Jun 072023
 

Rumaniacs Review #150 | 1002

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

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

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

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

Strength – 40%

ColourWhite

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

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

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

FinishA little sharp, briny, the slightest bite of some woodiness, coconuts shavings.

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

(73/100)


Other Notes

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

Rumaniacs Review #149 | 1001

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

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

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

Strength – 40%

ColourWhite

Label Notes“Silver Label”, Made in Puerto Rico

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

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

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

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

(76/100)

Jun 022023
 

As the seasons turn and the years pass, the rumiverse edges closer and closer to the hallowed Everest of aged rums, that crowning achievement of geriatric eld grasped and never relinquished (so far) by G&M’s 58 year old rum from 1941. Alas, rums from so far back in time are now a disappearing dream, vanished into blends, collector’s vaults or the gullets of earlier connoisseurs who knew not what they had. There are few, if any, multi-decade old rums from the 1960s or 1950s to be foundthese days, it’s the 1970s that is the decade we’re left with, and everything from that era of funk and disco, hot pants, big hair, bell bottoms and the fading of flower power, is a “mere” forty something years old…assuming it’s ever bottled.

One of these is this rum, a big, bold, rare, practically unknown brown bomber from Jamaica that was laid down the year my family left Africa and arrived in Guyana – 1976. It coyly ignores its own provenance and simply says “Jamaica”, but man, that age is serious, the strength is near biblical, and a sniff of the cork is worth more than my mortgage, so it’s probably best I put a review out there for all those who may one day wonder whether it’s worth forking over that kind of gold for an unproven rum of such mystery. The short answer to that question is “yes”but only if (a) you are in funds and (b) you really have the interest. Without both these conditions, well, fuggeddabouddit.

So who on earth produced this thing? Where was it hiding all this time? Which distillery made it? What does the tech sheet look like? Andperhaps more importantlyshould we even bother? Questions such as these were going through my mind the entire time I was admiring, photographing, reading about and tasting it.


The restraint with which the rum opened is remarkable. It’s 68.5% ABV and aged almost beyond reason, and you’d expect both the power and the lumber to be overwhelming: yet it presents no bite, no scratch, no vicious wood claws, no harridan-like screamingjust a serene, enormously solid flow of firm olfactory notes. Rubber, acetones and honey start the parade, attended by salt caramel and the slightly acrid tang of a warmed-up indoor swimming pool in winter. Aromas of wafers, warm and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, coffee grounds, and a seemingly never ending parade of all the dark fruit you could name (and a few you can’t) – prunes, dried apricots, plums, sapodilla, kiwi fruit, blackberries and more. And even then it’s not doneone senses the cloying musk of dead bees, melting wax and dusty rooms in old houses, marshmallows and even moist aromatic tobacco. How so much scent was stuffed in here surpasses my understanding but it’s clear that this is one of the most complex and amazing rums I’ve ever tried.


Last Drop Distillers is not, as some alert whisky anoraks will inevitably rush to inform me, actually a distillery, but an exclusive, high-end premium indie bottler. They occasionallyor at their whimrelease very rare and very pricey ultra-aged limited edition bottlings on to the connoisseur’s market, and perhaps one of the reasons most of us have rarely if ever heard of them is because we penurious coin-counting rum-hoarding peons are too busy working for The Man to swim around the upscale markets in which Last Drop cruises. They issued mostly whisky, with an occasional liqueur, port, cognac or rum (this one) to round things out, almost all decades old, dating back to the eighties, seventies, sixties, fifties…even the 1920s.

The small company was founded in 2008 and brought together Tom Jago and James Espey, two whisky industry veterans who might at first blush seem to be a little long in the tooth to be setting up new commercial ventures at a time most of us are marking out plots and making wills and feverishly downing our valued stashes before we lose the ability to spell “rum” correctly and start drooling instead of drinking. Yet they did, even though Mr Espery (a veteran of International Distillers & Vintners (IDV), United Distillers & Vintners (UDV) and Chivas (where he was chairman) had just retired at 65 and Mr Jago (who had had a hand in the development of both Bailey’s Irish Cream and what would become Johnny Walker Blue Label) was a sprightly 82. They conjured up this little company where they determined they would source whatby their own lightswould be the rarest and best spirits available.

Riding the increasing bow wave of premiumisation that was just starting to take off, Espey did the marketing himself: no wholesaler was really interested in such small volumes as they were producing, but in the first ten years TLD sold just about all 7,000 bottles of the 11 one­-off releases of Scotch whisky made to that point. This finally attracted some attention and in 2016 Sazerac, the American spirits conglomerate which owns Buffalo Trace, bought them for an undisclosed sum in a wave of acquisitions around that time, probably to be a part of its luxury division. A condition of the deal was for the existing release philosophy and management structure to be retained, and both Mr. Jago and Mr. Espey stayed on; the former’s daughter Rebecca Jago, joined the company in 2010 and the latter’s, Beanie Espey, in 2014 ,and when in 2018 Mr. Jagohe was the president at that timepassed away, the ladies were on the expanded board and kept up the same careful pace of exclusive and expensive bottlings.

As of 2023, after fifteen years of operation, there have been a mere 31 releases, making the SMWS rum selections (70+ in about the same timeframe) seem positively profligate. None costs under four figures and since you’re most likely already googling this rum, and because the purse-hunting, gimlet-eyed Mrs Caner also reads these reviews, you’ll forgive me for not mentioning it here.


The taste, in a word: stunning. It presented less as a pure Jamaican rum than a blend of Jamaica and Demerara, and showcases the best of both. There were layers of flavour here,, starting with rubber, nail polish, brine, licorice, honey, vanilla, sweet creamed wafers and the aforementioned chocolate, coffee grounds and salted caramel. In between the spaces coiled the fruits as beforeprunes, apricots, overripe oranges and pineapplesand underneath that, one could sense cereals and toast and molasses, even a tang of marmite. And the spices, those were there, light as a dusting of icing sugar on a tart: nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin, cloves.

All of the minor elements on display were chock full of memorable and strange and subtle (and sometimes near-unidentifiable) tasting notes, each of which populated the edges of our awareness for only fleeting moments before another wafted in and around and took its place. They were not the core flavours, the primary notesthose were obviousbut existed to enhance, to supply background, atmosphere, like all those strange characters who move half-unseen and almost unnoticed in the dim corners of Dickens’s or Dostoyevsky’s novels.

And the finish well, what can I say? If this was a movie it would be a four-hour-long extravaganza with a cast of thousands, a bunch of secondary also-rans, two overtures plus an intermission. In shortepic. No other word does it justice, and while admittedly there was little that was introduced at this point that wasn’t already noted above, the amalgam of a basket of ripe and overripe fruit, spices, cereal, coffee, tobacco and leather was a fitting conclusion to a great tasting experience. There are always risks, in a rum this old and from Jamaica, of over-oaking and bitterness and too much reliance on one or other ester-laden note that then ruins the party for everything else and throws the chakras out of whacknot here; in fact, the balance is superb: it is, quite simply, one of the best rums I’ve ever had.


And the questions remain. Which distillery? Everything I’ve researched says it’s a Clarendon, yet for those who are expecting some hogo-laden congener-squirting Jamaican funk bomb from Ago would be disappointed; there are no screaming, rutting esters in play here. Nor, for that matter, does the rum present as a pot still product, and the accompanying red booklet provides remarkably little background here: in fact, it tells us only that it’s from the south of Jamaica. However, Richard Seale, who helped me flesh out the background (see my notes below), in urging caution about expecting a New Jamaican taste profile, also mentioned it was likely from a long scrapped columnar still that once existed at Clarendon but which was later replaced by more modern pot and other columnar stills.

But of course, at this kind of remove, we want the info for our own historical knowledge, and while interesting, it’s ultimately almost unprovable. What’s important is that in knowing it, we see that the TLD 1976 lacks the fierce pungency of Hampden or Worthy Park (which in any case were not operational or laying down aged stock at that time), does not have the elemental brutality of Long Pond (I’m thinking TECA here), and is a ways better than the more elegant middle of the road approach of even Appleton’s older offerings (though the 50 YO comes really close).


It is admittedly somewhat mental to buy the TLD, even with that age and strength and that historical legacyit’s akin to the Black Tot Last Consignment, and for the same reason. But let’s face it, we don’t really need to. The good stuff is all around us, and there’s oodles of excellent tipple available to our relentlessly questioning snoots and jaded palates, and for less, much less. To some extent what this rum really does is to demonstrate exactly how tasty and affordable so many rums to which we have access already aremodern drinkers are fortunate in the extreme to have such a wide choice available to them.

Yet even with all that choice it has to be saidif only by methat the Jamaica 1976 is on its own terms, superlative. It’s complex to a fault, tasty beyond hope, balanced beyond dreams, a quietly amazing dram, destined to become a unicorn in its own right, like one of the old Demeraras Velier nervously slipped into the marketplace so many years ago. Somehowdon’t ask me howI scored a single one of the 183-bottle outturn, perhaps the only one allocated to Canada, which had been sitting in Edmonton for two years gathering dust, ignored and passed over. Did I regret it? A little. Did I save it? Not a chance. This one is all about cracking, savouring…and then sharing.

