Dec 012022
 

Every year, especially as the Madeira rumfest comes around, there is a flurry of posts and interest about rums from the islands of that Portuguese Autonomous Region (it’s one of two such regions – the other is the Azores). The better known rums originating there are from the distilleries of O Reizinho, Engenho Novo (which makes William Hinton rums) and Engenhos do Norte, and these three rub shoulders with yet others like Abel Fernandes, Vinha Alta and Engenhos da Calheta. Not surprisingly, there are occasional independent releases as well, such as those from Rum Nation and That Boutique-y Rum Co.

One of the reasons Madeira excites interest at all is because they are one of the few countries covered by the its own GI (GI Rum Agricola da Madeira), and so can legally and properly – at least within the EU – use the term agricole when referring to their cane juice rums (they make mostly rums from juice).  Yet, paradoxically, they remain relatively niche products which have only recently – which is to say, within the last decade or so – started to make bigger waves in the rum world, and few writers have spent much time on their products: WhiskyFun has done the most, with eight and there’s a scattering of others from Single Cask Rum, Rum BarrelThe Fat Rum Pirate and myself.

Today we’ll begin a few Madeiran reviews to raise that visibility a bit more, with some rums from what is perhaps the largest of the distilleries, Engenhos do Norte: although google translate will tell you that the Portuguese word engenho means “ingenuity” it really translates into “sugar mill”, which is what most of these companies started out as. Engenhos do Norte was formed by a merger of some fifty mills in either 1927 or 1928, depending on the source — they were forced to come together to remain economically viable (see “Other notes”, below). Their best known brands are the 970 series (introduced in 1970, not sure if that’s a coincidence), Branca and Larano, though of late they’ve added more. 

One of the more recent additions is the Rum Agrícola Beneficiado 980 — that “980” is an odd shorthand for the year it was introduced, which is to say, 1980 — which is a fresh cane juice rum, 40.5% ABV, column-still made and left to sleep: the final blended rum is from rums aged 3, 6 and 21 years, and although it is not mentioned what kind of barrels are used, I have one reference that it is French Oak and have sent an inquiry down to Engenhos to ask for more details. The proportions of the aged components are unstated, but attention should be paid to the word “beneficiado” (beneficiary) – what this means is that a little cane honey has been added round out the profile, which may be why a hydrometer test, or even straight tastings, tend to comment on a slight sweetness to the profile (it is this which the words on the back label “+ mel de cana e caramelo” mean).

This sweetness is not, however, immediately noticeable when nosing the rum; initially the scent is one of cardboard, brine, light olives and dates, combined with damp tea leaves and aromatic tobacco. Pralines and a caramel macchiato, cloves and milk – what an odd nose, the more so because it presents very little more commonly accepted agricole elements. There’s a bit of yoghurt mixed up with Dr. Pepper, ginger ale, a kind of sharp and bubbly soda pop, and behind it all, that sense of an overripe orange beginning to go off.

Similarly disconcerting notes appear when tasting it: it’s a bit rough, a bit dry, with rubber, acetones, and brine combining uneasily with honey, vanilla, caramel, toffee and badly made fudge. You can probably pick out additional hints of sweet vanilla ice cream, some tartness of guavas, a touch of citrus – not much more. The finish completes the tasting by being short, mild and inoffensive, presenting a few last caramel and molasses notes set off with Dr. Pepper, licorice, raisins and some oranges. It’s okay, but very different from any agricole you’ve likely tried before, which is both good and bad, depending on your preferences.

Overall, I think the Beneficiado’s weakness is that the freshness of a good grassy, herbal, fruity offset just isn’t there…and if it is, it’s too mild to make a dent. It’s like tasting flavoured fine sandpaper, really, and at just a hair over forty percent strength, it’s too thin to present with any serious assertiveness. Does it work on its own level, with what it actually is (as opposed to what I was expecting, or wished for)? To some extent, yes — it just doesn’t go far enough to capitalise on its few strengths, and therefore what we get is a stolid, rather dour rum, one that lacks those sparkling, light aspects that would balance it better, and make it an agricole worth seeking out.  

(#955)(79/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Historical Notes

  • It’s long been known that sugar cane migrated from Indonesia to India to the Mediterranean, and was being cultivated on Madeira by the first half of the 15th century.  From there it jumped to the New World, but sugar remained a profitable cash crop in Madeira (the main island, which gave its name to the group) and the primary engine of the island’s economy for two hundred years. 
  • For centuries, aside from their famed fortified wines, white rum was all Madeira was known for, and just about all of it was made from small family-owned sugar cane plots, consumed locally as ponchas, and as often considered to be moonshine as a legitimate product. Because of the small size of the island a landed aristocracy based on the system of large plantations never took off there. 
  • That said, for all its profitability and importance, the sugar industry has been on the edge of a crisis for most of its history: competition from Brazil in the 16th century, sugar cane disease in the 17th, leading to alternative (and competitor) crops like grapes (which led to a much more profitable wine industry) in the 17th and 18th centuries, a resurgence of fungal disease in the late 19th century; the restriction of available land for cane farming in the 20th century (especially in the 1920s and 1930s) … all these made it difficult to have a commercial sugar industry there – no wonder the mills tried to band together.  By the 1980s sugar cane farming was almost eliminated as a commercial cash crop, yet even though sugar continued to decline in prices on the world markets — due to cheaper sources of supply in India, Brazil and elsewhere, as well as the growing health consciousness of first world consumers —  it stubbornly refused to die.  It was kept alive on Madeira partially due to the ongoing production of rum, which in the 21st century started to become a much more important revenue generator than sugar had been, and led to the resurgence of the island as a quality rum producer in its own right.
  • In the early 2010s, the Portuguese government started to incentivize the production of aged rum on Madeira.  Several producers started laying down barrels to age, one of which was Engenhos do Norte – however the lack of an export market made them sell occasional barrels, or bottle for third parties.  That’s how, for example, we got the Boutique-y Madeira rum from 2019.
  • The distillery is located in the north of Madeira in the small town of Porto da Cruz, and considered part of Portugal (even though geographically it’s closer to Africa). 
  • The rum is derived from juice deriving from fresh cane run through a crusher powered by a steam engine, fermented for about 4-5 days, passed through a columnar barbet still and then left to age in French oak barrels. 
Nov 232022
 

Rumaniacs Review #141 | 0953

For a distillery whose founder had a not inconsiderable impact on craft distilling in the state of New York, it’s a shame they stuck with a product that has no end of local competition and is at best reviewed with occasional praise, mostly indifference and sometimes outright disdain: whiskey.  And yet they produced a rum or two at one time; and one of them, this rum, while no great shakes, suggested that they had potential and to spare had they stuck with it.  Maybe.

This is a pot still, blackstrap molasses based rum (for what it’s worth, blackstrap molasses is the kind that has the most sugar already removed from it and is characterized by an almost bitter taste and thick consistency; it’s also the cheapest). The age is unknown but I think it’s around 2-3 years old, and my perhaps unfounded supposition is that after William Grant injected some capital into the company in 2010 (see historical details below), they wanted to add to the portfolio, and made this 1,000-bottle rum in 2012 to commemorate the Roggen brothers who were Huegenot dry-goods merchants and spirits dealers in the area back in the day. There was also a Hudson River Rum at 46% made at around the same time, and these two products are the only rums I think the company ever made.

Colour – Amber

Strength – 40% ABV

Nose – You can still taste some molasses, brown sugar and licorice here, also some sweet fruit which remains, faint, dull and relatively unadventurous. Cherries, orange peel, caramel, some vanilla. It’s paint by the numbers time. Not bad…just not exciting.

Palate – Vanilla, some apples and raisins, a little licorice and bitterness, and a twang of brine. Brown sugar, caramel, molasses, unsweetened chocolate, and that’s stretching. Essentially, there’s not much going on here.  It’s not precisely rough or uninviting, yet the sharpness and youth makes it a drink to have with some care.

Finish – Hardly anything to report on. Vanilla, some very light fruit, toffee, licorice. That’s about it.

Thoughts – Roggen’s, for all its positive marketing and enthusiastic blurbs on various online stores where it remains to be found (which by itself should tell you something since it was made in 2012), is a rum stuck in time, the sort popular ten years or more ago: punchy if you have it first thing in the morning, but hardly new and or different. It’s a drowsy sort of everyman’s hooch that you could care less about while drinking it, and forget a half hour after it’s done: not because it’s vile, or even poorly made — I have to acknowledge the competency of the distillery in not making an unmitigated disaster — but simply that while the rum is not entirely boring, it’s neither more nor less than just a lot of nothing much in particular.  

(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • My thanks to Jazz and Indy Anand of Skylark Spirits, at whose house in London I pilfered the bottle and did the review notes earlier this year.  This is not a brand in their distribution portfolio, but something I think Jazz picked up on one of his trips to the States.
  • The historical society of New Paltz was involved in making the rum, which I think is some kind of commemorative or promotional bottling, hence the limited outturn of 1,000 bottles.

Historical background

So, the company story, then, if this intrigues you. Tuthilltown Distillery was founded in the upstate-NY township colloquially known by that name (after a Mr. Tuthill who founded a grist mill there in 1788), but is formally called Gardiner. It was itself established by fleeing Huguenots who settled in the area in the mid-1600s and also established a small town slightly to the north called New Paltz.  It was a thriving town by the mid-1700s, and it is useful to know that a pair of Swiss brothers – Francoise Pierre Roggen and Johann Jacob Roggen – emigrated there in 1749 and became merchants of some note.

In the current century, Ralph Erenzo, a retired professional rock climber, acquired a property of 36 acres there in 2001, intending to build a B&B, but this never came to fruition because locals kept denying the construction permits. However, Ralph discovered an obscure 2000 law on the books that allowed local micro-distilling at a greatly reduced licensing rate ($1,500, from a previous sum of $65,000) — so long as production was less than 35,000 gallons a year. And so in 2003, with an engineer called Brian Lee (who had come to him looking to use his facilities to make artisanal flour) he shifted to booze, and founded Tuthilltown Spirits by converting one of the mill granaries to a micro-distillery. It was the first new distillery built in New York since Prohibition. Two and a half years later, they produced their first batches of vodka from scraps collected at a local apple slicing plant, and had plans for whiskies. 1

As all good Americans micros do, the distillery went all-in on any distillable booze they could: eau de vie, brandy, absinthe, infusions, vodka, rye, bourbon, gin, and, of course, rum, you know the drill.  But it was whiskey that commanded their attention and much like Amrut did, knowing the quality of their product, they did small bar tastings in Paris (yes, Paris) and got a distribution deal with la Maison du Whiskey,  aside from whatever small sales they had in-state. This in turn brought them to the attention of William Grant & Sons out of Scotland, who bought the brand (but not the product) in 2010 and injected some much-appreciated capital into the company to improve infrastructure, marketing and distribution; in 2017 they bought the entire thing.  At this point they dispensed with all the other spirits and switched entirely to the branded Hudson Whiskey and its variations. And this is why the website for Tuthilltown is dead, while Hudson Whiskey’s is alive and well and why no reference on the latter site will even mention that they once were a smorgasbord of all things intoxicating, including rums.


