Feb 222021
 

Rumaniacs Review #124 | 0803

There were several varieties of the standard white Havana Club mixer: strengths varied from 37.5% to 40%, the labels changed from saying “El Ron de Cuba” to “Mix Freely” and in the early 2000s this old workhorse of the bartending scene, which had been in existence at least since the 1970s and produced all over the world, was finally retired, to be replaced by the Anejo Blanco. 

From the label design I’m hazarding a guess mine came from the early 1990s (it lacks the pictures of the 1996 and 1997 medals it won that were added later) but as it was part of a collection from much earlier and the design changes were stable for long periods, it may be from the late eighties as well (the HC sun began to be coloured red in the early 1980s which sets an earliest possible dating for the bottle). As far as I know it was a column still product aged for no more than 18 months, filtered to white and made in Cuba.

Colour – White

Strength – 40%

Nose – Very light, fragrant and delicate. Sugar water, coconut shavings (and actual coconut water), watery pears.  A touch of light vanilla, watermelon and cucumbers, and an almost industrial sort of aroma to it that is supposed to double for “alcohol,” I guess, but feels too much like raw spirit to me. Without practice this could come off as a serious no-nose kind of rum.

Palate – Meh. Unadventurous.  Watery alcohol.  Pears, cucumbers in light brine, vanilla and sugar water depending how often one returns to the glass.  Completely inoffensive and easy, which in this case means no effort required, since there’s almost nothing to taste and no effort is needed. Even the final touch of lemon zest doesn’t really save it.

Finish – Short, faint and undistinguished, complete non-starter. By the time you think to ask “Where’s the finish?” it’s already all over.

Thoughts – By today’s standards, this venerable white is unimpressive.  Current Havana Club variants like the 3YO Anejo Blanco or the Verde are slightly more taste-driven on their own account, and have a life over and beyond the cocktail circuit since they possess a smidgen of individual character. This is too much of a backgrounder, too anonymous, to appeal.  

Note however, that it is completely consistent with its purpose which was to liven up a mojito or a daiquiri, not to appear on one of my lists of white rums (here and here) that stand tall alone.  At the time, this was what such blancos were made for and what made them sell. That this one fails by today’s more exacting standards for white rums, is hardly its fault. We changed, not it.

(74/100)


A picture of some of the silver dry series over the decades, from the FB site HC Sammlung Hamburg

Dec 212020
 

The Cuban-made Vacilón brand was launched in 2016 (as a relaunch of an apparently very popular brand from the 1950s) and has been making the rounds of the various rum festivals off and on.  It’s part of the brand’s “luxury range” of 15 / 18 / 25 year old rums, which is fine, except that as usual, there’s very little to actually go on about the production details – which remains one of the more annoying things about latin rons in general, hardly unique to Cuba. 

Suffice to say, it is made by Destilería Heriberto Duquesne attached to the local sugar mill located in Remedios in the north-central coast of Cuba under the overlordship of Cuba’s government entity Tecoazúcar. Founded in 1844 and previously known as Santa Fe, this is a distillery that produces pure alcohol as well as export rum, and makes the Vigia and the Mulata rum brands — so consolidating the information we have from those (here and here) we can say with some assurance that it’s a column still light rum, aged in ex-bourbon barrels…and that barrel strategy, coupled with skilful blending by the roneros, is behind its taste profile, not any kind of terroire or pre-distillation techniques or pot still component. 

How does that all come together when it’s time for the theory to take a back seat? Judge for yourself. Personally, I found the strength to be anemic at 40%.  It allowed aromas of caramel, nuts, flowers, coffee and cocoa to come through, just not with any kind of punch or assertiveness. Some light fruits — watermelon, papaya, guava, nothing too bold — shyly tiptoed on to the stage but at the first sigh of appreciation they panicked and ran back off again.

Tasting it made it clear this is a soft, warm sipping rum to be had by itself, and savoured that way – even ice might destroy its fragile and delicate construction.  That’s both its appeal and (for me) it’s downfall – I tasted caramel, butterscotch, bon bons, a bit of hazelnut, lemon zest, cumin and dill, a touch of ripe pear and that was it. The finish…well, it trailed off like an unfinished sentence, trending towards silence without ever having drawn attention to itself.  Which is, I must concede, about what I had expected (though not what I had hoped for) and which defined the rum as a whole.

Let me be clear – the Vacilón is a perfectly “nice” rum. On the surface, based on the label, it hits all the high points. It’s from Cuba, home of a long and proud tradition of rum making stretching back centuries. It is fifteen “true” years old.  And if it’s only 40% well, cask strength isn’t the rumiverse and standard strength rums should not be looked down upon just because they lack the spirituous equivalent of Ahnold’s biceps in his prime. 