(#1000)(93/100)


Other notes

  • The presentation of the bottle is first rate. Red leather box, embossed logo, extra cork, a book of small details about the company and the rumand two bottles, one small 50ml mini to play with and the full sized bottle.
  • My sincere thanks to Richard Seale, who took time out on two separate occasions to answer some questions and provide context and background. He is on the tasting panel for the Last Drops Distillers and apparently enjoys the experience enormously.
  • My appreciation also to Matt Pietrek who helped me check on some historical details.
  • There is no information as to where the barrel was sourced. URM in Liverpool, maybe, but I somehow think this is one of those rum barrels some whisky outfit had squirrelled away someplace. Just a hunch.
  • Are there any other rums like this, from so far back, still ageing in any bottler’s portfolio? Unlikely, unless some of the old Scottish whisky houses are holding on to old barrels in dark cellars, unseen and maybe even forgotten by mere mortals. Richard suggested that there won’t be, either. There was a three year minimum age rule in play for whiskies since around 1916 that was also adopted by rum makers, so the incentive was to either release relatively young aged rums or send bulk abroad; and only after that rule was relaxed in 1973 or so, was there a gradually emerging market for single barrels. This, he theorises, is one of the main reasons why there are almost no bottled single barrel uber-aged rums in existence pre-dating the 1970s, and even the oddballs of the Cadenhead 1965 Guyanese rum, or the 1941 Long Pond, may just be the rare exceptions that prove the rule.
Apr 172023
 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

(#989)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Mar 232023
 

Compagnie des Indes, run by the flamboyant and cheerful Florent Beuchet, was one of the first independent bottlers whose rums I found and started reviewing, along with Rum Nation and the original Renegade and yes, Velier. The small company is still going strong, and after having made its bones with some really good single cask bottlingsI have fond memories of their Indonesian rum, for exampledid some very unusual one-offs (Florida, Thailand, Ghana, El Salvador), and also expanded into blends, much as 1423 has done, with names as evocative as Tricorn, Blacklice, Boulet de Canon, Veneragua, Barbagaya, Caraibes, Dominidad, Kaiman and (on my list to try for sure) the Great Whites. Yet, as with most independents, while it is the softer blends that provide the cash flow, it’s the cask bottlings that are deemed the cream of the crop, and form the edifice upon which the Compagnie’s reputation is considered to rest.

The rum for today is one of these: a molasses-based rum from Fiji, distilled in 2010 on a column still, aged seven years there and three years in Europe, resulting in an outturn of 407 bottles, and whose provenance is not disclosed.

The precedent for such demure modesty in the naming is admittedly not new. Sometimes pre-existing sales arrangements with other brandseven the distillery’s owncome with the condition that third party bottlings don’t get to capitalise on the distillery’s name; sometimes it’s because the provenance is not entirely nailed down; sometimes it’s reverse marketing. Whatever the reason, upon further consideration, the amused cynic in me posits that perhaps there’s a good reason for a rum coming from the only rum-making enterprise on Fiji to proclaim it comes from a “Secret Distillery”: the fact that the rum, alas, isn’t that interesting.

There is, you see, not a whole lot going on with the nose as it stands. Granted 44% isn’t the strongest rum I’ve ever tried, and indeed it was the puniest of the rums in that evening’s first flight. Yet even taking that into account the rum is something of a lightweight: some light apples, cider and yoghurt, followed by wispy, watery fruits (pears, watermelon, papaya), some grapes, and licorice. There’s a line of sugar cane sap and lemon meringue pie here and there, just difficult to come to grips with and it wafts away too quickly. There should be more to a sipping rum from one barrel than a nose this ephemeral, I’m thinking.

Tasting it reinforces this impression of “move along folks, nothing to see here.” The rum has a firm feel on the tongue, yet you’d be hard pressed to discourse on any single component of what comprises it. Some light, white fruitsguavas, pears, melontasting the slightest bit salty at times, overlaid with a whiff of acetone. If you pushed you might hazard a guess that you sense papaya or kiwi fruit, sugar water and maybe a slight briny aspect, akin to salt caramel chocolate. And the finish is just that, a finish, and a quick one at that. White guavas, a hint of brine, flowers and acetone, all weak and airy and very hard to detect.

Several years ago I tried an earlier one of the Compagnie’s Fiji rumsthat one was from 2004, also from South Pacific, also ten years old, also 44%. At the time it was too new for me to make any sweeping statements about it, though I remarked that it wasn’t quite my cup of tea (for reasons other than those noted here). In the interim there have been quite a few more candidates from the distillery, including those released by Bounty, Samaroli, L’Esprit, TCRL, the Rum Cask, Duncan Taylor, and even the Compagnie a few more times. None have had this almost indifferent aroma and vague palate, at any strength.

So we know from years of subsequent experience that both the Compagnie and South Pacific can do a whole lot better, and there is rum out there from the distillery which is just shy of magnificent. Since I know that, I can only assume that the barrel this was aged in was simply exhausted and had nothing left to give except maybe good advice. My own recommendation, then, is simply that it’s a pass. Fortunately, given the sheer volume and variety of excellent rum that Florent has put out over the last decade, there is no shortage of good and better rums from the Compagnie that can take its place.

(#983)(79/100) ⭐⭐⭐


 

Mar 202023
 

Madagascar’s best known distillery’s rums have been the subject of three reviews in these pages, stretching from 2014 to 2021, yet even now it is unclear whether this has made anyone sit up and pay attention. For the most part the rum drinkers’ attention remained resolutely with the Caribbean nations, or the new ones emerging elsewheresuggesting that while Madagascar was unusual, it was apparently not enough to make it a global seller.

With or without such widespread recognition, Dzama still exists, however, still releases rums (a lotRum-X lists 29 of them), and can still be found on shelves, and even has a prestige 15 Year Old out there. So clearly it’s doing well. The rum being looked at today is their so called “classic” white (as opposed to the two other “prestige” editions), and irrespective of developments elsewhere in the blanc world is a very slightly aged rumtwo to four weeks, apparently, with no further details on how this was achieved, or with what. The rum is also molasses based, column still distilled, released at 40%, and it ended up in Canada somehow, which is where I picked it up.

There’s little else of note here, so we can dive right in. Nose is peculiar: fragrant citrus soap starts things off, something reminiscent of Irish Spring; lots of vanilla, which is sort of a signature with Dzama (see biography below); citrus peel and sugar water make an appearance but the aroma lacks the herbals greenness that marks out an agricole rhum (which in any case this isn’t). I do like the distinct lemon meringue pie notes, which Mrs. Caner said reminded her of lemonade from Kyrgyz pears, which I mention because, y’know, I promised. These smells are not all that strong or distinct and can be best found in contradistinction to several other standard strength white blends (such as those I was trying that day).

Taste wise, the lemony and custard notes are more pronounced (so is the soap). It has a decent body, warm, not too rough or sharp, and there are hints of unsweetened yoghurt, laban, milk and a pie crust fresh from the oven. A touch more licorice and ginger and maybe some cinnamon, leading to a quiet and undemonstrative finish which is too short, too faint … and frustratingly just starts to show off a few fruity notes when it all vanishes without so much as a goodbye.

These comments might lead you to believe it’s something to walk away from, but not really: I’ve tasted worse of this kind. It’s different, reasonably tastykind of an alcoholic 7-Up, which I think is undone by the vanilla, that weird soap vibe, a bit too much sweet and too few real taste chops. Too, the general lack of cohesion of everything else makes for a disappointing sipping experience, and even for something so relatively unaggressive, it’s surprising how little rum comes through in the final analysisit more resembles a doctored ethanol rather than some sort of well made local drink which has potential to represent its land of origin. That’s a pity, yet the potential of the brand remains, as it always has, which is why I keep coming back to their products: so who knows, one day they might make a white unaged rum I can really get behind. For now, this Cuvée Blanche is interesting for the geography, but not so much for the experience of drinking it.

(#982)(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Background notes

Madagascar is that huge island off the south east coast of Africa; and the Dzama rums are made by Vidzar, formed in 1980 due to the efforts of Mr. Lucien Fohine, who noted that the small sugar factory on the tiny island of Nosy Be in the north produced a distillate that had distinctive flavours which persisted into the final distilled products…mostly low level rum for local consumption, to that point. He concluded it came from the ylang-ylang plant (also known as the macassar oil plant, or the perfume tree) whose roots intermingled with that of the cane.

[Now, the theory is that the oils and perfumes of the various botanicals to be found on Madagascar (vanilla, cloves, pepper are often cited) leach from their roots into the soil and are intermixed with the cane plants’ own root systems, into their stems, and thence to the ultimate distillate. I’m no chemist or botanist, but one could just as easily wonder why similar processes aren’t observed on the spice island (Grenada) for example, so I reserve judgement on that score. All the Dzama rums I’ve tried have that question lurking in the background anyway, as to whether something was added to or not. Dzama firmly maintains no synthetic or artificial additions, but this still leaves the door open for natural ones; and according to Rhum Attitude, the Cuvee Prestige white is apparently a kind of filtered infused rum here, so who is to say something similar isn’t happening here?]