Opinion

The fact that it’s topical newsmagazines that provide the background to the distillery, the name, the history and the rum’s titling — I searched through quite a few archival documents and websites to find the details used above —  explains something of my frustration with distilleries who have no sense of their own history or respect for what they have done in years gone by. Granted Tuthilltown is not rum focused, but surely a listing all the products they have made in their existence should be easily available somewhere. This indifference to their product development and past roster, even if discontinued is simply bewildering.  I mean, they made it, they labelled it, they sold it, it’s part of who they are…why pretend it doesn’t exist? 

I hasten to add that this is not an exclusively American phenomenon – God knows there are examples galore across the geographical spectrum, lie that Cadenhead VSG I almost thought was a ghost last year. Still, in contrast, take this counter-example: the Danish indie Rom Deluxe has a webpage devoted to their current releases, but they also have an archival section on their website where they list all their various older expressions made in years gone by.  Labels, tech sheets, the lot. Given I can still find stuff from their earliest years knocking about on store shelves or collector’s basements, such material is a godsend when asking the inevitable question “what is this thing?” Quite a different mindset than so many others.

I’ve made a point of bringing up the issue of loss of current records (or having no records at all) for years and it’s the sort of subtle thing nobody really worries about, or notices…until they ask a question and realize that nobody ever wrote anything down, or recorded it and the info so readily available before, now only resides in derelict and near-inaccessible company archives, or on old web pages no longer “live”, or on some long-forgotten FB post. Rum databases like Rum Ratings and Rum-X help, for sure, but I think if companies themselves took some ownership of their releases and made sure the details were always available, then that would just help everyone out when they see an obscure bottle on a dusty shelf somewhere. Because without it, we’ll be floundering around ten years down the road — even more than now — if steps are not taken now.


 

Nov 212022
 

Rumaniacs Review #140 | 0952

Captain Morgan, of course, requires no introduction, yet its history presented us with some interestingly convoluted pathways (R-139); it showed that although in its modern 2020s iteration it’s a throwaway piece of cheap spiced dreck, made with indifference and sold wholesale with what I can only conclude is contempt for its core audience, the fact is that once, not too far back, it had aspirations to being something quite a bit more interesting.  More genuine. Almost a real rum.

We can date this one more accurately because the 70º on the label had been replaced with 40% ABV which went into effect in 1980, and since 1984 the “Original Spiced” came on the market so the blends were gradually (if not instantly) discontinued. This may be one of the last of the true multi-country blends, and in this case it looks like they were drawing down from all the casks they had in storage from Barbados, Jamaica, and Guyana.

Colour – Dark amber

Strength – 40%

Nose – Sweet stewed plums, cherries in syrup,  Licorice, salt caramel, molasses, wood, pencils, tree bark and sap.  A few fleshy fruits roaming around in the background, bananas, very ripe oranges, but too faint to make much of an impression.

Palate – Thick, sweet caramel and brown sugar dominate, with molasses, and a strong latte.  Some apples, raisins, syrup and a few spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.  It’s interesting and a far cry from the sort of thin pickings today’s spiced rums have become. 

Finish – Short, to be expected. Mostly caramel, coffee, chocolate, licorice and some sawdust, with the slightest citrus hint cutting through.

Thoughts – This is why I like these old rums, and, even more, old rums that are the progenitors of today’s editions. No matter what the economic reasons that the rums of yesteryear were made the way they were, it’s obvious that even at the low strength at which they were issued back then, they were worlds apart, and better, than the modern variants with their crude sweetening and spicing: in comparison, the new “rums” are just ersatz products, pale imitations, and, in fine, dirty deeds done dirt cheap. 

(78/100)


Other notes

  • The label states that it’s made by an outfit called Captain Morgan Rum Distillers in London (Dacre Street SW1H 0DR), which, as far as I can ascertain, is the distribution arm in the UK at that time, never mind that they didn’t have a distillery there. The street address is long closed and has been redeveloped into flats, a small hotel, and office space.
  • Seagram’s and Vivendi merged in June 2000, with the key point being the joining of their media empires…the spirits business was secondary and Edgar Bronfman noted at the time it would be sold off anyway. A year later the wine and spirits division of Seagram’s was on the block and three conglomerates were in the running to take over the lucrative brand portfolio: an alliance of Brown-Forman and Bacardi, the latter of which at the time was having cash flow issues and was heavily in debt; Allied Domecq; and a partnership of Pernod-Ricard and Diageo. Diageo-PR won the tussle, split the portfolio and Diageo walked away with (among other brands) Captain Morgan, though they had to give up Malibu brand on anti-competitive grounds to do so. 
  • Distillation — aside from that derived from Long Pond, and other countries’ stocks — was primarily from Puerto Rico. Around 2011, Captain Morgan was induced by massive tax breaks and financial concessions, to build a distillery and make its rums in the US Virgin Islands. Nowadays this is where Captain Morgan brands are made.
  • Originally, as noted, Captain Morgan was a blend from Jamaica and other islands. Hugh Barty-King and Anton Massel, in their 1983 book “Rum Yesterday and Today” (p.190), wrote that  “There were always 65,000 forty-gallon barrels of rum at the Seagram UK processing plant at Speke, Liverpool, and the storage centre at Huyton. Their supplies came mainly from Guyana and Jamaica, but also in small amounts from Barbados, Hawaii, Mexico and Puerto Rico. The rum was diluted and made up into various blends, put into bottles on which labels were put with such names as ‘Captain Morgan’ (the most in demand), ‘Woods’, ‘Myers’, ‘Old Charlie’ and ‘Tropicana’.”

 

Oct 112022
 

“The Zacapa is here to stay” Wes Burgin said rather glumly, in his recent Rumcast interview, reluctantly acknowledging that if ever there was an indictment of purported rum-based meritocracy where only the good stuff rises to the top, it’s the ubiquity, fame and unkillability of this one Guatemalan rum, long an example trotted out in the seething maelstrom of arguments about what a rum is or should be. There’s a lot wrong with it and a lot right with it and it has equal numbers of foes and friends, but whatever one’s opinion is, everyone has an opinion. Nobody is indifferent, not with this rum. Add to that that it is not entirely a bad drink — come on, let’s face it, there are worse ones out there — and remains one that is globally available, reasonably affordable and always approachable, and you have another controversial Key Rums in the series: the Ron Zacapa Centenario Sistema Solera 23 Gran Reserva.

It is, like the A.H. Riise, Diplomaticos, Dictadors, Dead Man’s Fingers, Mocambo, Bumbu, Don Papa, Zaya, Kraken, El Dorado and Tanduay and so many others, one of the nexus points of the rumworld, a lightning rod almost inevitably leading to “discussions” and heated outpourings of equal parts love and hate any time someone puts up a post about it (as recently as August 2022, this was still going on, on reddit).  And all for the same two reasons – it’s been added to with sugar or caramel or vanillins or more, and the ageing “statement” is deceptive given it’s a solera style rum (therefore the number on the label is at best a shuck-and-jive dance around the truth). It is therefore the hill that anyone who despises adulterated, faux-aged rums is prepared to die on and indeed, in the US there’s a lawsuit filed against Diageo about this very matter.  

What the rum does is point out the sheer marketing power of the big conglomerates.  No matter how many people hate on this thing or decry its failures, the Zacapa 23 sells like crazy, and there are very few parts of the world I’ve ambled through (and that’s a lot) that don’t sell it. Diageo has used its marketing power to place a rum that is considered substandard (by today’s standards) in everyone’s sightline, and showed that intrinsic quality is near-meaningless…a refutation of Randism if I ever heard it.  You don’t think of Guatemala when you hear or see the Zacapa –  you just think “23”, and thank God it isn’t “42”.


It wasn’t always this way. A decade ago it was a well-regarded rum with a good reputation that people really enjoyed, won boatloads of prizes, and aside from the ever-vigilant Sir Scrotimus (he kept us safe from nefarious commie rum agents making the world unsafe for democratic drinkers), not many negative comments were ever assigned to it.  Moreover, even now you will find the Zacapa 23 in just about all shops, airports and mom-and-pop stores around the world … which is perhaps a sadder commentary on — or necessary correction to — writers’ purported influence.  

Two events created the backlash against Zacapa (and other sweetened rums) that persists to this day: one was the purchase of a 50% controlling interest of ILG, the parent company of Guatemala’s Zacapa/Botran, by Diageo in 2011, with all the negative connotations and dark suspicions people bring to any multinational buying out a local star boy. The other was the 2014 sugar analyses pioneered and published by Johnny Drejer, which lent full weight to the mistrust people had for Diageo and the changes they had supposedly made to Zacapa (though frankly, this is debatable – some evidence suggests they simply continued existing practises, and actually did us a solid by noting the solera method in the “age statement” on the label). This lack of trust and confidence is what has dogged Zacapa right down to the present, and the whole business about the large number “23” on the label is brought up any time fake age statements are discussed.

Nowadays, the Zacapa 23 is more than just a name for one rum, but the title of the whole brand line: a series of rums stretching from the original Gran Reserva to the new ‘Heavenly Cask’ series like La Doma and El Alma, all bearing the moniker Zacapa 23. Much like Bacardi premiumising the “Facundo” line with several expressions or St Lucia Distillers doing the same with the Chairman’s Reserve series, Zacapa 23 is now lo longer just one but several. It’s the original that still drives sales, though, and although its basic are well known by now, it’s worth repeating them here. The rum is distilled on column stills, from cane juice “honey” (or vesou) fermented with a yeast apparently deriving from pineapples and then aged in ex-bourbon and sherry barrels using what is called a solera, but is in reality probably a complex blend. The result is a blend of rums with ages of 6-23 years, with no proportions ever given.

I’ve reviewed the rum twice now, most recently an older version from pre 2010s (2018, 75 points), and once a newer one, but longer ago (2012, unscored, but positive). To write this review I took a currently available version, and it really comes down to filling my glass again to revisit it — and try, with a 2022 sensibility, to come to grips with its peculiar longevity and staying power. Because, why does it still exist and persist?  What makes it so popular?  Is it always and only the sugar? Or is it just canny marketing aimed at sheeple who blindly take what’s on offer? 


Taking a bottle out for a spin makes some of this clear, dispels some notions, confirms others.  The nose, for example, is a real pleasant sniff, and even as a seasoned reviewer trying scores of rums at every opportunity, I can’t find much to fault: it starts off with butterscotch, vanilla, coffee, toffee, cocoa, and almonds in a perfectly balanced combination.  It’s a sumptuous nose, and let’s not pretend otherwise – that’s what it is. A light sting of alcohol, nothing serious, won’t scare any new premium-rum samplers off. Some light florals and fruits – pears, cherries, apricots an a lighter still touch of pineapples. A sort of light sweetness pervades the entire aromatic profile and if it seems somewhat simple at times, focusing on just a few key elements, well, that’s because it is, and it does. That’s the key to both its durability and appeal.

The nose allows you to see what’s under the hood: or, rather, what you should in theory be tasting, when it comes to that stage.  But this is where things turn south because much of what is sensed when smelling it gets tuned down, like an equaliser with too few high-frequency notes and the base ramped too high. The rum feels perfectly pleasant on the tongue: reasonably firm, with some solid salt caramel, vanilla and almond notes, brine, butter, cream cheese.  There are sweet caramel bon bons, a bit of fleshy fruits, all held back. More of that toffee and cafe au lait, and enough sweet to be pleasant. If there is some edge it’s in the vague hint of leather and smoke, pleasant, and all too brief, which also describes the finish: this is short, wispy and not assertive enough to make a statement, leaving you mostly with memories of almonds, truffles, toffee and caramel ice cream.


