Sep 182022
 

Since the very beginning of the distributed and engaged rumiverse, there have been movements — almost all by individuals — to catalogue all rums in existence.  All of them came up short, failed, or were abandoned…though many, in hindsight, pointed to the desirable characteristics of some as-yet undeveloped system and encouraged the next generation of creators.  Yet perhaps now we are on the edge of cracking the problem.  This two part essay charts the beginnings of such projects, why they are important, and where it all seems to be leading.


For rum deep divers, researchers, auction houses, the curious, the writers, the inheritors of dusty bottles, for all these people and more, a good rum database – a listing of rums – is now needed more than ever before. A good database or website that catalogues rums would not only have technical details – producer, bottler, source material, distillation notes, dates, strength, age, additives, country or city or company of origin and so on – but link to secondary and tertiary sources, provide label photographs, list online review sites, available shopping sites, and have commentary. In today’s world where questions asking about this or that rum pop up all the time and with ever-increasing frequency, the importance of such a database cannot be casually dismissed. It can be used to gauge value, chart trends and identify purchases, if for no other reasons, but for me it’s because I know something of the simple human compulsion to just know

Moreover, my own researches into company histories and the Rumaniacs Project showed that sometimes the bottlers themselves are no longer in business and so there’s nobody who can shed light on a bottle being queried; worse, in some cases existing companies themselves kept no records of what the hell they did. There was a Cadenhead rum bottled in 2003 which was practically unknown, to give one example; the SMWS’s lack of a list of the rums they themselves had issued was another, and I can assure you that almost no old rum-making company anywhere in the world has records of all its bottlings, blends, label changes or even marks – such things were either never deemed of great importance or simply left forgotten and unrecorded.


Books

There was a time less than a generation ago, when books were all we got, and we were grateful. Though not specifically created with the aim of compiling lists or catalogues except as an incidental by product of their researches, they immeasurably aided in such efforts. It was considered, with a kind of endearing innocence, a fairly easy task in the pre-Renaissance and pre-Internet era when most people knew at least something about Caribbean and Latin rums but rarely ventured further afield. Local rums in other lands and climes stayed local and developed their own national character, and at best it was world fairs and occasional newspaper articles over the last hundred years that allowed more knowledge to disseminate. Nobody ever really tried to collate or tie together the world of rum into a cohesive whole.

That said, these early books, when (or if) they made lists of rums at all, concentrated on geographical areas for the most part, and tried to gather some knowledge together with what limited information was then available. Excellent as they were in moving the subject of rums forward in the greater perception of the drinking world, however, they had several drawbacks. 

For instance, the absence of reference or supplementary materials made it necessary for authors to do primary research, in person. Rum lacked the cachet of wine and whisky, where print magazines and newspapers had on-staff critics who were sent on the tab to major wine- and whisky-producing regions to taste, interview and record: in stark contrast, aspiring rum writers were a solitary bunch working in obscurity, and they had to travel and research and experience rums on their own dime. Unsurprisingly, therefore, they stayed within the confines of the regions with which they came from and which were accessible, primarily the Americas and the Caribbean; and they ignored the rich pickings to be held in other parts of the world (a weakness which continues to this day).

Moreover, by the time any book was written and then proofed, sent to printers and distributed, it was often already overtaken by new releases, and if not, became so within a year or two. Once printed they were locked, and so they dated fast. At the time, the majority of the rum market consisted of a sea of blends (only occasionally re-released, re-branded, or reformulated), and the era of multiple annual releases by a host of independent bottlers or multitudinous monthly batches by micro-distilleries, had yet to arrive: but, even with this slower pace of rum releases, no book could ever really stay current. 

Ed Hamilton’s Rums of the Eastern Caribbean and Complete Guide to Rum from the 1990s — both based on his extensive travels and distillery visits in the region — have long since become almost obsolete (thought retain much usefulness as snapshots in time), and even a more recent book like Martin Cate’s Smuggler’s Cove has a rum list that is at best representative, and is approaching its sell-by date as new rums and distilleries emerge on the stage. Other recent books like the French language Le Guide Hachette des Rhums (The Hachette Rum Guide) with originally 400 and now 550 entries, or Alexandre Vingtier’s more modest effort 120 Rhums are useful additions, but unless updated, will suffer similar fates. And the multi-kilo double-tome of the recently printed Caroni distillery history and its bottlings will surely have to have a companion volume to account for all the releases that will be made after 2022.

The original Encyclopaedia Britannica tried to address the same issue by printing annual yearbooks where they updated the content as best they were able. But aside from  the Hachette guide, the writers of books on rum never went that far (and let’s be honest, why should they?) – they rested on their laurels as published authors and moved on to other projects.  Even something as potentially useful as a summary-form Rum Bible (an equivalent to Murray’s work on whisky) was never written, because nobody was in a position to taste the hundreds and thousands of rums such a book would entail, even assuming they were known or available for tasting. In any case, any rum lists included by the various established authors were seen as adjuncts or extensions to their main work of description, story telling and historical recollection — not the primary focus of the work itself. 