Except that that was not the way the experience unfolded. I can live with the faint, quiet, wispy proof, I just needed to focus more, and harder, to tease out the tasting notes.  But it was simply unexciting, lacking appeal, not making any kind of serious statement for its own uniqueness and quality. It could have been five years younger and not been appreciably different. Why in this day and age they didn’t at least try to jolly it up to maybe 43% or 46% remains one of those unanswered questions to which rons have yet to respond.  Maybe it’s because they sell quite enough of what they do already and see no reason to change.

That of course is their privilege – rums like this do have their fans and markets. But as long as rons’ makers only keep trotting along the same old track at the same old pace, they’re only ever going to end up getting dismissive reviews like this one, and placing themselves in the “also-ran” finishing spot. Or even further back in the listings, which is something of a shame for an otherwise decent product on which maestros roneros expend so much time and effort. I think they can do better for today’s audiences, and they should at least give it a try, instead of recreating blends that were popular the 1950s but which are no longer as much in fashion now as they were back then.

(#787)(76/100)

Jul 142019
 

It’s been some time since a current production Cuban rum not made by a third party crossed my path.  Among those was the Santiago de Cuba 12 YO, which, at the time, I enjoyed a lot, and made me anxious to see how older versions from the Cuba Rum Corporation’s stable would work out.  So when the 25 YO became available, you’d better believe I snapped it up, and ran it past a bunch of other Latin rums: a Don Q, the Diplomatico “Distillery Collection” No. 1 and No. 2 rums, a Zafra 21 and just because I could, a Kirk & Sweeney 18 YO.

The Cuba Rum Corporation is the state owned organization located in the southern town of Santiago de Cuba, and is the oldest factory in the country, being established in 1862 by the Bacardi family who were expropriated after the Cuban Revolution in 1960. The CRC kept up the tradition of making light column-still Cuban rum and nowadays make the Ron Caney, Varadero and Santiago de Cuba lines, the last of which consists of an underproof blanca and sub-5YO anejo, and 40% 12 YO, 20 YO and this 25 YO. The 25 YO is their halo product, introduced in 2005 in honour of the 490th anniversary of the city of Santiago de Cuba’s founding and is lavish bottle and box presentation underscores the point (if the price doesn’t already do that).

Could a rum tropically aged for that long be anything but a success? Certainly the comments on the crowd-sourced Rum Ratings site (all thirteen of them, ten of which rated it 9 or 10 points out of ten) suggest that it is nothing short of spectacular. 

The nose was certainly good – it smelled richly of leather, mint, creme brulee, caramel, raisins, cherries, and vanilla.  The aromas were soft, yet with something of an edge to them as well, a bit of oak and tar, some citrus peel and lemon juice (just a little), plus a whiff of charcoal and smoke that was not displeasing. Even at 40% (and I wish it was more) it was enormously satisfying, if unavoidably light.  Good thing I tried it early in the session – had it come after a bunch of cask strength hooligans, I might have passed it by with indifference and without further comment.

The challenge came as it was tasted, because this is where standard strength 40% ABV usually falls flat and betrays itself as it disappears into a wispy nothingness, but no, somehow the 25 year old got up and kept running, in spite of that light profile.  The mouthfeel was silky, quite smooth and easy, tasting of cinnamon, aromatic tobacco, a bit of coffee. Then came citrus, nuts, some very faint fruits – raisins again, ripe red grapes, kiwi fruits, sapodilla, yellow mangoes – that was impressive, sure, it’s just that one had to reach and strain and really pay attention to tease out those notes…which may be defeating the purpose of a leisurely dram sipped as the sun goes down somewhere tropical.  Unsurprisingly the finish failed (for me at any rate – your mileage may, of course, vary): it puffed some leather and light fruits and cherries, added a hint of cocoa and vanilla, and then it was over.

The Santiago de Cuba brand was supposedly Castro’s favourite, which may be why the Isla del Tesoro presentation quality rum retails for a cool £475 on the Whisky Exchange and this one retails for around £300 or so.  Personally I find it a rum that needs strengthening. The tastes and smells are great – the nose, as noted, was really quite outstanding – the balance nicely handled, with sweet and tart and acidity and muskiness in a delicate harmony, and that they did it without any adulteration goes without saying. It would, six years ago, have scored as good or better than the 12 year old (86 points, to save you looking). 