The whole thing is not so much vague as dampened down and the subtler, crisper, more flavourful notes are restrained, as if a soft feather blanket had been placed over them – a characteristic of rums that have additives of any quantity. Since this hides the complexity of what would otherwise be a much dryer and more interesting rum, it presents as something simple and easy and very drinkable (which is both a good and a bad thing – good for newbies who are experimenting in this range, bad for more experienced fans who want more). As such, it’s easy to see why it is such a perennial best seller.  Like a Windows computer versus a Mac back in the day, it’s good enough.  It’s tasty, no effort really needed, a mite challenging but not enough to cause headaches, and overall, a completely serviceable rum.

So, realistically, the rum is not entirely a fail and within its limits is a tastier-than-expected little hot-weather drink. Even after all these years, it remains a rum most can afford, most can find when they want to buy a “premium”, and it’s easy as hell to get involved with.  For a great many consumers it remains the key intro-premium rum, one that gets them past the dreck of Captain Morgan and Bumbu and Krakens they were raised on, and into slightly better rum that will one day lead to…well, even better ones, we can hope, though many simply stop there and go no further. It is a constant reference point for the commentariat and the literature, and many people cut their rum teeth on it. For those not looking to up their game and who like their softer Spanish-style rums and soleras, it’s also the stopping point, a rum they stick with them through thick and thin —  many regard with eternal fondness and never quite abandon it for their whole drinking lives. 

That may not make it a Great Rum. But it trundles along very nicely as one which is key to understanding rums.  Because if I were to say what makes the Zacapa something better than it is made to be, it’s that it shows the art of what’s possible for a low end premium. A cheap ten dollar hooch will rarely supersede its origins, and a top-end high-proof thirty-year-old will never get any better (or cheaper) – neither will exceed expectations. The Zacapa sits in the grey area between those two extremes: it excites curiosity, and makes people venture further out into the darker waters of deeper, stronger, wilder, more complex rums.  And then, not often, not always, but sometimes, it leads, for some intrigued and interested folk, to all the great rums that lie beyond the borders of the map, where all one knows is that here there be tygers. Seen from that perspective, I contend that the Zacapa 23 should be seriously regarded, not only as a gateway rum, but as a true Key Rum as well.

(#942)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • I am indebted to Dawn Davies of The Whisky Exchange in London who spotted me the bottle from which this review is drawn. I owe her a dinner next time I’m in town.
  • Pre-acquisition by Diageo in 2011, the entire Zacapa 23 bottle was enclosed in a straw wrapping. Now only a belt of the material remains; Rum Nation was inspired by — and copied — the wrapping style for their own Millonario 15
  • Because of the nature of the article (and its length), it will come as little surprise that I did a lot of reading around on this one. Below is a non-exhaustive list of the major ones.

Reviewers’ links

  • Tatu Kaarlas’s 2008 review on Refined Vices, probably the first ever written.
  • Rum Ratings of course had to be mentioned.  It’s got over 2,000 ratings stretching back a decade, most of which are 7/10 or better, though most of the older ones are the better ones, while newer ones skew lower
  • Flaviar has an undated marketing plug that shows what promotional material looks like.  It is, of course, epically useless.
  • In 2017 The Rum Howler rated it 91.5
  • In an earlier review when he was just getting started, The Fat Rum Pirate scored it three stars in 2014.
  • Jason’s Scotch Reviews gave a good but unscored review in 2020
  • Reinhard Pohorec on the Bespokeunit lifestyle website which bills itself as a “Guide to a dapper life” gave a fulsome review of the rum in 2021.
  • The UK rum blog Rumtastic, in an unscored 2016 essay, commented that it was “really too sweet” and noted its unchallenging nature
  • Serge rather savagely dissed and dismissed it with a contemptuous 50 points in 2016 after having given 75 points to pretty much the same one in 2014
  • MasterQuill 2015 a rather meh 80 points
  • Henrik at Rum Corner liked it at the beginning of his journey, not so much by the end.  His 2016 review remains the best ever written on that rum, and his observations are on point even today
  • Dave Russell rated it 8.5 points in a 2017 review and in a head to head with the “Anos” version stated there was no discernible difference pre- and post- Diageo.  That might sound fine until you realise that whatever the modern variation has, the older version must therefore have had too.
  • Cyril of DuRhum gave it an indifferent unscored review himself, but it’s his 2015 sugar analysis that made it clear what was going on.
  • Rum Robin on the solera method but not a review.
  • Tony Sachs wrote the most recent review of the rum in 2022, and one of the better roundups of the issues surrounding it.

Magazine articles

 

Sep 262022
 

The Havana Club 3 Year Old Cuban rum (the one distributed by Pernod Ricard) is a delicately light cream shaded spirit, and one of those workhorses of the bartending circuit, much loved and often referenced by drinkers and mixologists from all points of the compass. That it’s primarily utilised in making mojitos or daiquiris and other such cocktails in no way dampens the enthusiasm of its adherents, with only occasional grumbles about access (by Americans) and how it may or may not compare against the Selvarey or the Veritas (Probitas) or any Jamaican of one’s acquaintance.  

It’s been around almost forever, and if it was more versatile might even have made Key Rum status. However, as various comments here and here make clear, the consensus of opinion is that it’s best as a mixing rum (when not dismissed as being “only a mixing rum”).  It bypasses the single barrel high proof ethos of today and remains very much was it always was, a blended rum that’s molasses based, column-still distilled, aged for three years in white oak, released at 40% ABV, and all done in Cuba. I gather it sells well and has remained a staple of cocktail books and bars both private and commercial.

When nosed it’s clear why the opinions are what they are. It smells quite creamy, but does have some claws. Aromas of vanilla, coconut shavings, almonds, and leather are there, and it’s the developing tart fruit – red currants, tangerine rind, unripe apples – and citrus that are its signature and which everyone comments on. I don’t find the citrus particularly heavy or overwhelming, just enough to make themselves felt.  Overall, the nose is pretty much what I would expect – light, crisp and a bit weak.

The palate is somewhat more interesting, though it does start off as sharp and astringent as a Brit’s sense of humour. It feels a bit thin and the flavours need effort to tease out (that’s the 40% speaking). The citrus is more pronounced here, as are a few bitter notes of coffee grounds, tannins and toasted chestnuts. These are balanced off by vanilla, a lemon meringue pie and an oddly evocative wet hint of steaming air after a rain in the summer. At all times it is light and very crisp and could even have been an agricole were it not for the lack of the grassy herbals.  And a comment should be spared for a delicate, short, dry and surprisingly smooth finish, even if it doesn’t bring much to the table beyond those notes already described above.

Clearing away the dishes, then, the HC 3 YO has its strengths and plays to those and stays firmly within its wheelhouse: ambition is not its thing and the rum doesn’t seek to change the world. Personally, having sipped it solo and then had it in a mix (I’m not a cocktail making swami by any stretch, so that duty is Mrs. Caner’s, because she really is), I think that while individually the elements of nose, palate and finish seem to be at odds and growl at each other here and there, in aggregate they cohere quite nicely. By that standard, it’s really quite a decent piece of work, one that deserves its “bartender classic” status….though to repeat, a neat pour is not really its forte, or my own preference in this instance.

(#938)(78/100)


Other notes

  • My thanks to Daniel G, a co-worker in my part of the world (which I can’t specifically identify for obvious reasons), who spotted me a generous sample from a bottle he had.
Aug 152022
 

Diplomatico is one of those brands that seesaws wildly in the estimation of drinkers, has its determined detractors and equally unmoveable fans, and the opinion one gets for any of the rums in the range is very much dependent on [a] the stance said drinker has with respect to the purported dosage, [b] where they are (North Americans seem to like it more than Europeans do) or [c] what other drink they came to rum from (whisky drinkers will walk away, brandy and cognac fanciers will stick around). All agree though, that more transparency is needed with respect to any additions and until recently this was absent from the company website.

This rum originated somewhere around the mid-teens, I think, when the C-suite at Diplo took a look at the larger rumiverse and decided that their old stalwarts of the Traditional Range – the Anejo, the Plana, the Reserva Exclusiva – and even the upscale Ambassador line, all needed a facelift and some beefing up. New blends like the Mantuano and Seleccion de Familia were issued, the annual single vintage rum was spruced up (with the 2007 12 YO being the first that seems to have a real age statement on it), and in an effort to capitalise on the variety of their rums and their experience, they created a trio of rums that drilled right down to the nuts and bolts of their rums’ basic components. In the French Islands they did this with parcellaires; Diplomatico — like DDL and St. Lucia Distillers — did it with their stills and named them the Distillery Collection. The three rums in this Collection began to become widely available in early 2019.

Whether these new types of rum from an old house succeeded in raising awareness, boosting the casa’s street cred and increasing their sales is debatable. The rums were interesting if all you were drinking was other Diplos…not quite so much when rated by a more international, educated audience as had  been developing since the turn of the century. Yet they were interesting, and after reviewing No.1 (“Kettle Still”) and No. 2 (“Barbet Still”), it left the No.3 “Pot Still” to consider — but at the time of release it was not available for me, then COVID struck, the world shut down, and it wasn’t until I spent a most enjoyable few hours in Dirk Becker’s shop Rum Depot in Berlin in December 2021, that I finally got around to trying it.

Like the others it was a blended 47% ABV, molasses-based rum, aged in ex-bourbon casks for around eight years, and I thought it was quite good, all in all. The nose started right off with a sort of brown, deep, sweet scent of caramel, to which was added light sandalwood and leather. A whiff of aromatic tobacco and florals crept in, and it displayed a nice rounded, easy smell, with complexity that seemed absent at first, but which simply took time to build and emerge.  Although it nosed somewhat softly, after some minutes the whole was redeemed by the crisp clarity of light florals, orange peel and some nicely ripe white fruits like pears and green apples. 

Tasting it continued most of the experiences already nosed. It tasted dark and leathery, with licorice, dried wood chips and a pleasant background of light flowers that balanced well. There was a slight lemony tang to it, the sort of thing sometimes gotten from freshly-washed laundry that had been dried in the hot sun, and behind that was raisins, pears, a hint of pineapple and strawberries, a quick flash of brininess, and the smooth taste of salt caramel ice cream. The finish was the weak point – fairly short even for the proof, and it mostly repeated what I had tried before.  Some licorice, vanilla, citrus, leather, aromatic tobacco, none of which could quite elevate it beyond what had already come…but at least there was something there to notice, and it didn’t sink by being some milquetoast whiff of nothing in particular.

The rum is, to my mind, the best of the three Distillery Collection rums, and while it doesn’t feel stuffed with flavour all the time, it has a staying power and a gradually unfolding sense of complexity that is not to be dismissed out of hand. I think that one’s final perspective of the rum will depend on whether the persistent style which Diplo’s roneros could not seem to shake or get past — that lightness, odd for a pot still rum — is to one’s taste.  