But anyway, Mr. Fohine formed a company he called Vidzar (a contraction of Vieux Rhum de Dzamandzar), which initially concerned itself with whisky bottling. It was located close to the sugar cane fields of Nosy Be, near to a village called Dzamadzar, and a few years later, as their operations expanded, production was transferred to Antananarivo (the capital, in the centre of the island). The company, which now claims a majority of rum market share in Madagascar, makes a range of rums, including the Dzama Club, 3 YO and 6 YO, the Millésimé 1998 10 Year Old, Dzama 15 and 25 year old rums and a Cuvée Noire, as well as three blanche rums and a raft of infused and spiced versions. Most of these are untried by the vast majority of rum drinkers, and remain relatively unknown, though some have won prizes between 2010 and 2015, in Miami, Paris, Berlin and Madrid. It may just be a marketing thing, or the inability to get out there and run around the festival circuit.


 

Mar 162023
 

Rumaniacs Review No.145 | 0981

Whaler’s as a rum brand is still being made after more than half a century, and apparently undeterred by its complete lack of anything resembling real quality, has not only kept the Original Dark Rum recipethe vanilla-bomb that I reviewed way back in 2010but actually expanded the supermarket line of their rums to include a vanilla rum, a white rum, a “topping rum” (whatever that is) and other flavoured variations that comfortably cater to the bottom shelf and are almost guaranteed to make another generation of Americans swear off rum forever.

It is no longer made in Hawaii, if it ever wasat best one could say it may have been a recipe from there; and guesses as to its true origin vary as widely as the USVI, Phillipines, or California (I think it’s just some nameless industrial facility churning out neutral alcohol on contract). The producer, if you recall, is the same outfit that also makes the Hana Bay rum, which has much of the same fanciful background and origin stories and lack of proveable provenance. Still, it does happen occasionally that rums which suck today suck a little less in the old days when they had some people with shine in their eyes and not quite so much cynicism on the factory floor (Captain Morgan is one such) making the rum. So it’s worth trying to see if it was different back in the day when Hawaiian Distilled Products from California was behind the brand.

Colourdark red-brown

Strength – 40%

NoseIt giveth hope. First, red grapefruit and some rancid olive oil, and then all the simple aromas deemed “rum-like” back in the last century come marching in like Christian soldiers. Brown sugar, molasses (just a bit), vanilla (just a lot). It’s not entirely bad though, and also has cherries, damp dark earth, dust and a little plastic.

PalateThe taste taketh hope away. It’s almost all vanilla, alcohol, brown sugar, caramel, licorice. Simple and uncomplicated and at least it goes down easy (that may be whatever sweetening or smoothening agents they added). But there’s not a whole lot beyond that going on.

FinishWarm and firm, it must be conceded. Caramel, anise, coconut shavings, even more vanilla. It’s possible a few citrus notes were there, just too faint to make any kind of statement.

ThoughtsThe rum is the ancestor to simple, dark, uninteresting, ten-buck rums you can find anywhere, often in cheap plastic bottles, and whose only purpose is to deliver a shot of alcohol today that you’ll regret tomorrow. There’s nothing to distinguish it at all, except that there seems to be rather less vanilla in this one than in the one from 2010 (which I tried again just to see). There’s also nothing to mark it as different from another Original Dark Rum from this period, put into a bottle with a greenish label. But I’ll save that “review” for another day.

(73/100) ⭐⭐½


Historical background

Back in the eighties, Whaler’s and Hana Bay were made by Hawaiian Distillers, a Hawaiian corporation that was in business since the 1970s, and was a subsidiary of Hawaiian Distilled Products Co out of Tustin California (and this is what is on the label). Before 1980 it was mainly manufacturing tourist items, including ceramics and specialty Polynesian Liqueurs – it’s defunct now and all traces of it have vanished: only head cases like me actively seek out their rums from yesteryear any longer, and the question as to where exactly the rum was distilled remains unanswered.

In the early 2010s when I first looked at Whaler’s, it was being made in Kentucky by the brand owners at the time, Heaven Hill, who had acquired the brand from the Levecke Corporation in 2002. Some time in the last ten years, Hana and Whaler’s returned to Hawaii…Maui specifically, where Hali’imaile was founded in 2010 by a branch of the Levecke family and has its premises. Surprisingly, given the sugar industry, family connections and tropical climate, rum is not actually their focus – whisky, vodka and gin are, with the distillery also making rums of zero distinction.

As of 2023, Hali’imaile Distilling Company is the distillery of the company’s products, yet their site doesn’t mention Whaler’s, Hana Bay or Mahina rums at all (these are the other brands they own and supposedly make). It may be a contract rum, but nobody really cares enough to find out, including, apparently, not even those who sell it. I’m not surprised.

Mar 132023
 

The Bacardi “Diez”or, to give the rum its full title, the Bacardi Gran Reserva ”Diez” 10 Year Old Extra Rare Gold Rumis the top of the trio of the company’s mid-level “kind-of” premium range. Below it are the old workhorses of the añejo, gold, blanco, black, superior and so on; in its playpen also reside the Cuatro and Ocho (and maybe the Reserva Limitada); and above it are the more exclusively minted bottles of the Facundo linethe Paraiso, Neo, Eximo and Exquisito (I am deliberately excluding the relatively new single barrel editions and the Single Cane series as they don’t neatly fall into consistent ranges).

Because of its reasonable (and subsidised) cost, and its decent profile, the Diez was a serious contender for the Key Rums tag which finally went to the Ocho; it didn’t only lose out because of availability, but because overall, I felt it just didn’t come to the table with everything a tropically aged ten year old should. Let’s go straight in and step it through its paces and I’ll try to explain.

The nose starts out reasonably warm, with baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg), smoke, polished leather, some tannic bite and licorice blending nice. Some caramel ice cream, banana, coconut shavings, white chocolate a nice mix of tannic, bitter and sweet held together with the muskier (but faint) notes of toffee and brown sugar. It’s workmanlike, but nothing to excite. It’s like a better añejo, really, with some of the edges sanded off and better complexity (which would be the least of what we could expect).

Tastewise, nothing new, nothing exciting, nothing special. Just more of the same old thing, although admittedly quite well done. Vanilla and caramel and molasses lead the charge, with breakfast and baking spices hastening to bolster the centre. Leather, smoke and some light crisp fruits gallop around the flanks and are moving too quicklyhere one minute gone the nextfor any kind of serious engagement…they exist to be noticed but not to grapple with. Raisins, plums, some faint apples define the back end and a short and warm finish, and that’s what a ten year old under fifty bucks will get you.

The tech stats weren’t provided earlier in this review because I honestly didn’t think it was necessary: it’s well known that Bacardi’s rums are column still, short fermentation, light rums, whose taste profile comes primarily from expert barrel selection and blend management by the company’s legendary maestros roneros.The rum is a blend of rums aged a minimum of ten years, is 40% and really, were we expecting more? It’s main selling point may just be that price.

Let’s try to sum up. What we have here is a completely fine Bacardi rum, competently made, nicely aged, a decent Latin-style hooch, light, easy drinking, with some taste chops to write home abouteven the slightly added dosage doesn’t detract from that, though I think it’s unnecessary, really. Any surprise would be if it wasn’t all those things, and it is indeed a ways above the made-for-the-mixing-proletariat Superior and Gold and Anejo that sell by the tanker load and keep Bacardi’s sales numbers flying high. On top of that, the Diez is demonstrably better than the 4YO “Cuatro”, addressing many of that young premium’s weaknesses: it is more complex, has more going on and seems more suited for the sipper’s glass.

What it doesn’t do is eclipse the solidity of the 8YO “Ocho” which also ticks many of the same boxes; moreover, the Diez seems content to go down the familiar path of “same but incrementally better,” and is hardly a serious upgrade from any of its junior brethren. The makers seem to have had no inclination to find new worlds to explore or new profiles to demonstrate, that would show some innovation, a willingness to go off the reservation, if only a little. I find that disappointing. There are enough standard-strength, standard-profiled, standard-priced rums in Bacardi’s stable, and in anyone’s corner shop. If you’re one of the biggest kids on the block, with over a century of experience behind you, you can surely do better than repeat the same old shtick with a new number.

(#980)(80/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • There are few other reviews for balance out there (even reddit is sparse on the ground here), but no shortage of votes and evaluations. The Rum Howler gave it 90.5 points in 2019; Vinepair’s staff rated it 91 points; two Tastings.com reviewers apparently scored it 94 points apiece in 2022 but since no names are provided and we have no idea who they are, I can’t comment further except to suggest they might do well to broaden their horizons; ¾ of the ratings on RumRatings were 7 out of 10 or better; 77 voters on Flaviar rated it an average of 8.2; and 42 users of Rum-X rated it an average of 70/100 (ouch). Paul Senft, writing for GotRum magazine in August 2019 (the only other full length review I could find), gave it a cautious endorsement while commenting he expected more, and would stick with the Ocho “for a more versatile experience.”
  • It is recommended that you read the reviews of the Cuatro and Ocho for some background thoughts on this trio of Bacardi’s rums.
  • Thenutritionlabel on the website says it has 0.5 grams of sugar per serving of 1.5 ozs, which works out to about 11.3 g/L
  • Rum tasted here was the 2009 edition.
Mar 102023
 

The last two reviews were of products from a Scottish rum maker called Sugar House, who bootstrapped a hybrid pot still, a batsh*t crazy production ethos and somehow came out with two unaged rums that should not have succeeded as well as they did…but did; and blew my socks off. This is what happens when a producer, no matter how small or how new, takes their rum seriously, really loves the subject, and isn’t averse to tinkering around a bit, dispenses with the training wheels, and simply blasts off. Juice like this is the high point of the reviewing game, where you see something original, something good, not terribly well known outside its place of origin, and aren’t afraid to champion it.