Things started to change with the advent of the internet and the rise of enthusiast driven weblogs, which started around 2007. Most of the early efforts in this direction were rum reviews, and sites like Refined Vices, Rum Reviews, El Machete and others stuck with this formula until they went dark and were replaced by yet others doing the same thing. Websites were and almost always are, run by individuals, and such initial forays into the online world came from this pool of enthusiasts who did their best to create, as best they could, a repository of the rums they had tasted. Few went further, though some certainly did take it to the next level – and such sites often dispensed with the whole reviewing gig altogether, perhaps as they had to.


Ed Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum Website

Possibly the most influential of the early rum-focused websites, the Ministry of Rum was launched in 1995 at a time when usenet groups and dial-up bulletin boards dominated the online space and user interaction. Windows 95 debuted that year and the Netscape Navigator had only been released the year before and the internet was a wasteland of disparate websites only gradually finding their way. Easy-to-use website builders like WordPress and SquareSpace were far in the future and Ed hired a programmer to create his website. He added a discussion forum for users, wrote some commentaries, added some articles, but for the purpose of this essay, it was his brief country distillery listings and the rums these distilleries produced which is of note. When I researched the early reviews of my own, it was often the Ministry that provided the first core data points of a rum’s origin, stills, strength, company background and other products they made.  Sadly the site is moribund and most of the links do longer work, and there was never any structured table listing one could consult, so I actually have no idea how many rums were under the hood.


The Burrs: Rob’s Rum Guide, Ultimate Rum Guide, et al

This is what led to one of the earliest websites that tried to capitalise on the burgeoning rum scene of the late 2000s and early 2010s: the Burrs’ Rob’s Rum site, and the associated list of rums which topped out at 622 items (but which lacked many of the minimum provided details we now take for granted). The site was part of an overall multi-channel effort that tied into their various commercial enterprises, especially the Miami Rum Renaissance (which at one time was the premiere North American rum event). Their Ultimate Rum Guide (now offline, and ported to Instagram) was another offshoot of this approach and listed some rums and provided brief details.  Unfortunately it was never scaled up or maintained, ignored far too many rums, was limited in geography, and I don’t think it’s been updated in a while. The efforts of the Burrs have been redirected to the American Rum Index, the Rum Minute (60-second tasting notes on You Tube) and other businesses in which they are involved.  So the whole database “project” (and it never really was anything so structured or grandiose) really didn’t go anywhere and died for lack of oxygen.


Taster’s Guide

Another attempt which was much more serious was the (now defunct) site of Taster’s Guide, created around 2010 by a longtime correspondent of mine named Stefan Hartvigson from Sweden. Over time it amassed what for the time was an enormous listing of popular rums – it’s now dark so I can’t remember how many rums it ever had, but it was very detailed, and had many of the fields enthusiasts were to clamour for as the bare minimum in years to come: name, age, components, source, country, distillery, strength and if available, year of distillation, plus notes on each distillery and other rums they made. The site never got the acclaim it deserved because Stefan – a marine engineer by trade – never marketed it with that intent or did more than casually update it — like many such sites (including my own) the initial impetus for its creation was simply to catalogue his own purchases and info he picked up along the way.  Gradually this grew legs and he tried to keep it going with an enormous body of research, but by 2015 he acknowledged that it was too much work for one person to do, and he let it go. 


Peter’s Rum Labels

A site that defies easy categorization and is not a database in the strict sense of the word, but was and remains enormously useful and probably one of the best out there for what it is, is the Czech site of Peter’s Rum Labels, created and maintained in English by Petr Hlousek from Prague. It does not have a standardised database format, and doesn’t try listing anything. What it has is pictures of rum bottle labels, and data on each company that makes them, plus translations and “the fine print” on each label.  This might not sound like much, but from a historical perspective its worth is incalculable because of the 9,785 label pictures he has from nearly 6,000 producers, companies and brands, many predate the modern era and provide a window on rums of years and decades past. Moreover, there are often small company bios accompanying each (the site is more or less organised by countries and producers) and even how many medals a company or its products won (though I think this ceased around 2010). 


Rum Ratings

Then there was Rum Ratings, a website initially created to be a repository of tasting notes by Andrew Shannon, which went live in 2012. As a student in the UK he wanted to remember and catalogue the collection of rums he had left behind in the US as well as those he wanted to try in the future, and the site began life as a personal blog in which he kept his own scores. As he recounts, “Within days of launching, people somehow found the site and asked me if they could enter their ratings as well. It took a little work, but after I opened it up to others things just seemed to take off.” Even without any sort of deliberate or conscious marketing the site gained popularity, perhaps because it was the only one of its kind in the world – a place where people could fulfil their desire to record their own scores and comments of rums they had tried. 

The site has come in for criticism (including by me on occasion), because of its populist ethos, something Andrew is correcting over time by bringing in links from external bloggers. The average scoring method is problematic when there are only a few ratings (it comes into its own with greater volumes), though the bar chart of score-distribution is great. The data set for each rum is also somewhat limited and as a rum lover I confess to always wanting more.