This was also what made the others less, for me: the No. 1 was intriguing if ultimately lacklustre, and as far as I was concerned the No.2 was nothing we hadn’t already seen from others, done better and costing less. The No. 3 Pot Still is better than both…but only by a little. It’s not that any of them were bad in comparison with Diplomatico’s own branded stable – it’s more that they were not as good as the competition they were trying to take on. Only time will tell whether they feel confident enough to keep on releasing more of these – but speaking for myself, I sure hope they do, because these are rums that have enormous potential and will please a lot of people even as they are.

(#930)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Each of the three rums in the Collection has an outturn of 5,000 bottles.  I don’t know if that was all they ever issued or whether this is an annual production run (I suspect it was batch produced and no more was made).
  • As far as I am aware, nothing added here.
  • The picture of the still on the label suggests a double retort pot still. It apparently came from Scotland, was once used to make whisky, and was commissioned at Diplomatico’s facilities in 1959.
  • “Botucal” is the brand name of Diplomatico in Germany.
  • Heartfelt thanks to Dirk Becker and his attentive, knowledgeable and enthusiastic band of stalwarts in Rum Depot, who treated me with patience and courtesy the entire time I was there. Vielen Dank, Leute.
  • Alex’s review over at the Rum Barrel is worth reading, as well as Geoff’s review at the Memphis Rum Club.
Aug 082022
 

Long time readers of this site will know something of my movement away from softer Spanish/Latin style rons over the years. There’s nothing particularly deficient about many of them (only some), and I have a soft spot for quite a few.  It’s just that I find most quite unadventurous, occasionally boring, sometimes added-to —  though of course they all have their adherents and supporters who buy them and keep the distilleries humming. At most, one can cast aspersions on their escutcheon with matters having to do with disclosure and/or adulteration, something which companies like La Hechicera and Dictador out of Colombia, Malecon from Panama and Mombacho out of Nicaragua (there are several others) have often been the target of. That does not mean, however, that they’re all bad, and it would be a mistake to tar them all with the same brush of indifference and despite.

These thoughts occurred to me because I was forced to take an honest look at what these too-often mild-as-milkwater rums could do when done well, when I tried one that Bristol Spirits — one of the more venerable of the modern independents — had sourced from Venezuela.  The exact distillery it comes from is something of a mystery (more on that below); and it is a column still, molasses-based spirit, aged 12 years in refill American oak (ex-bourbon and in both Venezuela and Europe), un-chill-filtered, unadded-to and released at a robust 47% ABV…which I suggest is somewhat uninspiring and which Bristol calls “just about right”.

They may be on to something there, because frankly, there is little to find fault with.  The rum is crisp and tangy, with aromas jumping all over the map: initially quite fruity with scents of lemon meringue pie, pineapples, unsweetened yoghurt, bananas, it switches over after a few minutes and presents light caramel, vanilla, flowers and is light enough to present almost as an aged agricole-style rhum. It’s apparent simplicity belies an under-the-hood level of complexity I must confess to not expecting (which may be why John Barrett, Bristol’s owner, was smirking the entire time as I tried it).

Nose is one thing, though: and many rums of real olfactory promise falter and die on the palate.  At 47% this is reasonable sipping territory, which is to say, it won’t try to defenestrate my tongue.  Here, it must be conceded that the rum succeeds very nicely.  It has a good mouthfeel; it’s tangy and a little sour, yet with a solid underpinning of caramel and chocolate oranges. Ripe Thai mangoes and peaches are in evidence, some light fruit, and here again, it feels like a firm and slightly deeper agricole rhum, musky, a bit tannic, slightly sweet.  An interesting amalgam, all summed up by a shortish finish that showed off a last flirt of salt caramel ice cream with fruit bits sprinkled on top, a touch of light brine, some flowers, and it is over way too quickly.

So let’s talk a bit about Bristol, one of the stalwarts of the indie bottling ecosystem, a small company run by one man, John Barrett (he has recently brought in a young man, his son-in-law, to help run things). Bristol was established as far back as the 1990s, at the dawn of the modern rum renaissance, and if you really are curious, the Boys of Rumcast did a great interview with the man just a few weeks ago. Bristol Spirits, along with Renegade and Rum Nation, were the first indies I came into contact with that showed me the directions rum could go, and one of my best memories of the early rums I tried and wrote about, was the terrific PM 1980 25 year old that almost converted a dedicated single-malt lover to rums on the spot.  Bristol Spirits has faded from popular acclaim somewhat over the last five years or so, as new, young and aggressive little indies from all over Europe claimed market share and eyeballs of social media, yet they never went away, and their bright and simple labels have been a fixture at many a rumfest where I skulked around, and I’ve never actually had a bad one from the stable.

Bristol buys barrels like everyone else, trades them and exchanges them and sources stuff here and there, does some tinkering, blending and ageing of their own, holds on to stock they like, bottles stuff they think is ready. With respect to this Venezuelan rum, in my opinion, they hit the sweet spot, because it’s very ready. 

This is a rum that defies expectations (especially mine), and is one of the best Latin/Spanish heritage-style rums of my recent memory – in fact, it forces a reconsideration of what these distilleries can do, if juice like this becomes the norm rather than the exception it currently is. The strength is near-perfect, the notes shimmer in simple harmonies that speak of subtle and elegant arrangements which you can almost, but not quite, sense. There’s not a whole lot of oomph going on — consider it a serene chamber piece, not a symphony — and the level of complexity exhibited by a Hampden, for example, is not in evidence. Yet somehow it goes beyond all that, and at the end, it works, it tastes great and you enjoy it, and isn’t that what counts?

(#928)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


The Distillery

The producer noted on the label is stated as being “Destileria Sofa” which seems straightforward enough, except that you’ll never find a distillery of that name in Venezuela (and believe me, I tried).  Rum-X and various European shops make mention of it – always with respect to this very same rum and no other – and some remark it’s located in the NE of the country.  But that’s all you get.  There’s no mention of the distillery on google, reddit, wikidot or any other resource I can consult…except for one, and so, your intrepid soused reviewer got on to Simon over at Bristol Spirits: he’s the guy who helps me out when Mr. Barrett doesn’t pick up the phone. 

Long story short, it’s a distillery that makes a certain well regarded rum possibly named after a 16th century Carmelite nun, which has an association with Bacardi that prohibits it from using its own name on independent bottlings such as Bristol’s. So something similar to the “secret distillery” which Compagnie des Indes sometimes includes on its label, or how “A Jamaican Distillery” is used on occasion to avoid complications with the useage of a name like Worthy Park or what have you.  Most of the time you’re given enough to work with, as I was, but I’ll respect the confidentiality in print and not come right out with the name.

All that aside, even though permission was given to use the name of Destileria Sofa on the label as the source for the rum, I still don’t actually know what that represents or means or where the name comes from, so if anyone knows any better, or can provide information from Venezuela, feel free to send it along and I’ll add it to these notes.


Other Notes

  • After this review went up, Mads Heitmann, who runs the Danish webshop Romhatten, commented that the rum was tested at 10-11g/L sugar which he later confirmed with Bristol Spirits. If this is so (I have an outstanding email to them) it won’t change the review, which is locked, but it would explain something of the slight voluptuousness and sweetness the rum displayed, even if not particularly unpleasant in any way.
Aug 042022
 

It’s been a few years since I last looked at Beenleigh’s Inner Circle rum from Australia, and while that iteration from around 2004 was the same strength as this one — 57.2% — there are several differences between it and the current version.  For one, it is no longer named “Overproof” but “Navy Strength” (incorrectly, in my view, but maybe that’s just semantics), and uses molasses from three separate sugarcane regions along the east coast of Australia 1 to produce its own distillate from Beenleigh’s column and pot stills, while back in the day it was (supposedly) pot still distillate from Fiji. Too, the older rum was aged just about two years, and the new one sports five – both slept in ex bourbon casks – and is now topped off with a smidgen of Beenleigh’s “best ten year old”. The green dot on the label, a heritage design item reflecting the strength of the rum, remains, which is nice.

All of this is fairly basic, and for those who want something deeper, I include more historical background after the review, including what the coloured dots are all about. For the moment, it should simply be noted that I had not been particularly impressed with the earlier Inner Circle Rum, commenting rather acidly that it was “as vague as a politician’s statements,” and was surprisingly mild for something at such a strength, with faint tastes that left me rather indifferent.

No such issues afflict this one, which asserts a formidable nose that reeks nicely of dust, sawdust, some acetones and a smorgasbord of fruits from all over the map. The aromas range from a mild raspberry yoghurt, squishy yellow mangoes, dark and ripe cherries, to a dusty and somewhat woody background dusted over with pine needles, some tannins, toffee and vanilla. Plus there’s ice cream, pears, coca cola and even some freshly-ground coffee beans, all of which is reasonably distinct, front-facing and not at all meek and mild.

The taste is thick, fruity and nicely aromatic, and just a bit spicy – for a five year old it is therefore entering sipping territory if one judges solely on mouthfeel and stays there if it’s taste that’s your criterion. First off there’s the thick herbal-sweet aroma of damp tobacco leaves, fresh coffee and very strong black tea into which an inordinate amount of condensed milk has been dunked (this used to be one of my favourite “food-drinks” as a student, and I remember it well).  The fruits are also well represented, musky and sweet fleshy ones – pears, sapodilla, kiwi fruit, overripe bananas, and apricots.  With some effort one can make out blueberries, vanilla and some chocolate, not much more, and a citrus tang is oddly absent throughout. The finish is quite pleasant and gives a soft send off, redolent of some brine, dark fruits, raisins, vanilla, cinnamon and a mild touch of wet sawdust.

Overall, it’s a pretty good five year old. While not a complete success as a sipping rum, it remains more than good enough for Government work: its minor drawbacks are the relative simplicity, some tastes that don’t entirely gel, and the occasionally rough heat which has not entirely been sanded down by the oak (it succeeds better with a touch of water to tone it down).  Beenleigh has its own flagship rums and this is an old brand name with some heritage and history that came through a convoluted road to their distillery, so it may succeed better in Australia, where memories and tradition ensure a certain familiarity with the product, than in other countries which don’t know anything about it.

Other than that, there’s no real reason for avoiding the rum if a slightly different taste profile is what you’re looking for to wake up your latest cocktail, you don’t want to spend a huge amount of money to get something interesting, and are curious about an aged rum from Down Under.  This one fits the bill nicely on all of those.

(#927)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Inner Circle’s website notes it is a pot still rum (“small batch pot distillation”) but other sites and Steve McGarry (lately of Beenleigh), contend it’s a pot-column blend that copied the original process that was historically also a mix of column and pot still distillates.
  • Limited outturn of 2700 bottles.
  • As always, my appreciation to Mrs. and Mrs. Rum for the 2021 advent calendar, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there will be another in 2022.

Historical Background

Inner Circle was originally made by a now-defunct company called the Colonial Sugar Refinery, which had a long history pretty much unknown outside its country of origin. Formed in 1855, CSR established refineries in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji by the 1890s, and in 1901 they opened a distillery in Sidney, using pot stills to make rums from Fijian and Australian cane. The Inner Circle brand name, which first appeared in 1950, came from the limited high-quality rums they made for distribution to the favoured elite of the company and its clients, and around 1970 it got a broad commercial release in Australia: at that time it was bottled in three strengths, which in turn were identified by coloured dots – Underproof (38-40%, the red dot), Overproof (57% or so, green dot) and 33% Overproof (73-75%, black dot).