Consider then the polar opposite, the yin to Sugar House’s yang, a contrasting product which sports a faux-nautical title (we can be grateful that it omits any mentions or pictures of pirates), a strength of 40% and not a whole lot else. Merchant Shipping Co.’s branded product is in fact, a third party rum“imported Caribbean white rum”put together by Highwood Distillery in Alberta (in Canada), which is probably better known for the surprisingly robust Potter’s (gained when they bought out that lonely distillery from BC in 2005) and the eminently forgettable Momento, which may be the single most unread post on this entire site. Here they didn’t make the rum, but imported it, (the AGLC website suggests it’s probably from Guyana, which Highwood deals in for its own stable), and made it on contract for exclusive sale in Liquor Depot and Wine & Beyond stores in western Canada.

Let me spare you some reading: it’s barely worth sticking into a cocktail, and I wouldn’t stir it with the ferrule of my umbrella. Merchant Shipping white rum is a colourless spirit tucked into a cheap plastic bottle, sold for twenty five bucks, and somehow has the effrontery (please God, let it not be pride) to label itself as rum. I don’t really blame Highwood for thisit’s a contract rum after allbut I’m truly amazed that a liquor store as large and well stocked as Wine & Beyond could put their name behind abominable bottom feeder stuff like this.

Because it’s just so pointless. So completely unnecessary. It smells on first opening and resting and nosing, like mothballs left too long in an overstuffed and rarely-opened clothes closet, where everything is old, long-disused, and shedding. It smells like rubbing alcohol and faint gasoline, and my disbelieving notes right out of the gate ask “Wtf is this?? My grandmother’s arthritis cream?” It is a 40% spirit, but I swear to you there’s not much in here that says rum to anyoneit’s seems like denatured, filtered, diluted neutral spirit…that’s then dumbed down just in case somebody might mistake it for a real drink.

The palate continues this disappointment (although I’m an optimist, and had hopes); it tastes thin and harsh, oily, medicinal, all of it faint and barely thereeven for living room strength there’s little to write home about: a lingering unpleasant back-taste of sardines and olive oil, offset by a single overripe pear garnished with a sodden slice of watery melon and a squished banana, and if there is more I’d have to imagine it. Finish is gone so fast you’d think it was the road runner’s fumes, minus the comedy.

I can’t begin to tell you how this tasteless, useless, graceless, hopeless, classless, legless rum annoys me. Everything that could have given the spirit real character has been stripped away and left for dead. I said it was unnecessary and meant it: because you could pour the whole bottle down the drain and go to sleep knowing you’d never missed a thingyet it’s made, it’s on shelves, it sells, and a whole generation of young Canadians who can afford nothing else will go to their graves thinking this is what rum is and avoid it forever after. That’s what the implication of this thing is, and that’s the one thing it’s good at.

(#979)(65/100) ⭐½


Opinion

It gives me no pleasure to write reviews that slam a homegrown productbecause homegrown products are what give a country or an island or a territory or an acreage its unique selling point, its mental and physical terroire. That’s what’s wrong with this faux, ersatz “Caribbean” rum, because there’s absolutely nothing that says Canada here at all (let alone rum, and certainly not the Caribbean) and as noted above, it’s an import (a near neutral spirit import at that, apparently).

Yet, as I’ve tried to make clear, one of those areas where there is serious potential for putting one’s country on the map lies in rums that don’t go for the least common denominator, don’t go for the mass-market miscellaneous dronish supermarket shelves, and certainly don’t go for the profit-maximizing-at-all-costs uber-capitalist ethos of the provincial liquor monopolies who could give a damn about terroire or real taste chops. It’s the blinkered mentality of them and the stores who follow it that allows rum like this to be made, as if the French rhum makers, global cane juice distillers, and the UK New Wave haven’t shown us, time and again, that better could be done, has been doneand indeed, should be done.


Other notes

  • There’s no tech sheet to go with the rum and nothing on the label, but I think it’s fair to say no self-respecting pot still ever made a rum like this, so, column still. Also, molassess based. It is probably aged a bit and then filtered, and my guess is less than a year.
Feb 012023
 

Bacardi hardly needs an introduction. It’s a company of ancient vintage (in rum years), one of the first and remaining big guns of the entire sector, with a storied past from the 19th century, involving the rise of an immigrant family, ruthless business practises, revolution, heartbreak, loss, global expansion and emergence at the other end as one of the great spirits conglomerates in the world. In so doing it has carved a reputation for itself so enormous that one hardly needs to say rum after its name, it is so synonymous and clearly identified with that one single drink.

And yet Bacardi as a whole has a curiously ambivalent relationship with the rum population of today, and the reputation it sports is not without its downside. Their rum is not seen as a stopping point but a start, something to leap beyond, quickly, as soon as one’s wallet can reasonably afford the extra increments that would allow one to buy a true “premium” (by whatever standard people use to define one). For this, to some extent, I blame Bacardi’s modus operandi of relentlessly pushing high-volume, low-quality mass-selling low-priced everyman rums like the Blanca, Gold or even the Superior, into every market possible without regard for improving them much or seeking to colonise a more elevated ethos of quality or premiumisation.

Even if they sell like crazy the flip side is that such ubiquitous cheap rums dilute brand appreciation and make more upscale offerings seem equally lacklustre. These days, rum writers barely acknowledge or review them any longer. And, as many of today’s expanding indies have found, while you certainly need low-priced blue-collar young rums to sell and make cash flow, you also really premium aged rums to seriously develop the brand ito a true quality seller with consumer recognition and appreciationsomething Bacardi has singularly failed to do in spite of efforts like the Facundo line, the occasional ultra-expensive halo releases, or the Single Cane brand 1.

Whatever our opinion of the Bat, however, we must always consider the groundwork laid by its famed blends from decades pastbecause among all the dross, we can indeed find the occasional surprise lying like a forgotten gem in the mud and dreck of carelessly made cheap supermarket hooch we see every day. And one of these is the rebranded Bacardi 8 year old, now called the “Reserva Ocho Rare Gold Rum.” To my mind it is among the best of the not-quite-upscale rums Bacardi makes, and Bacardi seems to have recognized it also, because they recently established (2021) the Ocho as an anchor of Bacardi’s Premium rums which began releasing variations with different finishes to buff and bolster the line.

The Bacardi Ocho / 8 in all its various guises remains quite affordable, has a solid age statement, has several components of the blend which are older than the youngest 8YO, and even if it’s issued at a lacklustre 40% (when will they move beyond that ridiculous self imposed standard, honestly? Is even 43% or 45% for major broad based releases too much to ask for?) it does have more in its trousers than is generally acknowledged.

The nose, for example, shows that quality, if perhaps too subtly for some. Even at that milquetoast strength, one can detect cinnamon, woodiness, leather, licorice, vanilla, and citrus. It’s reasonably complex for 40% – the sly and subtle fruity notes which dance and play and disappear just as soon as one comes to grips with them are a case in pointbut after the off-kilter memory of the Exclusiva, it remains a somewhat less memorable dram. It is, however, clearly and professionally made, a good step above the Gold, or the Cuatro.

The palate is a harder nut to crack. There are definitely tasting notes to be had for the diligent: it is relatively soft, warm, a touch spicy. There are notes of masala, cumin and cinnamon, standing cheek by jowl with vanilla, a squeeze of lemon zest, mauby bark, strong tea, and a hint of sweetness developing at just the right time. So you’re getting bitter and sweet, and a nice lick of the tannins from the barrel, offset to some extent by softer, more fruity notes. I just wish there were more, and the low strength makes the short and light finish a rather pallid affairit’s aromatic, woody, tannic, tobacco-infused, with some sweet to balance things off…there’s just not enough of it, I think.

For reasons surpassing my understanding, the whole rum gives this impression of trying hard to be less when it’s actually more, a perception that dogs the brand nowadays. Most reviewers don’t know what to do about the company’s wares, really, and in fact many new writers and commentators walk straight past the company and jump straight into favoured indie bottlers and expensive new craft rums (I envy them this ability, sometimes) without often stopping to wonder at the strange longevity and quality of what, at first sight, doesn’t seem to be much. It’s gotten to the point where any crowd pleasing column-still rum made by a massive conglomerate is not usually seen as a member of the Key Rums pantheon.

