really can’t be faulted too much.

Anyway, so there we have it.  A perfectly well-made, well-assembled, mid-tier rum with really good price-to-value ratio for anyone who wants a very decent rum to add to the shelf, good for either mixing or some sallies into the sipping world. That I remain only mildly enthusiastic about it is an issue for me to deal with, not you, though I honestly don’t know if we can expect off-the-scale magnificence from a Key Rum, since then it would likely fall foul of the Caner’s “3-A” Rule: it must be Available, Affordable, and Accessible.  The Mount Gay XO not only ticks each of those boxes but has something else that has never really lost its lustre in all the years – a reputation for consistent quality and worldwide brand awareness.  Those attributes combined with its pleasing taste profile may well be priceless, and give it a solid place in the pantheon, as one of those rums which any aficionado should try at least once in his long journey of rum appreciation.

(83/100)


Other Notes

If it wasn’t so pricey and hard to lay paws on (3000 bottles issued), I would have said the Mount Gay Cask Strength 63% should have dibs on this entry. That’s an outright exceptional Bajan rum.

Jul 292013
 

D3S_7028

Good all round Bajan rum from Berry Brothers & Rudd, that’s worth its price and is a good note on which to close your day.

What a relief it was to try this well-aged rum, and to find that its Fijian 8 year old cousin which I had tried some weeks back was indeed something of an iconoclastic aberration. There’s not much I could say about a line of rums of which I have only ever sampled three, and it would have been wrong to extrapolate based on such a small sample size. So it’s a happy matter that I can confirm the Bajan 13 year old is an excellent buy all round.

One of the pleasant things about independent bottlers who make a “series” is the consistency of presentation – think Renegade and their frosted glass bottles, or Plantation and the straw netting. It saves the reviewer a whole bunch of time not to have to assess a presentational score (I know the principle has its detractors, no need to mention it). So, tall bottle, well fitting plastic cork, simplistic labelling utterly consistent with the other BBR rums I’ve written about (the Fiji and the Port Mourant 1975).

The lead in on the nose was caramel and molasses, muted and light, yet with some heat as well (the rum is 46% after all). Vanilla undertones had their place before segueing into subtler aromas of pineapple and nicely ripened yellow gooseberries. A flirt of citrus (ripe orange peel) coiled around all of this, well balanced with preceding elements, and then the whole was wrapped up in emerging perfumes of delicate white flowers and a barely perceptible wine background. Quite intriguing, all in all.

I must comment on the excellent mouthfeel of this thirteen year old, honey-coloured rum: it’s medium bodied yet quite smooth for all that, with some heat imparted by the strength, but not so much as to become peppery or overly spicy. There’s a luxurious creaminess in the way this runs across the tongue, a certain chewiness that was very appealing. The rum was neither too sweet nor too salty (while possessing elements of both), and what I came away with was vanilla, honey, white chocolate, light coconut shavings and bananas, all held together by a softer citrus hint than the nose had promised. And at the tail end the odd sweetness of a strawberry lollipop, fading into a long clean finish redolent of chopped fruits and some saltiness. Really quite a decent product – I enjoyed it a lot.

D3S_7032

Where does the distillate originate? I wish I knew for sure. I almost want to say it comes from Mount Gay, but somewhere in that profile I’m more leaning towards R. L. Seale’s FourSquare (and indeed, the Masters of Malt website says that’s its home), and also, from its richness, that it’s a pot still distillate. The ageing in white oak barrels was well handled, in my opinion, because the resultant is in very good balance overall, and it’s a sipper’s drink rather than one to mix.

Writing this review as my life changes yet again, I am assailed by a sense of melancholy. This review will be one of the last for a while (the country I’m moving to is dry in all senses of the word). Perhaps it is fitting that one of the final rums I’ve tried and written up tasting notes for, is also one of the more pleasing ones. Not the best, of course (is there any such thing?) but certainly a rum to have and to enjoy at any point on the arc of your existence. Even if, or perhaps especially, as with me, you won’t be trying any more for a while.

(#175. 85/100)