The distillery was sold off in 1986 to Bundaberg and the brand disappeared, though CSR remains as a company involved in manufacturing of building products, no longer rums. The Inner Circle brand was resurrected in 2000 by Stuart Gilbert (the Australian Olympic yachtsman) in concert with Malcolm Campbell, one of the distillers of the company who had the original recipe, and I believe they did so with the financial backing of the Australian VOK group, which also took over the Beenleigh Rum Distillery in 2003. The rums was un-retired and is now a Beenleigh product, thought it seems to be kept as a separate brand and line of rums from their regular releases, judging from their individual and separate websites.


 

Jun 092022
 

Rumaniacs Review #135 | 0914

Disregard – actually, try to forget – the label for a moment, so that the word “Navy” doesn’t send you into conniption fits. It’s an advertising thing, and exists on that label for no other reason than to draw a line between the seafaring traditions of yore, and your mind — as if somehow, by buying and drinking the rum, you are instantly transported to a noble nautical heritage stretching back centuries, with sea spray in your face, snapping sails overhead, and you line up at four bells to get your tot. I guess that’s the rum part – sodomy and the lash go mercifully unexamined (though one does wonder when some courageous Navy-rum-maker wannabe will eventually go the whole tot on the label, so to speak…but I digress).

The rum is of course not a true Navy rum. That’s just marketing garbage; it’s a standard strength blend of unspecified Caribbean components which one website generously referred to originating from “the best sugar cane” and “from the Caribbean islands of Guyana” – the very thing that always soothes my suspicions about a brand and gives me the warm and fuzzies.  It’s apparently made by a company called “The Four Bells Fine Navy Rum Co.” out of Glasgow which is almost untraceable. Consider it a contract-made third-party blend, no longer made, probably hailing from the island of Guyana. You can trust that. The label says so.

Colour – Dark gold

Strength – 40%

Nose – All the snark out of the way, I must confess it wasn’t half bad. It’s a dark brown rum, actually quite aromatic. There was molasses, wood, tannins, licorice and brine with a heavy, almost sulky attitude to the nose. Wet sawdust, caramel and honey, well-polished leather boots and some emergent lumber notes that kept getting stronger. Nothing new, nothing too complicated, lots of old faithfuls – this is almost like low-level spirituous comfort food.

Palate – Again, good: warm and simple, Molasses, polished leather, dark cherries, raisins, licorice, a smidgen of sharper tannins and some sour citrus rind. By now I kind of had a bead on the thing, so was not surprised to taste additional notes of bitter chocolate, coffee grounds, toffee and molasses, clearly young, somewhat sharp. It reminded me of cheap Canadian mixers like Young’s Old Sam (a perennial favourite of mine).  

Finish – Short, which is to be expected at 40%, a bit sweet and yet also dry, with closing points of pungent licorice, molasses and a very sweet caramel macchiato. 

Thoughts – Bells is a rum that doesn’t need to be stronger, because for all its evident youth, it’s also heavy enough and has sufficient flavours to be tried neat. It is, in that respect, completely straightforward, and clearly not looking to break boundaries and redefine genres. It’s fine as it is, within its limits, but those limits are further restricted by the lack of information provided about the rum itself, and the company that makes it. Like it or not, few taste blind, and people do tend to rate a rum based on what they know about it…or not. Here we know nothing about the rum, the blend, or the maker – and if we can’t trust the information that is provided, if only on the label, then it makes us trust what we’re tasting less, much less, and there aren’t many who would buy a rum with that kind of cloud hanging over it. 

(#914)(80/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • For what it’s worth, I think the blend is mostly PM out of Guyana. If there’s anything else in there, it’s a very small percentage. The back label notes it as being pot still, but who knows?
  • In British Navy tradition, the strikes of a ship’s bell were not aligned with the hour. Instead, there were eight bells, one for each half-hour of a four-hour watch – four bells is therefore halfway through any one of the Middle, Morning, Forenoon, Afternoon, Dog or First watches (good that someone knew this, because naming it “eight bells” would have been unfortunate, being used as it was to denote end of watch” or a funeral). 
  • There are other Four Bells Rums — “Four Bells” as a title does not appear to have any trademark or copyright or owned brand associated with it: several firms have made use of the title — such as one I reviewed for the Rumaniacs (from the 1970s), or another that went up for auction released by Whyte & McKay
  • There remains no current references to Four Bells as a company, or the rum outside of auction sites and a few obscure online shops. It may just be a one off brand experiment into rum dating back many decades. Rum-X comments that its production ceased in the late 1970s / early 1980s.
  • A stronger 50% version of the rum remarks that W&M have the Four Bells Fine Navy Rum Company as a subsidiary but that can’t be verified. If it is a subsidiary (they have the same address), Four Bells is not mentioned anywhere on its website or company profile, and W&M has so many other minor subsidiaries under its corporate umbrella (59) that it’s unfindable. Even the CEO’s linked in profile doesn’t tell you anything about Four Bells. White & MacKay itself does deal in spirits, and is currently a subsidiary of the Philippines-based Emperador Group which is part of Alliance Global Inc a diversified F&B/Hospitality/Real Estate conglomerate.
  • I’ve sampled this out to some friends over the years, and quite a few really liked it. It’s not a waste of money, if you find it on some dusty store shelf at a cheap price and enjoy a Guyanese style of rum. I’d rate it on par with the ED-8 or -12, though maybe less complex than either.
May 092022
 

One of the downsides of working and living where I do is that the latest newest releases pass by and can’t be tried in time to catch the initial wave of advertising and consumer interest. Sometimes whole years pass by between the much ballyhooed arrival of some interesting new product and my ability to write the review…by which time not only has the interest flagged but also the supply, and a whole new raft of fresh rums are hogging the limelight. This is particularly thorny with respect to the very limited issues of independent bottlers who do single cask releases, but fortunately is not quite as bad with primary producers who keep their flagships stable for long periods of time.

A well-known company which falls in the middle of the divide between extremely small batches of single barrel rums (of the indies) and much more plentiful globally-available supplies (of the major producers) is Foursquare, specifically their Exceptional Casks Series. These are regular releases of many thousands of bottles…though they are finite, even if some are more plentiful than others. Fortunately they are widely dispersed geographically which is why one does see a small but steady trickle of posts on social media about somebody picking up this or that bottle at what remains a reasonable price for the age and supply.

One of these is the “Premise” which was released along side the “Dominus” and the “2005” in 2018 and had a substantial 30,000-bottle outturn 1 – it was ECS Mark VIII, one of the “red line label” low-alcohol sub-series of the line which include the Port Cask, Zinfadel, Detente, Sagacity, Indelible, etc. I touched on it briefly as one of the eight bottlings which made me see the series as a Key Rum of the World, an opinion which has only solidified over the years. Recently I was able to try it again, and it’s interesting how the summary notes made three and a half years ago remain relevant…there really isn’t much I would change, except perhaps to fill in and expand the details.

It’s a pot/column still aged blend, made up of three years’ ageing in ex-Bourbon casks and seven in sherry casks, released at 46%, and let me tell you, this is one case where the lower strength really is an advantage, because there is a bright sprightliness of a warm spring morning about the nose, redolent of flowers and a basket of freshly picked fruit. There’s the spiciness of cumin, vanilla and masala, mixed up with apricot and green apples (which somehow works real well) plus grapes, olives and a nice brie. A bit salty, a bit tannic, with a touch of the sour bite of gooseberries.

Tastewise, the low ABV remains solid and presents as quite warm and spicy, with a clear fruity backbone upon which are hung a smorgasbord of cooking spices like rosemary, dill and cumin. Also brine, some strong green tea, to which are added some faintly lemony and red wine notes from the sherry, merging well into vanilla, caramel and white nutty chocolate and then smoothly leading into a delicately dry finish, with closing notes of toffee, vanilla, apricots and spices. 

“Straight sipper?” asked Ralfy (probably rhetorically). “Absolutely!” And I agree. It’s a great little warm-weather sundowner, and if it treads ground with which we have become familiar, well, remember what it was like four years ago when blended rums this good from major houses in limited release were the exception, not the rule. If I had to chose, I would rate it ahead of the Zin and the Port Cask, but not as exciting and fresh as the superlative Criterion 2(which admittedly, had more sock in its jock, but still…). However, this is semantics: I enjoyed it, and moreover, everyone has their own favourites from the lineup, so mine will be different from yours

Now, it’s long been bruited around that Foursquare, more and better than most, makes rums that particularly appeal whiskey anoraks – the dry, woodsy, fruity core profile makes it a good rum to entice such drinkers (particularly those into Bourbon) away from the Dark Side…and given the popularity of their rums in the US, surely there’s some truth to that. The overused term “gateway rum” is one I don’t like much, but here is a rum that actually does deserve the title. Like others in the red line ECS series, the “Premise” has a very large outturn that allows most who want it to get it; that combines an approachable strength (for the cautious) with an accessible price (for the impecunious); for newcomers it’s soft enough not to intimidate and for aficionados it’s complex enough to appreciate. There’s something for everyone here, all in a single bottle and believe me, that is no small feat for any one rum to achieve.

(#906)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

A “premise” as a noun, is A statement or proposition from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion, or as a verb, means to base an argument, theory, or undertaking on. The evocative name of the rum was not chosen by accident: back in 2017 when the rum was being finalized, Richard Seale was making a specific point, that a rum could be additive free and unmessed-with and still be a good rum. This was the place he started from, the basis of his work, and although even as late as 2018 it was mostly the UK bloggers who were singing the company’s praises, the conclusion that the Mark VIII left behind was surely a ringing endorsement of the core premise: that confected rums need not be held up as ideals to emulate or be seen as ends in themselves, when so much quality could be achieved by adding nothing at all.

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.
Apr 032022
 

Of all the rums that St Lucia Distillers makes, perhaps the best known and most widely drunk is the line of Chairman’s Reserve. It was already well regarded when I started this gig in 2009, and it remains a workhorse brand of the company today, more than twenty years after its debut. The Bounty brand is below it, the Admiral Rodney was once above it (in perception if nothing else) but the Chairman’s Reserve always held a cachet all its own, even when it was represented by just that single expression that started the cart rolling.

Made as a blend of pot and column still distillate with around five years ageing, the Chairman’s Reserve aims at a middling sort of profile that eschews the extremes of either light Latin ease or hard-edged funky uniqueness.  The rum was created in the late 1990s when Laurie Bernard (the Chairman himself) felt it was time to create a premium rum that would showcase what the island had to offer – more than just bulk rum shipped elsewhere, more than merely the local or tourist trade island rums like Bounty and Denros…something a bit more upscale. I don’t doubt that some inspiration was taken from the enormous success of the 1992 release of the El Dorado 15 year old and Mount Gay’s own experiments with premiumization, but what was created was so good and remained so popular, that even two decades in, the rum has not lost its lustre.