Yet I believe that there are reasons why a rum like this can not only be called key, but serious. It does, of course, tick all the boxes. It is affordable, whatever one might say about the source of that low cost. It is available, a point to which my personal travels can attestI’ve found the rum from the small speakeasies of Alaska and the Yukon to the bars of Central Asia, for illicit sale in the Middle East and just about everywhere in between. The Bacardi Gold is even more easily gotten (and even cheaper) but when it comes to some decent sipping quality of rum, it’s either the 8 or the 10 and for my money, given its decades-long availability everywhere I looked (or didn’t), the 8 gets it because the ten just doesn’t cut the mustard for me in the same way.

Bacardi’s rums as they have been for ages, don’t rely overmuch on flavours developed by fermentation or prioritise the distillation apparatus the way new kids on the block do; their expertise is in wood management, careful barrel usage and selection, and then the subsequent blending. They are based on the skill of maestros roneros with oodles of experience and decades of background in the craft. What comes out the other end can’t be denied, and when I consider the oft-unacknowledged chops of the Ocho as one of the premiere Spanish heritage style rums of the world, it is clear that it isn’t just a key rum for me, but a benchmark against which I rate many others of the style. And that’s no mean achievement for a brand often dismissed as yesterday’s leftovers. As I’ve tried to make clear here, it really shouldn’t be,

(#969)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • The blend is tweaked slightly but remeins quite consistent. Of the five different labels shown in the picture, only the green rye-finish edition is substantially and noticeably different.
  • Although made in Puerto Rico, I argue it is less a local Key Rum emblematic of the island, than a global one.
Jan 162023
 

In all the excitement about the latest releases from the Reunion distillery of Savanna, it’s always good to keep in mind that there are two other distilleries on the island making some pretty good rhumRivière-du-Mât and Isautier. I’d suggest that the former is probably the lesser known, but Isautier is gaining some traction of late, because there have been quite a few neat rhums emerging from the distillery in recent years that are making some waves and exciting serious attention.

So let’s forego any long introductory perambulations and get right down to the facts at hand. This is a cane juice origin rhum, made by the named distillery, on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. It’s one a pair of rhums named after two sailing ships used by the Isautier brothers to transport their cargos to and from Reunion in the 19th and early 20th century, and this one is an agricole distilled off a column still (its twin, the L’Apollonie, is a traditionnel, made from molasses). The nice part is that it’s cognac-cask aged for the full 15 years (no short finishes or dual-ageing for these boys) and the results, bottled at 55.3%, is at pains show all the notes that were wrung out of the process.

Nose: “lightly richis the only term that comes to mind, and the aromas come in three distinct sets. First, it’s sweet strawberry bubble gum, bags of tart mangoes, gooseberries, dark grapes, and oranges and lemon peel. Second, floralslight and sweet, like hibiscus, lavender and maybe a dusty rose or two. And then, thirdly, the spicescinnamon and cloves, rounded out and complemented by a touch of vanilla and coconut, and it gets more precise and distinct as the minutes click by. It’s the sort of nose that encourages one to keep it on hand for a second and third sniff, just to see if anything new popped up since the last time.

The palate has sparkly and light notes, exhibiting the sort of happy perkiness Mrs. Caner displays when she gets to buy a new Prada purse. It’s nicely, restrainedly sweet, with notes of cinnamon, cloves and herbs (like oregano, parsley and rosemary, how’s that for an odd combo?). The fresh green grassiness of an agricole is less evidentprobably as the influence of the barrel took over Managementbut in its place we get raisins, apples, prunes, then cereal and honey dripped over fresh toast. Though the finish was not spectacularit more or less summed up the fruity freshness that had preceded it and added a touch of spices and lasted a decently long time,

Overall, I’d have to sum up by noting that the L’Elise had a terrific nose followed by a rather less exaltedbut still excellent, very solidpalate. Admittedly it doesn’t spark a riot on the tongue, however fascinating it smelled five seconds earlier, yet the quality can’t be gainsaid, and the denouement was a nice conclusion to a very pleasing drinking experience. If nothing else, it demonstrated that even if Savanna might have a lock on the high ester fruit bombs, the aged rhums made elsewhere on the islands are no slouches. By any standard, this is pretty fine stuff.

A rhum like this excites curiosity, invites idle wonderings. Like “Where’s Isautier?” “Who is Isautier?” “Is this an agricole rhum?” “What’s the L’Elise?” “Who is John Galt?” Stuff like that. Drax might do us all one better by asking, with perfect seriousness, “Why is Isautier?” And you know, maybe this rhum actually is an answer: Isautier’s L’Elise 15 year old rhum exists because they wanted it to, to reflect their heritage and show off their own rum-making street cred and just put something out there that’s really damned cool. The nice thing about the rum, then, is that when all is said and done, it answers all those questions solely with itself.

(#966)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The rum is part of LMDW’s “Antipodes” collection for 2022/2023. In geography, the antipode of any spot on Earth is the point on Earth’s surface diametrically opposite to it, and antipodal points are as far away from each other as possible. LMDW’s catalogue (p.2, and p.154) notes that the collection “pays tribute to contrasts and opposites through spirits sourced from across the globe….showcasing the duality found in styles and profiles.” Given the catalogue of antipodal spirits and drinks is pretty all-inclusive, it’s not really very meaningful beyond being their theme for 2023.
  • For those who are interested in a deeper look at the background of Isautier, this little biography helps fill in some historical blanks.
Jan 022023
 

Having now looked at a few standard strength agricola rums from Madeira, it’s clear that for their own “standard line” company bottlings, many remain wedded to mass-audience standards that still appealfor price and availability and approachability reasons, no doubtto the general public. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, except that they don’t always provide that intensity of taste, that serious jolt of flavour, that something of a more robust strength provides.

A good example of the potential of moving beyond G-Rated crowd-pleasers is this six year old 2015-distilled Engenhos do Norte rum agricola, which was selected by and perhaps made for Rum Artesanal from Germany. Engenhos apparently does this for several indie bottlers (a search of Rum-X turns up most of them), though I’m unclear as to the exact mechanics, since it remains a “970” branded rum, with RA noted as the company that chose it. In any event, it is cane juice, column still, bottled at a solid 51.3%, and at that proof point, the comparison with the laid back and inoffensive “North” rums that we’ve looked at before (here, here and here) is really quite apparentespecially when tried side by side.

Consider first the nose: it is instantly pungent, rather thick and redolent of ripe dark fruitsprunes, plums, raisins, peaches in syrup, and has that slight tart sourness of ripe Kenyan mangoes. It smells much firmer and more solidly constructed than Engenhos’s standard agricolas from the North brand line. It remains, for most of the duration one smells it, somewhat thickly sweet mixed with light citrus and crisper fruit, and thankfully never cloying. Whispers of Danish pastries, caramel, vanilla, guavas and a faint touch of orange zest and a whiff of rubber round things out nicely

Tasting it is a pleasant experience, retreading the road of the nose, with a few short detours here and there. For example, although quite mouth-coating, hot and intense (at first), it’s also dry and a little tannic. Flavours of chocolate oranges and dates emerge, combining sweetness, fruitiness and nuttiness in a nice amalgam; this is set off and then overtaken by peaches, very ripe red apples, rose petals, raisins and a touch of caramel, vanilla and cinnamon, with just a tiny hint of cayenne pepper lurking behind it all. It all leads to an easy-going medium long finish combining fruits, some sugar cane juice on the edge of getting sour, and spices. It’s not sharp at all, rather lacking in body, but I submit that the strength overall is reasonably well chosen for the rum that ends up in the glass.

Compared to the others Engenhos do Norte agricolas, the nose is more intense, which is hardly a surprise, but the palate remained thin, which is. Still, I liked how it developed into a sort of spoiled fruit salad drizzled with sugar and caramel at first, then gets taken over by a slightly more traditional profile. Well constructed overall, it still lacks an individualism that I find oddeven after running several of these Madeiran rums side by side, I still can’t quite put my finger on any aspect of them that identifies the terroire specifically, which indicates more research is probably needed (by me). Too, although it isand others area rum from cane juice, not all of the light green herbaceousness comes through in the sampling, and they exhibit a solidity at odds with the effervescent clarity and brightness most true agricoles display.

But all that aside, it’s a good mid-range rum, a tasty treat and it’s well selected. It shows off the potential of higher proofed rums, and marries a strong series of tastes to a deep and yet also occasionally sprightly series of lighter elements. The important thing is that it doesn’t play coy, doesn’t try to hide anythingeverything you taste is on the table for you to accept, or not. On balance, I’d go with the former, because compared with the other rums from the company I’ve tried, they got a lot more right than wrong with this one.

(#959)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • 258 bottle outturn
  • The “970” refers to the year the line was first introduced. EdN provided the detail, without explaining why they dropped the “1”.

Dec 262022
 

Photo courtesy of Steve James at The Rum Diaries Blog, who kindly chipped in after my own photo got corrupted.

The clear, light, and distinct nose on this Guadeloupe agricole is really quite sumptuous, and hearkens back to a time before more formal rules were put into place (even on Guadeloupe) as to how cane juice rhums were put together. It has a clean sweetness to it, quite crisp, redolent of grapes, green apples and a touch of vanilla and caramel to start. Sweet and sour chicken with tons of vegetables, sweet soya. And it develops into more complex territory after thatleather, freshly mown hay, citrus peel, cumin and pomegranates and was that oregano I smelled there? It could be, quite possibly. It’s just a low key, precise and controlled series of aromas.