But these days I can’t quite endorse it as enthusiastically as before even if it is a quarter of a century old, and so must give it the score I do…but with the usual caveat: if you love Cubans and prefer softer, lighter, standard proofed rums, then add five points to my score to see where it should rank for you.  Even if you don’t, rest assured that this is one of the better Cuban rums out there, tasty, languorous, complex, well-balanced….and too light.  It’s undone – and only in the eyes of this one reviewer – by being made for the palates of yesteryear, instead of beefing itself up (even incrementally) to something more for those who, like me, prefer something more forceful and distinct.

(#641)(82/100)


Other notes

Pierre-Olivier Coté’s informative 2015 review on Quebec Rum noted the outturn as 8,000 botles.  One wonders whether this is a one-off, or an annual release level.

Apr 302017
 

Rumaniacs Review #034 | 0434

By now we are all aware of the two different kinds of Havana Club.  This rum is the one from Cuba, not the Bacardi version made in “not Cuba” and hails from the 1980s which, coincidentally, is when I started drinking DDL’s King of Diamonds (a useless factoid, I know).  No point rehashing well-known details of the brand, so off we go.

Colour – Amber

Strength – 40%

Nose – Oh well, very nice indeed, quite a few steps ahead of the Facundo Paraiso.  Dare I say “the real deal”?  Better not.  Initially it smells very crisp and floral, with light “watery” fruits (pears, guavas, even watermelon), and then segues gently into something more creamy.  Actually the aroma moves into heavier syrup-from-tinned-peaches territory after a while, but is redeemed from cloying heaviness by remaining reasonably light, adding some brine and genteel gone-to-seed flower gardens with too much earth.  Some traces of toffee, tobacco, maybe a flirt of cinnamon.  Gone too fast, alas.

Palate – What just happened here? Was that licorice, medicinals and plasticene I tasted?  Indeed it was. Just as suddenly, it went limp again, but after standing for a while, with some effort, I could make out additional flavours of green peas (!!), apple juice, vanilla, nutmeg, caramel, cardamon…and some bitterness of over-zealous application of the barrel.  Good potential, but ultimately unsatisfying and again, this being the era of 40%, really not intense enough, while interesting in its own way.

Finish – Well done, reasonably long for the strength.  Cigar smoke, brine, some last herbal notes and a couple of olives.  Dry and dirty and quite pleasant.

Thoughts – Nose and finish are the best part of the experience, with some nice points on the palate.  Not as anonymous and boring as the Bacardis, yet lacks punch in its own way; and even though it may be churlish to grumble about the way rums were made back then, a few extra points of proof would have gone a long way to raising the labial volume to something higher.

(80/100)

Other Rumaniacs reviews of this rum can be found on the website.

Mar 272017
 

Rumaniacs Review #032 | 0432

Over and above the skimpy details of the company provided in the notes written for the Carta Oro (Rumaniacs-031) there’s nothing new here, except to note that this rum is definitely better, and I enjoyed it a lot more.  So let’s dive right in and be briefer than usual

Nose – Very Spanish in its lightness.  Cornflakes, cereal, lemon peel, vanilla and salted butter come to the fore.  It’s a little spicy and tart for 40%, something like a lemon meringue pie, very nice actually, if a little gentle. Opens up to smoke and leather after some time.

Palate – I’ve moved away somewhat from the Latin style, but no fault to be found here.  Orange marmalade, a little caramel and coffee grounds and white chocolate, and with water there is a whiff of licorice, toffee, more vanilla, leavened by sharper fruits such as ginnips, red currants, red guavas…that kind of thing.  Really a very nice rum.

Finish – Short and delicious, quite light and crisp, with more tart fruity notes and some smoke and very faint licorice and orange peel.

Thoughts – I have no idea how aged this rum is – I suspect five to ten years.  Whatever the case, it’s a most enjoyable dram.  Probably out of all our price ranges at this point, if a bottle could even be found whose provenance one can trust. With the opening of the American market to Cuban products, we can expect to see a lot of rums many have never tried before from companies that will surge to the fore but which until now remain relatively obscure. I really look forward to that.

(84/100)

Mar 272017
 

Rumaniacs Review #031 | 0431

This is a Cuban rum from a company that still exists in Santiago de Cuba and now called Ron Caney: the holding company was (and may still be) called Combinado de Bebidas de Santiago de Cuba and was supposedly formed around 1862…however, it is also noted to be operating out of a former Bacardi factory, so my take is that it’s using expropriated facilities, which is confirmed by Tom Gjelten’s book, Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba.  This rum is from the late 1960s or early 1970s, is also known as “Gold,” and for sure is no longer in production, though modern and aged variants do of course exist (the Ultimate Rum Guide has a list for the curious). The export version is the Havana Club marque from Cuba.