Which is not to say the rum stayed the same, or that others did not come along that changed the marketing. In 2011 the Chairman’s Reserve “Forgotten Casks” rum was released; the Admiral Rodney and the annually reformulated “1931” limited editions were trotted out at roughly the same time, all aimed at taking the distillery brand more upscale. This process continued — perhaps even accelerated — in 2017 when SLD was acquired by GBH (Spiribam) and a game of musical rums began. They expanded and switched around the Admiral Rodney rums, from being a single rum positioned between the Bounty and the Chairman’s Reserve, to several older and named “ship” expressions at the top end. The yearly 1931 series was discontinued entirely (No. 6 was the last one), the profile was locked into a single stable “1931” (it’s got about 9% cane juice, I’ve heard), and was moved to the top of the premium line with the words “Chairman’s Reserve” added to the labelling.

Now, Chairman’s Reserve – that one single special rum they had started with – had to that point been seen as the premium face of SLD, the recognized face of the brand’s exports, right back from the time of its introduction in 1999.  However, when the portfolio was being rationalised, it was likely felt that it was a little too staid, maybe no longer top-tier…and so it was decided to expand it, a lot. The Reserve became a whole range in its own right, a series varying in both quality and price – when last I checked there were nine separate rums bearing the imprimatur of Chairman’s Reserve: the Original, Forgotten Casks, “2005”, “2009”, “Lewellyn Xavier,“ “White Label”, Legacy” “1931” and the “Masters Selection.” They range from about twenty pounds for the Original, to over a hundred for the Master’s Selection, and only one (the Master’s) exceeds 46%. 

With all that competition and expansion and premiumisation, the Original seems to have faded to the back, but I submit to you that this should not be the case. It remains enormously affordable and one of the few of the St Lucia Distiller’s stable one can find just about anywhere; it is widely commented on, and almost every reviewer still standing has, at some point, taken a crack at the rum (or one of its descendants). It was the first St. Lucia rum the Fat Rum Pirate tried in 2014, and he loved it; so did the Rum Shop Boy, six years later, as well as The Rum Howler; the boys at Rumcast mentioned the CR series in their 2020 roundup (Episode #17 at 0:24:50), John Go in the Philippines came to it more indifferently in 2021, but if Rum Ratings and reddit are anything to go by, people have been encouraged to go for the other variations in the Chairman’s line precisely because the original colonised our mental mindspace so comprehensively…even if they have forgotten the first one from which all others descend.

And when I went at it again in 2021, I came to understand something of its enduring appeal, because even at 40% ABV, even with its great familiarity (I’ve tried it many times, though only in social settings that precluded taking detailed notes upon which to base a review), it held up its end really really well.  Granted it was standard strength, and that doesn’t always work: but the nose it started out with was quietly impressive.  It was creamy, buttery, slightly sweet (but not sweetened) and smelled deliciously of toffee, Danish cookies, salted caramel ice cream, vanilla, honey and a touch of brine. Not a whole lot of sharp fruits presented themselves, and apricots and banana and ripe cherries were pretty much all, so no sharper citrus notes were there to start a riot. There were hints of herbs like rosemary, and spices like cinnamon to round things off.

Taste wise too, it was assembled with self-evident care and skill. Here it was saltier than the nose had suggested it would be – more salted caramel, more saline, a hint of olives, butter – to which were added lemon meringue pie drizzled with brown sugar and a tawny, rich honey, leading to a fully respectable finish that summed up all the preceding points – musky caramel, toffee, molasses, bon bons, vanilla, brine, honey and a good mocha, with a little sharpness added to round things off. 

This is a rum that would never be mistaken for a Guyanese, Jamaican, Brazilian, Cuban, or French island rhum, ever, and in fact, my thought was that the closest it came to was actually a slightly more pot-still-driven Barbados pot-column blended rum like Doorly’s or the Real McCoy. The overall profile was not so much uber-complex as completely and solidly precise, each note coming into its own, distinctly and clearly, then being replaced by another one.  Never too many, never too few, nothing too demanding, always just enough to make for a seriously sippable drink that broke neither palate nor wallet.

Indeed, my feeling about this rum has always been that it wouldn’t scare anyone off the boat and would actually entice quite a few to come on board, not just to rums in general, but St. Lucia in particular. Because by all the measures of price, availability, brand recognition, overall taste, and approachability, the original Chairman’s Reserve just nails it. It’s a fair bet that most people wanting to dip their toes into St Lucia territory will start not with the Bounty rums, or the Admiral Rodneys (that premium cachet, rightly or wrongly, is not conducive to starter efforts), but with one of the Chairman’s Reserve expressions and they can all, every one of them, trace their ancestry back to this one original, the progenitor of the line. It’s a perennial classic for beginners or experts, for sippers, swillers or mixers, a mainstay of rum collections old and new, and it continues to call upon us to heed and hearken to its siren song. Few who do so walk away disappointed.

(#896)(84/100)  ⭐⭐⭐½


 

Mar 282022
 

Rum and rhum aficionados are no strangers to Depaz, the distillery on Martinique now owned by Bardinet-La Martiniquaise. The sugar factory and (later) distillery had once been a family operation  — the Depaz family from Livorno in Italy had been part of Martinique society since the 1700s — and was in existence even before its destruction by the eruption of Mt. Pelee in 1902. The estate’s modern history can truly be said to have begun with the reconstruction of the distillery in 1917; their immediate success at rum-making could be inferred from their winning of medals at the Marseille expos of 1922, 1927 and 1931, at a time when French island rhums were hardly very well known (even Bally only started making the good stuff around 1924). In 1989 the head of the family at the time, André Depaz, allowed a long time customer and distributor, the Bardinet Group, to take over Depaz, and in 1993 La Martiniquaise, another major spirits conglomerate who already owned Dillon, bought a controlling interest in Bardinet, and so remains the current owner.

The technical specs for this rhum are quite normal: cane juice source, column still distillate, a blend of rhums aged three years or more, 45%. Although these core stats have changed very little over the decades, I have to be honest and admit  I’d be interested to see what some 1960s or 1940s versions taste like and how they compare (like Olivier did, here). Because there’s little to find fault with in this rhum.  It presents an opening nose that is very nice, almost delicate, redolent of vanilla, flowers, white fruit plus watermelon and cane juice and sugar water. The almost quintessential agricole profile, yet even the relatively brief ageing period allows deeper notes ot be discerned — caramel, peaches, peas, brown sugar, that kind of thing. Stays light and clean, adding some saline and bananas at the back end. 

That’s quite an intro from a rhum positioned as entry level, not costing too much, and quite young. Admittedly, the palate is not quite up to that level, but it’s not too shabby either: it presents a bit rough and sharp and spicy at the beginning, until it settles down, and then it becomes softer and warmer, like a scratchy old blanket you use on the sofa while watching TV.  Sweet caramel, coconut shavings, vanilla, sugar cane juice, pears, apples, very ripe cherries and black grapes, are all noticeable right bout of the gate. The edges have not been entirely rounded off with some further ageing or blending, so much of the young and frisky nature of the rhum comes through, like a half-grown long-haired mutt that hasn’t quite adjusted to its strength.  The finish is sharpish, medium long, mostly sugar water, citrus, herbs, toffee, some fruits and a light hint of lemon grass. 

Depaz’s rhums have always been available in France, but there were few reviews around even from the old stalwarts of the online reviewing ecosystem from that country, perhaps because people tended to go for the more upscale editions like the distillery’s millesimes and indie bottlings rather than the “standard” line which this is — yet for the budget-minded cognoscenti, Depaz’s starters of the blanc, the XO and the Vieux are actually really quite good and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.  Fortunately, even for those who don’t want to spring for the full 700ml, gift sets in smaller sizes are available for the penny pinchers among us, such as the one I bought.

And I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have dropped a bit more coin on the whole bottle, because overall, although I feel it’s a rum better served in a Ti punch than on its own, it isn’t so bad that it can’t be had neat. It’s subtle and more complex than it appears at first sight, moves at an angle to the full-out grassy-herbal profile of a recognizable agricole, yet succeeds remarkably well – it explains why the aged offerings are so highly regarded and sought after, because if something this young can be made so well and taste so good, then what must they be like? To some extent, trying this rum is an affordable answer to that question.

(#894)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • You will observe that no controversy has ever been attached to the name of this rhum.
  • As with most other distilleries on the island, Depaz adheres to the AOC regulations so one can drink their rums with confidence that there’s been no mucking around with anything dodgy.
  • Other reviews one can find are the Fat Rum Pirate’s 2020 review (four stars), Rumtastic’s 2019 ambivalent and unscored review and Single Cask Rum’s evaluation from 2019 (85 points).
Mar 172022
 

The world shut down for the better part of two years and it’s been almost three since I’ve seen a Nine Leaves rum, but the little one-man Japanese distillery I have written about with such affection since 2014 has continued chugging along, releasing its young rums every six months to a year and somehow managing to make rent.  Several festivals ago I remember Yoshiharu Takeuchi (the owner) telling me that because tax laws in Japan were so obscure, it was not worth his time to age for more than two years – and indeed, many of his initial releases were a mere six months old.  That they retained real quality and became popular and sought after is a testament to his skill as a distiller and as time went on he upped his ageing to two years, with occasional one-offs exported at slightly older.

Something clearly changed in the intervening years, though, because the latest in the premium line, the Encrypted IV, is a five year old rum, and it’s quite a nifty expression to try, if you can get some.  As before it’s a blend of several different bits and pieces aged in different ways but this time I could not get the details of the blend so it surely does deserve its title.  We know it’s a pot still product issued at 58%, released in 2021 and aged five years, that’s about all…yet within those brief statistics is a rum of real quality.

Let’s start with how it smells. It’s rich, nicely so, yet not too heavy – sweet plum wine, heavy and sulky, giving up its charm, with reluctance. Orange rind (I kept thinking of Cointreau or Pyrat’s), unsweetened high quality chocolate, caramel and molasses, balanced by fresh green tea, apples and green grapes. Some brine and olives, cereals and flowers, and it reminds me of a well done sherry-aged Glendronach at times.

Tasting it reveals a dry, pungently plush rum whose fruitiness bent towards dark: black grapes, plums, prunes, and a blue-and-blackberry slushie. It’s not overly sweet, which allows muskier notes of salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, and molasses to come forward. Plus, oh, some citrus, cloves, polished old leather satchels, a touch of brine.  These all help give it some oomph, but I tell you, this thing is as seriously astringent as my mother-in-law’s sense of humour. It closes with a really nice dark red wine filip – a Bordeaux, perhaps – and finishes dry, fruity, salty, with reminders of miso soup and a good quality sweet soya.  

The rum is really quite something: every time I go back to the glass I get a little more, something a little different. It starts off solid but ends up so clear and clean it could almost be an aged agricole. The darker molasses and caramel elements are held back, allowing other aspects of the construction to shine, and this bends the taste away from a mere copy of better-known Caribbean fare, and into its own unique ecosystem. The Encrypted IV never strays too far from real rum roots (I’ve commented before about the way aspects of shochu and awamori sometimes infuse other Japanese rums) yet carves out a niche all its own, and this is to its — and our — benefit.