Tastewise, it’s not too shabby either, and I remember thinking, it’s been a while since I had something quite like this, from Guadeloupe or anywhere else. It opens with salty, unsweetened, nearly-bitter chocolate flavoured with pimentonot one of my favourites, but I have tried some on occasion when feeling adventurous (or stupid, take your pick). Coffee grounds (fresh ones, still steaming, not yesterday’s batch which I get at the office), some leather, caramel, toffee, almonds and pralinesmakes me wonder where the agricole is hiding, as the citrus is not to be found and the cane sap and herbal notes aren’t playing nice. Still, there are some fruits to be sensedblack grapes, prunes, overripe peaches, bananasbut not anything crisper than that. It concludes with some lighter notes, of apples and hard yellow mangoes, a touch of sugar water, and it’s quite long for 42% ABV, gliding to a serene stop next to the sign saying “have another sip.”

Which, if you ever locate this almost forgotten rhum, you would be well advised toit’s pretty fine, honestly.


As I noted above, it’s 42% ABV, a cane juice, column-still rhum from the Gardel distillery which is located in the north-east of Grand Terre in the commune of Le Moule. Gardel, owned by Générale Sucrière (itself a major player in the global sugar refining industry) is one of two distilleries in Le Moulethe other is Damoiseauand earns some of its distinction by being the sole sugar refinery on the main island. Gardel doesn’t make any rhums of its own any longer, but it was known for selling rum stock to brokers and others – they ceased distillation in 1992 and destroyed or sold their stills shortly thereafter, so this rhum is among the last that came from there (see also other notes below), even if it came to us via the independent bottler path.

It’s been some time since we reviewed any rums from the “Secret Treasures” line originally created by the Swiss concern Fassbind, and not without good reasonthey sold off their spirits distribution portfolio way back in 2005 to another Swiss distributor called Best Taste which wasn’t interested in any indie bottling operations, and so punted it over to a German company called Haromex. Almost all of the reviews of Secret Treasures rums came from the pre-sale bottlings, which, like Renegade, were perhaps somewhat ahead of their time, and that’s probably why Fassbind was glad to let them go.

Haromex changed the bottle style while keeping something of the label design ethos in the initial post-acquisition period, but nothing has now been issued under the ST label for many years now: the last of them, two St Lucia bottlings (here and here, both quite good) were probably leftovers from the sale. There were some attempts at blends“South America” and “Old Caribbean” were twoyet it’s unlikely you ever heard of either and I never saw them to buy, which tells you all you need to know about what an impact they made. Nowadays Haromex has settled on being a distributor and shows up at European rum festivals here and there to tout its brands…but no rums they themselves have had a hand in bottling.


Fassbind and Secret Treasures may have come on the indie scene too early, and it’s too bad they did not continue: because this is quite a lovely rum. Almost forgotten now except by those Europeans who picked up bottles here and there a decade ago, it shows that it’s not enough to simply have a shuttered distillery to make a name and have a following (did somebody say Caroni?). Nor is it enough to have good production values that people remember. If the audience isn’t there and there is no larger voice to proselytise for it, brand name and rum and distillery will vanish, as Gardel pretty much has.

And that’s a shame for rums which may not have been the best out there, but which at least showed promise, tasted great, and which we didn’t have enough of. They helped chart a path many other small outfits followed in the years that came after, and enriched and educated those like me who consider themselves fortunate to have tried a few. Who knows what Fassbind could have achieved, had they stuck with it. This rum and others of the line give us a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.

(#961)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • My remarks on “the last rum from Gardel” notwithstanding, several independent bottlers have bottled Gardel rhums/rums prior to the cessation of distillation. A non exhaustive list is:
    • Gardel Rhum Vieux Cuvee Ultime 45%
    • Secret Treasure (Fassbind) 1992 11YO 42% Std Label
    • Secret Treasure (Fassbind) 1989 13 YO 42% Black label
    • Secret Treasure (Fassbind) 1989 14 YO 42% Std Label
    • Bristol Spirits Gardel Rhum 1992 10 YO 46%
    • Renegade Gardel 1998 11YO 46% (Chateau Latour)
    • Renegade Gardel 1996 11YO 46% (Chateau Lafleur)
    • Moon Import Gardel 1992 10YO 46%
    • Moon Import Gardel 1982 18 YO 46%
    • Rumclub Gardel 1983 38 YO 46.6% (GMG)
    • Cadenhead Dated Distillation Gardel 1982 20 YO 57.8%
    • Cadenhead Dated Distillation Gardel 1982 18 YO 57.2%
    • Silver Seal “Cigar Choice” 1977 32 YO 50.8%
    • Murray McDavid Gardel 1998 12 YO 46%
    • Douglas Laing Caribbean Reserve 1992 9 YO 46%
  • The source of the post-1992 distillates remains unknown, but as Flo remarked in his deep dive into the distillery, it’s very likely Damoiseau/Bellevue.
  • I’ve elected to keep this rum in the main section and not the Rumaniacs, even though it’s definitely a Golden Oldie that’s dead and gone.
  • This particular Gardel has come up on Rum Auctioneer a few times in 2021-2022, averaging out at about £150 these days. Who knows, it may all be the same bottle (impossible to tell for sure, since, unlike the 1992 edition with the classic cream-yellow-brown label, here the bottle number is not provided).
Dec 222022
 

So here we are again with another rum agricola from Engenhos do Norte, the biggest distillery in Madeira, and another in their line of starter rums from cane juice, column stills and bottled at an inoffensive 40%. These are rums that any cask strength aficionado would be well advised to try neat and first thing in the session, because they have, so far, proved to be relatively light and are easily shredded by the addition of water, a mix or the slightest hint of harsh language. Say “damn!” in front of the “Natural”, and it’ll vanish in a puff of offended vapour.

Of course, rums like this are not made for such people, but for the larger masses of easy rum drinkers who like the spirit, enjoy a decent mix, but can’t name and don’t care about the varieties, know three basic cocktails, and don’t feel they should be assaulted by every variation that crosses their path. For this segment of the drinking population “it tastes good” is recommendation enough.

By that standard this rum both succeed and fails. It has, for example, a really impressive nose, the best of this line I’ve yet come across. It is in its characteristics, almost clairin-like, although gentler, and softer, and slightly sweeter, less inclined to damage your face. It’s redolent of brine and olives, and feels hefty, almost muscular, when inhaled. There’s iodine and s slight fish market reek (well controlled, to be sureit’s hesitant, even shy). After a while some more vegetal and grassy notes begin to emerge, a kind of delicate yet firm green lemony scent that’s quite pleasing and hearkens to the rum’s cane juice roots (though one can be forgiven for wondering why it didn’t lead with that instead of making us wait this long to become a thing).

Anyway, the palate: initially salty and briny, with the low strength preventing it from entering bitchslap territory and keeping itself very much in “we’re not here to make a fuss” mode. It’s pleasingly dry, nicely sweet and quite clear, and has a taste of gingersnap cookies and raisins, but the cane juice action we sensed at the tail end of the nose is AWOL again. It feels rather flattened and tamped down somehow and this is to its detriment. With a drop of water (not that it’s needed), additional wispy hints of sweet pears, guavas, papaya and watermelon are (barely) noticeable, and there’s a slight gaminess pervading at the back end…which is enough to make it interesting without actually delivering more than what the nose had grudgingly promised. Finish is demure, light, clear, delicately sweet and grassy and quite clean. Some vanilla cinnamon, light honey, with maybe a squirt or two of lemon juice…and you have to really strain to get even that much.

Engenhos have said in a video interview that their proximity to the sea gives their rums a unique and individual taste, but of course any island in the Caribbean can make that claim, and they don’t have a clear line of distinctiveness, so no, I don’t really buy that. They have something in their production process that’s different, that’s all, and it comes out in a profile that’s simply not as exciting as others in the West Indies who do more to make their rums express an individualistic island terroire.

This is what I mean when I said the rum both succeeds and fails. It has some interesting notes to play with, yet refuses to capitalise on them and doesn’t take them far enough. 40% ABV is insufficient for them to really come out and make a statement for Madeira: a few more proof points are needed. And what one gets in the glass is not different enough from, or better than, a standard French Island agricole to excite the drinking audience into new allegiances in their drinks. And speaking of the audience: it’s a long standing article of faith that the greater mass of rum drinkers and buyers mostly buy rums that are “okay”, without seeking to extend their experiencesbut what this obscures is the fact that most people are innately conservative and don’t switch favoured drinks and brands easily or even willingly, without a good reason. The “Natural” does not provide enough of such a reason to switch up one’s familiar agricoles. It has potentialbut so far it remains unrealized.