Picture here taken from ebay and I’m unclear if it’s the same one as what I was tasting.  The actual bottle pic for the sample in my possession is very low res, but shown below.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 40%

Nose – Soft citronella notes, flowers, relatively uncomplex, but laid back, light and quite clean.  Some cream pie and vanilla.

Palate – Sharp, clean and light, a little aggressive in a way the nose didn’t mention. Started off with a faint medicine-y taste which is far from unpleasant. Some salted caramel and cream cheese. Salty brine and olives, citrus peel, balsamic vinegar and cheese-stuffed peppers.  Maybe I got a dud sample that oxidized too much, ’cause it sure didn’t taste like a normal Cuban.  Still – not entirely a write-off.

Finish – Short, sharp, mostly lemon peel and some candied oranges.

Thoughts – Probably a very young rum. If one can find a bottle, it’s probably worth more for historical value than to actually drink it

(78/100)

May 042013
 

D7K_1299

Not quite a rum, but close to a spiced or flavoured agricole, and a delicious drink for all that. Big hat-tip to Tony for this one and all the others.

For those who believe Cuba makes only rums, here’s a flavoured spirit close to being one without actually stating it is. It defies easy categorization, which is perhaps why it doesn’t, even on the label, say anything about what it supposedly is (a rum with additives for taste). The issue may be its source, which is variously noted as being either a cane spirit or a guava-based distillate (it’s actually a bit of both). Like the Thai Mekhong, Czech Tuzemak or Austrian Stroh, it’s close to meeting all the requirements, but isn’t, quite. Which doesn’t make it a bad drink, just an intriguing one, and for the purposes of this review, I’ll call it a rum, ‘cause, you know, what the hell. It’s kissing close, and I’m not a total purist in these matters.

What distinguished this product from the Pinar del Rio province in western Cuba to me, was its overall profile. The hay-blonde spirit immediately gave off scents of herbal lemon grass and white guavas, sugar cane peel torn off the stalk with the teeth. Sweet, soft, almost thick, and vaguely perfumed – and none of this was in any way cloying or reeking of an overenthusiastic blender’s machismo either, just harmoniously balanced. To say I was startled is an understatement. Tony (he of the famous 151 proof rumballs) brought this back from Cuba – on a whim, I suspect, just because it looked so different – didn’t know much about it, but having opened it, he loved it and brought it over for us to check out in more detail.

The body and palate were a bit heated (the liquor was 40%, so some spiciness could be expected); what really was fine about it was the mouthfeel, almost silky, decently smooth and very easygoing. One could not get away from the guavas and the sweetness of almost-ripe, fleshy fruit (pears, not peaches), and here again I must stress how well put together the overall product was – there was no real excess sugar or flavoured overkill here, the way you would find in a liqueur, just a delicate balance between competing tastes of nuts, white toblerone, a flirt of vanilla and maybe some more of that raw sugar cane sap. Finish was gentle and medium long – I got less from the aromas than a lingering taste on the tongue, another thing I quite liked.

The outfit that makes this spirit – Sociedad L. Garay y Compañía – has been in operation since 1892, though I was unable to find out how it weathered the Cuban revolution. It seems to run on a semi-privatized basis these days. From what I was able to gather on the various Spanish-language websites I visited, the spirit is made by mixing a large quantity of the macerated guavas with a cane-derived alcoholic base, and the resultant mixture allowed to marry for about a month before being drawn off and aged in oak barrels for a further three months (for the dry “seca” version…two months is considered good enough for the sweet “dulce”).

D7K_1300

So an aged product it is not. But you know, some time back I wrote a positive review of the Hawaiian Kōloa rum which had not been aged at all yet still presented itself well as a rum, and Nine Leaves out of Japan does something similar with their “Clear” rum. This little-known almost-rum from Cuba, flavoured and sweet as it is, is a pleasant sipping product to have after dinner (or before it), something to savour with a nice tropical sundown. Don’t look for massive complexity – it’s not that kind of drink – but just enjoy it without fanfare, over ice, and share generously with your friends if that’s their thing, making sure you explain its origin and source materials before they ask the inevitable. Me, I see this as a farmer’s rum, a country rum, similar to backdam hooch my friends and I used to distil out of rice and sugar in the old days, and flavour with whatever fruits were on hand. The Seca reviewed here is made much more professionally than what we did, but the principle remains the same.

And if you haven’t been aware of it before, well, it’s so damned cheap in Cuba that you can’t go wrong with dropping five bucks and at least trying it. Everyone’s heard about Havana Club, Santiago de Cuba and the other big brands out of the island…here’s one it’s worth your while to check out, even if you, like me, may be a bit amused, bemused and confused on the question of whether it’s a rum at all.

(#159. 79/100)