Yoshi-san is a fun and quirky guy, with a great sense of humour. I’ve known him for many years, met him many times, and he is always looking for new and interesting ways to make his rums, never regressing or backsliding.  Either he stays at one level of quality, or he gets a little better, and loses no skill. Here he has made a rum that is so well assembled, goes down so easy, that we hardly realise how traditional it is underneath…maybe that’s why it’s only afterwards that we respond to it with familiarity. It’s an essay in contrasting yet complementary tastes, with that distinct structure which one always senses with Nine Leaves’ rums. It takes us for a ride and we never know how much we are getting, and in that way it’s like a small but powerful locomotive pulling a helluva long train.

(#891)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • If I get any feedback about the components of the blend, the post will be updated
  • The logo on the bottle is of nine bamboo leaves, which once formed the sigil of the samurai family from which Yoshi descends.
Jan 312022
 

Rumaniacs Review #132 | 880

The exact date of make of this Hawaiian rum is a little tricky: the NZ Canterbury Museum notes it as “circa” 1960s and there are old magazine advertisements for sale online which mention it, dating from 1967 and after, so that dovetails neatly with internal Seagram’s records dating the creation date of the rum to 1965. It was made in time for the Montreal World’s Fair, also known as Expo 1967, and designed to speak to Canada’s desire to move away from its staid British past and embrace a more multicultural mindset. This was done (or so the thinking in the C-suite probably went) by making a more neutral tasting rum that chased the emergent move from the distinct shot to the anonymous long pour in the post war years, and to add something a little exotic to the portfolio. They handed it off to one of their subsidiaries in the US, since “exoticism” and “Canada” were hardly synonymous at the time.

Calvert Distillers Corporation — the maker of record on the bottle label but actually acting as more of a distributor for the Leilani branded rum — was founded in August 1934 as a holding company for the Calvert Distilling Company and Maryland Distillery (both of which were, of course, older companies) and was acquired the same year by the Canadian spirits company Seagram-Distillers Corporation. Calvert was combined with its other subsidiaries in 1954, and Seagram’s itself was sold off piecemeal between 2000 and 2002 to Vivendi, Pernod Ricard, Diageo and the Coca-Cola Company. By then the Leilani had long since been discontinued. Most online listings now refer to either mini bottles, or old advertisements.

So Seagram’s and Calvert were the official companies involved in the brand.  Which distillery — Hawaiian or otherwise — made the Leilani rum is more difficult since distilleries now in existence on the islands all seem to have been founded after 1980 (and in many cases after 2000).  Of course, full disclosure being so much less prevalent back in the day, it is entirely possible the rum was made elsewhere and just branded as Hawaiian, but for the moment, the jury is out on this.

Colour – Pale yellow

Strength – 40% | 80 Proof

Nose – Sharp, crisp, light and clear.  Lemony notes of zest and 7-Up, mangoes, unripe strawberries, pineapple and vanilla, and that’s the good part.  There are also less desirable aromas of  gasoline (!!), scallions and (get this) an indifferently done steak overspiced with salt and black pepper and heaped up with melted butter and green peas.

Palate – Lemon meringue pie, some brininess, vanilla, pears, peas, vague fruit juices and more mineral and smoke notes of some kind of charred wood.  It’s a touch sweet, and can be mixed reasonably well, but nobody would ever think this is a sipping rum.

Finish – Light, easy, calms down a fair bit, mostly pears, lemon zest, some Fisherman’s Friend cough drops and vanilla. I’m surprised to get that much.

Thoughts – The rum was, of course, made for cocktails, not for any kind of sipping. Still, for a light rum bottled half a century ago and made to chase a mix (and oh yeah, to take on Bacardi), it holds up surprisingly well, and I kinda-sorta liked it. It is very light and wispy, so it was probably the right decision to have it as part of my first tasting of the day, before moving on to something stronger. I really wish I knew more about its production, because it actually reminds me of a cane juice rhum, an agricole, and it would be interesting to know if it was or not, what still it came off of, and whether it was aged. 

(76/100) ⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • When we spoke, Martin Cate also mentioned his own belief that the rum was not made in Hawaii, because “I don’t think there was a facility to make that much column rum in the islands at that time. My guess is that it was bulk from PR or possibly from WIRD since Seagrams had a long relationship with WIRD over the years.”
Dec 162021
 

Publicity photo from J.M.

These days I rarely comment any longer on a bottle’s appearance – there was a time when I actually scored it as part of the review, though common sense suggested that it cease after the pointlessness of the practice became self-evident – but here I really must remark on the striking distinctiveness of the design. In colour and form it reminds me of Henri Rousseau’s savagely childish yet iconic jungle scenes. You sure won’t pass this bottle on a shelf if you see it.

But what is it? The Martinique distillery of J.M. is of course not an unknown quantity – I’ve looked at several of their rhums in the past and in “other notes” below I repeat some of their background.  Still, the rhums for which they are known are mostly aged agricoles, many of which are single cask or special editions. Surprisingly enough, this is the first of their whites I’ve taken the time to look at and it is not their regular workhorse blanc issued at 50º but a limited edition at 51.2% – what exactly makes it deserving of a special rollout and naming is somewhat nebulous. It may be something as simple as the distiller and cellar master, Nazair Canatous, coming up with a “blend of cuvées”1 which possessed a powerful set of aromatic profiles. How many bottles make it “limited” is not mentioned anywhere.

Since its introduction, the rhum has been rebranded: the simply-named “Jungle” is the first and only edition of that name, released in 2017 and then replaced the very next year by the retitled “Joyau Macouba” under which it continued to be marketed through to 2021 — but aside from some minor variations in strength, the two seem to be identical. They are also not really expensive, less than €10 pricier than the standard blanc which Excellence Rhum stocks at under thirty euros. 

And that makes it, I think, somewhat of a bargain since there are five year old agricoles that cost more and taste less. The nose of the “Jungle” is really lovely – delicately sweet herbal sugar water…with mint and lime juice (not lemon). It displays notes of brine mixed with and soda pop, something like a salty 7-Up. Fruity smells are always hovering around –  passion fruits, tart red currants, fine and faint lemon peel — and there are also some muskier notes of cereals and freshly baked bread lurking in the shadows, and they stay there for the most part.

If I had to chose, I think I’d go for the palate over the nose on this one: it’s just a shade better, richer (usually the reverse is the case).  It tastes like a salty, creamy lemon meringue pie topped with caramel and a clove or two; the core of it is a solidly-sweet, crisp, citrus-y firm taste, with enough of an edge to not make it a cream soda milquetoast. Around that swirl the herbs: thyme, cumin, dill, rosemary and cardamom, plus the grassiness of fresh green tea with touches of mint. Olives and brine kept in the background and always seem to be on the verge of disappearing, but they’re definitely there. This all concludes with a medium long finish that coats the palate without drying it out – sweet, delicately fruity and floral, and with the spices and herbs gradually fading out to nothingness.

Overall, this is a good white rhum, and I liked it, yet the question remains: what makes it special enough to warrant the limited treatment? The tastes are fine and the overall experience is a little less intense than some of those 50º standards all the agricole makers have as part of their portfolio…perhaps that’s what was considered the point of distinction, since here it was tamed a bit more, while remaining equally complex.

Be that as it may, for a rested-then-blended rhum agricole blanc, it holds up very well.  It is tart, tasty and tamed, and, within its limits, original.  Strictly speaking, there’s absolutely no reason to buy it when there are so many other white agricoles of comparable quality out there (some of which are cheaper).  But you know, we can’t always find relevance, catharsis or world-changing rhums every time we try one, and sometimes it’s simply a relief to find a bit-better-than-average product that eschews extreme sensory overload and simply aims for a little romance, and pleases at a price we can afford. That the “Jungle” manages to achieve that is something we should appreciate when we come across it.

(#872)(83/100)


Other Notes: Company Background

Situated in the north of Martinique in Bellevue, J.M. began life with Pére Labat, who was credited with commercializing and proliferating the sugar industry in the French West Indies during the 18th century.   He operated a sugar refinery at his property on the Roche Rover, and sold the estate to Antoine Leroux-Préville in 1790 – it was then renamed Habitation Fonds-Préville.  In 1845, his daughters sold the property again, this time to a merchant from Saint-Pierre names Jean-Marie Martin.  

With the decline in sugar production but with the concomitant rise in sales of distilled spirits, Jean-Marie recognized an opportunity, and built a small distillery on the estate, and switched the focus away from sugar and towards rum, which he aged in oak barrels branded with his initials “JM”.  In 1914 Gustave Crassous de Médeuil bought the plantation from his brother Ernest (I was unable to establish whether Ernest was a descendant or relative of Jean-Marie), and merged it with his already existing estate of Maison Bellevue.  The resulting company has been family owned, and making rhum, ever since and was among the last of the independent single domaine plantations on Martinique until the Groupe Bernard Hayot, a Martinique-based and owned family conglomerate, bought it in 2002. Nowadays it (along with Clement and St. Lucia Distillers) is marketed by GBH’s spirit division, Spiribam.


 

Dec 022021
 

Photo (c) John Go

2003 was clearly a good year for the small Marie Galante distillery of Bielle, since there are several different editions of that year’s rhums on the market: a Hors d’Age 52.9%, a Vieux 9 YO at 49%, a Millésime 2003 Brut de Fût 8YO at 52.8% and yet another special release at 53.1%.  Varying ages and strengths, but one doesn’t release that many iterations of a single year without some sort of belief in the underlying quality of the distillate made in that year.

Taking this version out for a spin demonstrates that that belief is not mere wishful thinking or misguided optimism. It’s really quite interesting: for example, wood, paint, glue and sawdust start the ball rolling, with a certain hogo-y sourness of spoiled fruit. This is fades away in almost no time, leaving honey, cheerios, cereals, salt caramel and vanilla in an uncertain truce with the opening aromas. It does develop nicely from there, becoming surprisingly complex with additional fruits and citrus and cinnamon, while retaining the characteristic clarity and cleanliness of agricoles.  And then, as if bored, it adds a queer ashy, metallic, medicinal filip to the back end which is truly unusual – I went back through all my previous Bielle reviews and found nothing quite like it.

Taste-wise it continues that above average quality and parallels the nose almost exactly: it’s hotter than expected (but okay, 55% is not exactly tame), and again, here, the paint thinner, fresh-sawn planks and varnish lead the way: it’s almost like walking through Home Depot’s lumber section. This is followed by  cereal, caramel and vanilla, with fruits apparently taking a vacation at this point, because the impression it laves is one of caramel-toffee saltiness rather than crisp fruity acid-sweetness.  There’s some watermelon and light pears coiling around the background, but that’s about it. Oh, and the finish is excellent: long, dry, almost smoky, a hint of ash and iodine, and then a faint recap of the slightly sour fruits mixed in with caramel and cinnamon…plus what sure seemed like maple syrup, but that may be reaching.

The distillery: located just south of dead centre on the tiny island of Marie Galante (itself south of Guadeloupe), Bielle is a small sugar plantation dating back to the late 1700s, named after Jean-Pierre Bielle (he also owned a coffee shop), which went through a series of owners and went belly-up in the 1930s; the property was sold to a local landowner, Paul Rameaux, who had no more success than his predecessors in reviving its fortunes. 1975 marked a revival of Bielle when la Société d’Exploitation de la Distillerie Bielle (SEDB) took over the assets, and nowadays a nephew of Mr. Rameaux, Dominique Thiery, runs the distillery. As recently as six years ago it was another small outfit from the French West Indies about whom only the local islanders, rum deep divers and the French seemed to know very much … but my experience with their output (and not just Capovilla’s) over the years suggests they really know what they’re doing.