(#960)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • There’s a stronger “Natural” at 60% which may remedy the shortcomings (as I see them) of this one; I’m looking to get one and see for myself.
  • Engenhos do Norte remains as the largest rum producer in Madeira, and has several different brands in the portfolio: Branca, North, 980, 970, Lido, Zarco and Tristao Vaz Texeira. All are column still rums, all are cane juice based and as far as I am aware, all conform to the Madeira GI Indicação Geográfica Protegida. The Lido is a single underproofed (38%) white for making ponchas, the local fruit cocktail. The “Tristao”, “North” and “Zarco” ranges are all series of unaged or lightly-aged blended agricolas (the exact difference among the brands is unclear, as the specs seem quite similar), the “Branca” rums are white unaged rums at several proof points, while the “970” and “980” are more aged variations and can be considered somewhat more upscale.
  • The name “Natural” derives from its cane juice origins, but since all of Engenhos’s rums are agricolas, it’s unclear from the label why this is more natural than others. It could be because it’s rested or unaged (the colour is actually very slightly tinged with yellow, suggesting a possible short period in a barrelI was, however, unable to verify this by posting time). Other sources suggest it’s because it is made from sugar cane on small individual plots, which would make it a parcellaireif true, it’s odd that it’s not more prominently stated, however, since that’s a great marketing plug.
  • All the above aside, at less than €40, this is decent value for money given those tastes it does have.
Dec 122022
 

Today we’ll continue with another rum from the island of Madeira and the company of Engenos do Norte, which, as its name suggests, is located in the north of Madeira Island. The company was founded in 1928 by the merging of some fifty sugar factories at a time when it was simply not economical for individual small mills to operate. While they had been making rums on the island for centuries, it had a lesser importance to sugar, and most of the local rum was either consumed domestically or in Portugal (wine was actually much more popular and commonly made). In other words, though rum has a long pedigree on Madeira, the emergence of the rum (and local rum brands internationally) as an economic force and a serious revenue and tax generator, is very much a 21st century phenomenon.

Engenhos do Norte remains as the largest rum producer in Madeira, and has several different brands in the portfolio: Branca, North, 980, 970, Lido, Zarco and Tristao Vaz Texeira. All are column still rums, all are cane juice based and as far as I am aware, all conform to the Madeira GI (Indicação Geográfica Protegida). The Lido is a single underproofed (38%) white for making ponchas, the local fruit cocktail. The “Tristao”, “North” and “Zarco” ranges are all series of unaged or lightly-aged blended agricolas (the exact difference among the brands is unclear, as the specs seem quite similar), the “Branca” rums are white unaged rums at several proof points, while the “970” and “980” are more aged variations and can be considered somewhat more upscale.

The Rum North “Barrica Nova” is a golden rum, not marketed as anything particularly special. As with all the others mentioned above, it’s cane juice derived, distilled on a column still, aged for three months in new French Oak barrels (hence the “barrica nova” in the title), and released at 40%. It’s very much a living room rum or for the bartender’s backbar, made for cocktails and not neat sipping; nor does it appear to be anything exclusive or limitedand while it’s on sale in Europe, so far I haven’t seen anyone’s review of it out there.

The rum’s initial nose presents with bright golden notes of citrus, green grapes, ginnips and unripe papaya, nicely fresh and quite lightnot much of the grassy herbals as characterise a French West Indian agricole, yet close enough to suggest the commonality of origin. There are notes of green peas, fanta, and an apple-flavoured creamy yoghurt. There’s a touch of cream cheese, fresh wonderbread toast (!!), with light lemony aspects, and lurking quietly in the background, the rather peculiar aroma of old leather suitcases pulled from musty cupboards after long disuse. All these aromas are rather faint and the citrus and fruit sodas are more dominant, with the others providing a vague and uneasy backdrop that takes effort to tease out.

After that rather decent nose the palate falls flat from exhaustion at trying to keep up. The rum tastes watery, thin and sharp as a harridan’s flaying tongue. Notes of light fruits, honey, sugar water and vanilla predominate, but this is a scrawny kind of gruel, and even a few last minute bits and piecesaromatic tobacco, salt caramel, old carboard and nail polishdon’t really make this a sip worth seeking. The finish is even weaker: short, light, sweet, inoffensive, mostly very light fruitinesswatermelon, papaya, white guavaand requires too much effort to locate.

This rum is not my thing. Like the 980 Beneficiado, there’s just not enough going on to provide a taste profile of any distinction, and while 40% may be the preferred strength locally or for maximal exports, the faintness of what the palate presents demonstrates why some rums should simply be stronger. It enforces a limitation on the producersprobably for tax, regulatory or other reasonsthat should be pushed past for the benefit of consumers who buy it. It’s no accident that the best-scoring Madeira-made rums we’ve seen so far have all been from independents who go cask strength and combine that with some decent ageing.

For the casual imbiber the weak-kneed profile doesn’t mean there is anything ostensibly, offensively wrong with the rum…and yet, for those who have a bit more experience, everything is. Even with the decent aroma, it’s too anonymous, too lacklustre and certainly does not bugle “Madeira!” from the rooftopsat best, it’s an exhausted squeak. It’s made too much for everyone, which really means for no-one, and you’ll forget about it five minutes after walking away. The ‘Barrica Nova’ is underwhelming, underachieving, underdelivering, and underperforming, and although I suppose that like a shotgun wedding’s reluctant groom it’ll grudgingly do what it’s meant to, in my book that doesn’t count as a compliment.

(#957)(75/100) ⭐⭐½


 

Dec 052022
 

By now Saint James needs little introduction. It is one of the premiere rum makers on Martinique, has a long and proud history, and isn’t particularly nervous about straying off the reservation from time to time. They have made rhums in their illustrious history that are among the best, the most original or the most storied (not always at the same time, of course) – such as the legendary 1885, the pot still blanc, and most recently, the stunning Magnum series entry of the 2006 15 Year Old with which I was so enthralled.

However, in between all these top end superstars, we must not allow ourselves to forget the standard line of rhums they make: ambre, gold, blanc, and what have you. The Fleur de Canne (“Flower of the Cane”) is not exactly a beginner’s rum, or a standardbut it’s very good indeed and carries the rep of the distillery in new (but not crazy) directions. The logic probably goes something like this: if one of their lesser known, not-quite-off-the-shelf efforts can be this good, what must the uber premiums be like, right?

Specs are straightforward: cane juice rhum, column still, no ageing, 50%. More need hardly be said, except, why not just call it a straight blanc? What’s with all the fancy titling? According to Marc Sassier, it’s made from cane harvested exclusively during the dry season, which he says gives it a more robust and fruity flavour profile. Well, that’s certainly possible. What it does, then, is add yet another white rhum to to the existing rhums of the Imperial Blanc 40°, Blanc Agricole 55°, the three “bio” rhums of various strengths, and the Coeur de Chauffe. You wouldn’t think there were so many variations, but yeah, here they are, and the best part is not so much that there’s something for everyone (and everyone’s wallet) in that stable, but that they’re all pretty fine ponies to take out for a trot. This one is particularly good.

The Fleur de Canne is a bit of a special edition, something of a unique experimental, and I think it’s made in limited quantities (in an odd omission, it’s not on the company’s website). I’ve had it three times now, and liked it a little better each time. The nose, for example, channels straight agricole goodness: a nice green grassiness mixed with the cleanliness of fresh laundry aired and dried in the sun. It’s neat and clean, as crisp as a breaking glass rod, redolent of cucumber slices in vinegar with a pimento for kick, red and yellow half-ripe fruits like mangoes, persimmons, pomegranates, and very ripe sweet apples. It has the tart and citrus aromas of a lemon sherbet mixed with a touch of vanilla and cinnamon, and behind all that is a hint of acetones and furniture polish.

Tasting it continues that odd mix of precision and solidity, and really, the question I am left with is how is a rum dialling in at 50% ABV be this warm and smooth, as opposed to hot and sharp? It’s dry and strops solidly across the palate. Sugar water, ripe freshly sliced apples, cider, lemon zest and nail polish remover, all of which crackles with energy, every note clear and distinct. Lemon zest, freshly mown grass, pears, papaya, red grapefruits and blood oranges, and nicely, lightly sweet and as bright as a glittering steel blade, ending up with a finish that’s dry and sweet and long and dry and really, leaves little to complain about, and much to admire.

You’d think that the stronger 55º blanc would make more of a statement with that proof point: but it’s ultimately just one strong rum within the standard lineup. When it comes to comparisons, it’s the Brut de Colonne “Bio” at 74.2% that the Fleur de Canne is probably better to rank against. Both are special editions in their own way, and I think both serve as sounding boards and test subjects for Marc Sassier’s talent, restless curiosity and desire to tweak the levers of the universe with something a little off the reservation. The construction of the Fleur de Canne is granite-solid in its fundamentals, and yet such is the overall quality that we don’t sense the wheels squeaking. Honestly, I can’t say that the rum is some kind of new and stylistic breakthrough; but it is a rhum to cherish, starting out slow and deceptively simple, getting a head of steam behind it, and then turning out to be so well made that it’s hard to put down even when the glass, and maybe the bottle, is empty.

(#956)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

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 regionsthe 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 its own GI (the Madeiran Indicação Geográfica Protegida), and so can legally and properlyat least within the EUuse the term agricole when referring to their cane juice rums (which is practically all of them). Yet, paradoxically, they remain relatively niche products which have only recentlywhich is to say, within the last decade or sostarted 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 Barrel, The 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 sourcethey were forced to come together to remain economically viable (see “Other notes”, below). Their best known brands are the 970 series (introduced in 1970, which is not 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 milkwhat 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 citrusnot 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, yesit 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 thereno 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 marketsdue to cheaper sources of supply in India, Brazil and elsewhere, as well as the growing health consciousness of first world consumersit 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 172022
 

Whatever my personal opinions on the need for the four Magnum rums to exist as a separate collection as opposed to being folding into other series, they are there, they’re a fact of life and we move on. In any case, we’ve learnt a bit about the legendary photo agency (even if we’re not into current history) and read up about the style and importance of Elliot Erwitt (even if we’re not photographers or understand the connection), and have tasted four new rums from old and proud houses, so it’s by no means a waste.

Moreover, for all their variations in quality, the fact is the rums really are kind of good, and this is a way to make them shine and gain (even more) popular acclaim. “Good” did I say? Wellyes, though perhaps I understate matters. The Foursquare, for all my relative lack of enthusiasm was quite decent (many disagreed and thought it was much better), and the Hampden and the Mount Gay rums were, I thought, excellent in their own right. But when it comes ot the Saint James, the lowest proofed of the lot, “good” or “excellent” just doesn’t cut it. Because this is a rum that’s exceptional.

Part of that may have been the completely approachable strength (45%) and part was surely the impact of fifteen years ageing in Martinique: we rarely see agricole rhums that old, so by itself that’s a selling point; plus, this may be the first indie bottling Saint James have ever allowed (like Appleton’s pot still collection, another Velier coup from a couple of years back). The real takeaway is that this rum combines an agricole sensibility with a long-term barrel-ageing philosophy (much as the Bally 18 YO did) and while of course I can’t speak for your experience or to your preferences, when I tried it, it was love at first sip.

The first notes of the rum opened with a complex symphony so rich I slugged the shot down, then poured a second glass immediately, just to make sure somebody wasn’t messing with me. There was a complex fruit symphony of tart gooseberries, miso, very ripe gooseberries and mangoes, and a smorgasbord of all the sour funkiness I would normally have associated with Jamaica. Pineapples, cherries, sprite, lemon rind, honey, and that was before a panoply of cane sap and herbals made themselves known: fennel, rosemary, cloves, jasmine. The balance was superb and each delicate aromatic chip was clear, bright, and neither dominating nor dominated by, any other.

It was a great experience tasting it, as well. It felt just right on the tongue, silky, velvety, rich, and the tastes just went on from there. A lot of the bright and effervescent character remained, sweet, sour, tart, clean and voluptuous: pineapple slices and light yellow Thai mangoes, plus 7Up, honey, with additional threads of vanilla, cinnamon, rosemary and cardamom, plus just enough coffee grounds, chocolate and woodsmoke to present an intriguing and welcome counterpoint. The prevalence of dried fruitsthankfully not oversweetbrought to mind aged armagnacs or cognacs, especially when combined with a hint of aromatic damp tobacco. And it led to a really nice finish, surprisingly long, presenting a finale of delicious, sweetly gentle florals, bananas, honey, fruits and anise.

Like Stuart Pearce of the underrated review site Secret Rum Bar, I have tended to view much-reduced aged agricole rhums with some hesitation, some reluctance, even occasional suspicion; and in his own review he noted that he felt the palate became somewhat flat, hence his lower score. I thought otherwise myself, though: it dialled down from the impact the nose had made, to be sure, yet I didn’t think any quality was truly lost.

Frankly, my opinion was (and remains, after sneaking a second round in at the Paris Whisky Live later in the year) that it is hard to see how it could have been improved upon. It’s one of the best aged agricoles I’ve ever tried, and to my mind, is some kind of wonderful. It dares to take a chance, to not so much go off the beaten track as delicately careen along the skirting to show possibilities, hinting, not bludgeoning. It marries a solid age not often seen in agricole rhums, with a lower strength that allows all the complexities of the barrels and the gradual transmutation of the rhum, to be presented in their full flower. To bring this up to cask strength but make it younger would not have worked as well, and to simply age it without addressing the balance of tastes and intensity would have invited failure. Saint James drew upon all the skills they hadand that’s a lotand ended up providing Velier, and us, with one of those miraculous rhums that achieves its immediate goals of being just damned good…and then continues climbing towards an even higher sensibility.

(#951)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Once again it seems like I have a minority opinion. Secret Rum Bar rated it 84 points, WhiskyFun gave it 88, while Rum-X has an average of 84 points off of 12 ratings.
  • As with the other rums in this quartet, the outturn is 600 magnums and 1200 bottles.
  • The photograph on the label is from 2005 and depicts a scene from the wedding of a friend of Erwitt’s in Rome. The woman shown in silhouette is the bride.
  • The rums in the Magnum Series Volume 1 are:
  • From the Mount Gay “Magnum EE” Review: The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the word — greatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwitt — an American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but they have no direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were likely chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.
Nov 032022
 

Tanduay, in spite of being a behemoth of rum making in Asia (it sold nearly 23 million cases in 2021) with more than a 150-year history, has a spotty recognition in the west, largely because until relatively recently it sold most of its wares in Asia, and wasn’t all that common, or available anywhere else. What knowledge or reviews of the brand as existed, came from people who had friends in the Philippines who could bring a bottle over, or sip there on a sunny beach and write about the experience. And other Philippine brands like Limtuaco or Don Papa didn’t exactly set the world on fire and make sharp nosed distributors run to book tickets to the Philippine islands: because there as in much of Asia, a lighter, softer, sweeter and more laid back rum-style is much more in vogue.

But once people realised that Don Papa (in particular) was selling quite nicely in spite of all the hissy fits about sweetening, and saw other brands’ adulterated fare were not really hurt by all the vitriol emanating from social media’s rum clubs, it was inevitable that Tanduay would make sure it expanded into more lucrative markets and try and upgrade its sales to the premium segment, where the real pesos are. This is why, even though they began selling in North America from around 2013 (with a gold and a silver rum, probably as an alternative to Bacardi’s Blanco and Gold rums and their copycats), there’s been an increasing visibility of the brand in the European rum festival and tasting scene only since 2019, with more aged products becoming part of the marketing mix.

The rum we’re looking at today is not really in the premium world, though the Rum Howler suggested in his 2019 review that it was positioned that way. It’s actually a blend of oak-aged rums of no more than five years old, and it’s semi-filtered to a pale yellow (this could equally mean it’s a blend of aged and unaged stocks like the Probitas/Veritas but I doubt it). Molasses base from a “heritage” sugar cane, column still, 40%. Nothing premium or spectacular on the face of it.

The completely standard nature of its production belies some interesting if ultimately unexciting aromas. It’s soft, which is to be expected, and a touch briny. Some vanilla and coconut shavings are easy to discern, and these are set off by pears and green apples, ripe gooseberries and a touch of citrus peel. It’s an easy smell, with the combination of soft sweetness, light sour notes and tartness coming together nicely.

Taste-wise it’s light, easy, warm-weather drinking, with the standard proofage making it hard to pick out anything particularly hard-hitting or complex. There’s vanilla, almonds, papaya and watermelon to start, and these are joined with the aforementioned grapes and apples and some tartness of sour, unripe green mangoes and citrus peel. In the background there’s some coconut, light molasses and sweet spices; but really, it’s all so faint that the effort is not commensurate with the reward, and the near-nonexistent light finishsweet and lightly fruitydoesn’t help matters. It’s light enough so it can be had neat. The character, however, is too bland and it would be overwhelmed by anything you put bit into (including the ice cube), so it’s probably best to just mix it with a cocktail where the rum profile is the background, not the point.

This is a rum that competes with the Plantation Three-Star, Bacardi and Lamb’s white rums, the Havana Club 3 YO, Beenleigh 3 YO and others of that ilk, which serve as basic cocktail mixing rums with occasional flashes of better-than-expected quality popping up to surprise us (like the Montanya Platino or the Veritas, for example). The Tanduay Silver does not, however, play in the sandbox of agricoles or unaged white rums we’ve looked at before, and to my mind, they bowed to their cultural preferences and aged it to be as soft and easy as it iswhen an unaged, higher-strength product might have shown more chops and character, and displayed more courage in a market that is aching to have more such rums.

(#947)(75/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • On both the Philippine and US company websites, there is no sign of the pale yellow “Silver” rum I’ve tried; it seems to be for European markets only, as the other two are resolutely colourless in their pictures, and named “white”. The specifications all seem to be the same: a lightly filtered, column-still blend of young rums under five years old.
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 drinkcome on, let’s face it, there are worse ones out thereand 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 reasonsit’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-meaninglessa refutation of Randism if I ever heard it. You don’t think of Guatemala when you hear or see the Zacapayou 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 onor necessary correction towriters’ 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 debatablesome 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 itand 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 otherwisethat’s what it is. A light sting of alcohol, nothing serious, won’t scare any new premium-rum samplers off. Some light florals and fruitspears, 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 thema 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 thinggood 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 thinmany 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 byand copiedthe 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.

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