Still, back to the rhum: I’m not entirely sure how old it is: there’s no mention on the label or the box and other 2003 vintages are a rough guide at best; and no online resources I’ve found make any age statement. My guesstimate is about 6-8 years, (if it was double digits it would likely be much more expensive). It’s a cane-juice derived agricole, column still produced, and a really good all round rhum for any purpose. I particularly enjoyed its departure from the norms usually exhibited by cane juice rhums – not much herbals or clean green grass here, just real complexity, solid assembly and a construction that allows each note its individuality. These days I think it’s more likely to be found at auction or in a private sale than on a store shelf, but however it crosses your path, if you find a bottle at a decent price, you wouldn’t be losing out.

(#868)(86/100)


Other notes

  • On FB in 2018, there was a comment that the “2003 has been spotted with ~10g/L sugar in it…” deriving from Cyril’s work over at DuRhum.  It’s not this one, but then, this 55% version was not tested as far as I am aware.
  • I was provided this unlabelled and unidentified sample by my cheerfully sneaky rum chum from the Philippines, John Go – he was testing me, I think, since he mixed it all up with a bunch of other unmarked samples of wildly varying quality). So those tasting noters are unedited and completely blind.
Nov 292021
 

It’s easy to sneer at standard strength rums in a time of sullen cask-strength hoods issued north of 60%, 70% or even 80%.  Those have tastes that attack and maul your extremities, aromas that lunge into your nose with intent to maim, and profiles that burst at the seams with all sorts of…well, something.  Badassery, maybe. In contrast, forty-percenters are considered meek and mild, barely sniffable, weak, easy and not altogether “serious”. Best leave them to the Spanish style roneros. They can have ‘em – here we deal in proof, pard.

Rather than simply issuing such soft multi-country blends, Rum Nation takes a different approach to standard strength rums – they merely consider them as entry level rums, made for the audience that wants something better than merely another Bacardi wannabe, but doesn’t appreciate some rude over-muscled Trenchtown brawler invading the living room.  So a number of their lower cost rums from around the Caribbean continue to be released at that strength and are a complement to their more exclusive, up-market Rare Cask editions.

One of these is the Panama ten year old limited edition from the 2018 season (it had been introduced the year before – this is the second iteration). The bottle’s presentational and informational ethic is something of a victory of style over substance, because pretty as it is, we don’t actually get much data: it tells us Panama, 40% ABV, 10 YO and 2018 release on the front and back labels, and that’s it. Everything else is fluff, and given what fans of today almost demand on their labels, it’s an odd omission to leave out the distillery of make or the still type. Based on past experience with Rum Nation, I’d suggest they continue to source distillate from Varela Hermanos (home of the Abuelo brand), and given it’s from Panama the likelihood of it being a column still product is high. Aged in ex-bourbon barrels, diluted to forty, and there you are. We’re still in the dark as to what “limited” means, though — how many barrels are involved and what the outturn is, remain unknowns.

I’ve made no secret of my initial liking for Panamanians a decade back and how I gradually fell away from their soothing, silky style. That’s not to say they do not remain approachable, and very likeable: they are, and remain so.  Here for example, the nose was light, clean and smooth, medium sweet, redolent of vague florals and bubble gum.  Some fruits, caramel, raisins, vanilla, and a touch of molasses and toffee, nicely blended, but not standing out in any way.

The palate continued in that vein of niceness and weakly indeterminate everything-is-in-here tastes. It was sweet, and one can taste caramel, vanilla, flowers, bubble gum, and even sour cream. Also molasses, toffee and the damped down taste of soft bananas, dates, and a plum or two, leading to a short and meek finish which does not exit with a statement or exclamation point of any kind, just kind of sighs and walks off the stage.

This is my issue with Forties generally and to some extent rons in particular. Because they are made on an industrial multi-column still more often than not, and exit the still at a very high ABV, too many congeners and esters are stripped away.  Therefore the relatively neutral starting profile off the still can only be enhanced by long ageing, good barrel management, secondary cask maturation / finishes…or additives. Here, I was told that 18 g/L of sugar was added, which explains a lot.

So for me, right now, it’s too faint, a touch too sweet and too mildly inoffensive. It lacks distinctiveness of any kind and is easily forgettable. It’s a good enough rum to drink when no thought is required (and the brief one-line tasting notes on rumratings show others have a similar experience), although with its added extras and weak-kneed pusillanimity, I don’t think I’d drink it much unless it was my intention to just have a tot of anything passable in the glass. There’s little beyond “nice” that you can use to describe it, yet it’s important to understand that if you think this way, the rum is not meant for you. It’s a decent enough rum made for those at this stage of their rum journey, and on that basis, Rum Nation really did provide all the info needed for such persons to chose it.

(#867)(74/100)

Nov 252021
 

What is there to say about either Velier or Caroni, that hasn’t been said so many times before? 

It seems almost superfluous to repeat the story but for the sake of those new to the saga, here’s the basics: Caroni was a Trinidadian sugar factory and distillery which, after many ups and downs related to the vicissitudes of the sugar industry, finally closed in 2003. In late 2004 Luca Gargano, the boss of Velier, came upon and subsequently bought, many hundreds (if not thousands) of barrels that had been destined for auctioning or fire sale disposal (for the sake of completeness, note that many others did too). 

Previously, either on their own account or when managed by Tate & Lyle (a British concern which operated the establishment for many years), Caroni had made rums of their own, but they were considered low quality blends and never thought to be very good. Now, however, Velier issued them in tiny lots, often single barrel releases, cask strength and quite old. Though initially sold only in Italy, by 2010 they had already acquired an underground following, with a reputation that only grew over the years – and this is why prices on secondary markets for the very first releases dating from the 1970s or 1980s can go for thousands of dollars, or pounds.

These days, with the prices and number of variations of the early Caroni rums ascending out of reach of most, the blended aged expressions may be the best value for money Veliers from the canon we can still afford, or find. What they provide for us is something of the tar and smoke and petrol portions of the profile that characterize the type, without any of the miniscule variations and peculiarities of single barrel expressions.  They are, in short more approachable overall to the curious layman who wants to know what the Godawful kerfuffle is all about.  Granted, many other indies have gotten on the bandwagon with their own Caronis and they are usually quite good, but you know how it is with Velier’s cachet and their knack of picking out good barrels even when making blends. 

So, this one: distilled on a column in Caroni in February of 1998 and aged in situ until September 2015, when it was shipped to Scotland for blending and bottling at 55% ABV.  All this is on the label, but curiously, we don’t know the total outturn.  In any event it’s one of a progressively more aged series of blends – 12 YO, 15 YO, this one and 21 YO – meant for a more consumer facing market, not the exclusive Caronimaniacs out there, who endlessly dissect every minor variation as if prepping for a doctoral thesis.

Those who spring for this relatively cheaper blend hoping for a sip at the well, will likely not be disappointed. It has all the characteristics of something more exclusive, more expensive. Initial aromas are of petrol, an old machinists shop with vulcanizing shit going on in the background, rubber, phenols, iodine. Gradually fruits emerge, all dark and sullen and sulky.  Plums, blackberries, dates, plus sweet caramel and molasses.  Some herbs – dill, rosemary.  And behind it all coils the familiar scent of fresh hot tar being laid down in the summer sun.

The taste is very similar.  Like the nose, the first notes are of an old bottom-house car repair shop where the oil has soaked into the sand, and rubber tyres and inner tubes are being repaired everywhere, and the occasionally pungent raw petrol aromas makes you feel like you’re passing an oil refinery. But this is all surface: behind that is also a more solid and lasting profile of brine, olives, dates, figs, and almost overripe peaches, prunes, even some coffee grounds and anise. It’s dry, and a touch bitter, redolent of aromatic cigarillos, damp black tea leaves. Nice but also, on occasion, a little confusing.  No complaints on the finish, which is reasonably long, thick, with notes of caramel, nuts, licorice and dark fruit.  It’s a peculiarity of the rum that although sweetness is really not in this rum’s DNA, it kinda tastes that way.

It’s been bruited around before that Caroni rums, back in the days of Ago, were failures, implying that these rums today being hailed as such classics are a function of heritage and memory alone, not real quality in the Now. Well, maybe: still, it must be also said that in a torrential race to the lees of anonymity and sameness, they do stand out, they are in their own way unique, and the public has embraced their peculiarities with enthusiasm (and their wallets). 

On balance, I liked it, but not quite as much as the 21 YO in the blended series. That one was a bit better balanced, had a few extra points of elegant distinction about it, while this one is more of a goodhearted country boy without the sophistication – but you know, overall, you would not go wrong picking this one up if you could.  There is nothing wrong with this one either, and it represents Caroni’s now well-know tar and petrol profile quite solidly, as well as simply being a really good rum.

(#866)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The label is a facsimile of the original Tate & Lyle Caroni rum labels from the 1940s
Nov 112021
 

Photo Courtesy Rom Deluxe

Rumaniacs Review #129 | 0863

Rom Deluxe, the Danish company whose very first release and company biography was profiled last week, ended up making a total of seven initial bottlings, all of which were more or less non-commercial, and served primarily to establish the small company’s bona fides around the country. They are long since only to be found either in some collector’s back shelf, unlabelled and perhaps even unremembered, or in Rom Deluxe’s own shelves. As a comment on the many years that Rom Deluxe was only a small hobby outfit, observe that six of these seven bottlings were made in 2016 (the year the company was founded) to 2019 (the year of the “Wild series” first release) after which the ethos of changed to a more commercial mindset; the 7th edition, in 2020, was a special edition for a client, not the market.

In the founding year four bottlings were done, with the second and fourth from Barbados – Foursquare to be exact.  This fourth edition was 11 years old (from 2005), and released in early 2017 at cask strength, though the exact outturn is unknown – I’d suggest between two to three hundred bottles.

Colour – Gold

Age – 11 YO

Strength – 58.8%

Nose – Sweet light fruit, raspberries, papayas and the tartness of red currants.  Cherries and unripe green pears.  Vanilla and the slight lemony tang of cumin (I like that), as well as some hint of licorice.  Delicate but emphatic at the same time, yet the heavier notes of a pot still element seem curiously absent.

Palate – Completely solid rum to drink neat; dry and a touch briny and then blends gently into salt caramel ice cream, black bread and herbal cottage cheese (kräuter quark to the Germans).  After opening and a few minutes it develops a more fruity character – plums, ripe black cherries – and mixes it up with cinnamon, light molasses and anise. It goes down completely easy.

Finish – Nice and longish, no complaints.  The main flavours reprise themselves here: anise, molasses, dark fruits, a bot of salt and some citrus. 

Thoughts – Okay it’s a Foursquare, and so a pot-column blend, but perhaps we have all been spoiled by the Exceptionals, because even with the 58.8% strength, it seems more column still than a pot-column mashup, and somehow rather more easy going than it should be. Not too complex, and not too bad — simply decent, just not outstanding or memorable in any serious way.

(82/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks as always go to Nicolai Wachmann, for the sample, and Kim Pedersen of Rom Deluxe for his help with the background details.