Yet I’ve come around to really appreciating this site — because alone among all the others it does get updated, you can post your own comments, and you can rate a rum, of which there are close to 8,600 as of 2022.  Moreover, because it has been around for so long, it has opinions on rums that go back a long way, which is a useful window into the past (I made use of that when demonstrating why the Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva had to be considered a key rum, for example). So as a resource of archival material, it’s really very useful and should not be discounted simply because it is user-driven and lacks rigorous reviews or tasting notes. It remains in use, updated and non-monetized by a person with no development experience and no connection with the rum world at all and I continue to have a real affection for Andrew’s work, and use it regularly. (Note: there’s an app for it now, but I prefer the desktop version).


Reference Rhum

When it comes to pure data shorn of any externalities, perhaps the best pre-app, pre-mobile, pre-wiki website database of rums, which has now been offline for many years, was the French site of Reference Rhum (not to be confused with the sales page of that name which now exists, or the review site Preference Rhum). Reference Rhum was the last gasp of websites curated by a single person which sought to list all rums in existence, and honestly, I still think it did a bang-up job and came as close as anyone possibly could at that time, to nailing it.  There were tons of stats for each rum, label or bottle photographs, distillery notes, distillation notes, proof, age, dates, names, sources.  When I was doing bottle lists for some of the “Makers series” company bios, it was Reference Rhum I went to as my first stop.  At its peak it had around 9000 rums or more listed with a level of detail no other site even came close to, except for Rum Ratings (and the two weren’t comparable).  Sadly, the job of updating and curating the site became so onerous and time consuming, that the owner finally shuttered it, which was a loss to the rum community that is often not appreciated. 


The position in 2018

By 2018 or so, whether acknowledged or not, it was clear to many that there was a huge gap in the reference materials available to rum aficionados globally with respect to actual bottlings. Books that were published and posts that were put up were all about rum companies and production details, historical perspectives and limited or specialised foci; and we were and are immeasurably enriched by the research of Matt Pietrek and the few others like Marco Pinieri, Anil Lutchman et al, who mine this lode. Yet aside from the imperfect examples listed above, no-one has ever tried to list all rums in production or those from the past, perhaps because the job is just so absolutely Himalayan in scope. And after my near complete failure to find any reference to that Cadenhead rum mentioned above even from the bottler, I began to realise this could turn out to be a very serious issue indeed for future buyers, fans, writers or researchers.

However, even as the internet widened and democratised the expertise of rum pundits (and their number), it became equally obvious that it was almost impossible for any single individual to create, curate and maintain a master database of this kind. Given the volume of rums and brands available around the world, and adding to that the historical one-offs, merchant bottlings, independent bottlers or special editions dating back (in some cases) centuries, it was simply too time consuming. It would require full-time effort, not occasional after-hours dabbling by enthusiastic amateurs. Nobody has that kind of time in our world, quite simply because nobody is getting paid to do it and it’s such a thankless job. A new system of such record keeping therefore had to be found to address the lack of any serious databases of rums in existence and the gradual move away from desktop computers or even laptops.

We’ll discuss the one application that tries to crack this issue, in more depth in Part II


Other Notes

  • The site of Spirit Radar is an interesting one. Registered in 2020 and run by a small team out of the Czech Republic, the site notes that it is a “next generation data platform for rum and whisky collectors.” They monitor auctions, online shops and ecommerce sites for historical and current bottle pricing information for rums and whiskies (some 60,000+, they note). The site is fully commercial – you pay for the data service and pricing information and have the option to do a free 14 day trial. As part of the data on each bottle, the sort of thing we need — country, strength, age, distillery and so on — is included, and there are options to create a bottle list of your collection, and the site shows its aggregate current value. Because of its collector and commercial focus and inaccessibility to the broad mass of users, I elected to not include it – but it is a resource of the kind this article speaks about.
Aug 312022
 

Attending rum festivals is one of the most cost-effective ways of sampling a wide variety of rums you might not otherwise have the chance to encounter, as well as (and perhaps this is just as important), meeting all your friends and other folks you’ve only texted, tweeted or commented with over long periods. It’s not as riotous as a jump-up bottom-house, and not as staid as a formal tasting, but it’s almost guaranteed that over a few days you won’t be bored.  Almost alone among major spirits categories, rum festivals are still modest enough for you to meet not just booth attendants and rum ambassadors, but actual owners and distillers of small startups (and many large concerns) who are happy to go to the nth degree about their rums, and often have something special squirrelled under the counter for those who show a genuine interest.

Since rum festival season is more or less upon us – the second half of the year has more, on balance, than the first half — it’s perhaps a good idea to assess exactly what attending any one of them is likely to provide, and more importantly, what to do once you get there.


Like other spirits expos, rum festivals are usually held on a weekend, and often comprise of three main elements: there are usually pre-and post-show get-togethers at bars around the city (or even in people’s homes, on occasion) that are enthusiast-driven and attended by aficionados of all stripes; then there’s the main event which is held in a large-ish hall where booths are set up for vendors and distributors to tout their wares; and within that event are somewhat more specialised ancillary “classroom” sessions. In the larger festivals there’s also usually a trade day (or half-day) tacked on at either end, where members of the industry – distillers, producers, distributors, buyers, agents, owners, journos and bloggers – get to go in without members of the public around. This is less a matter of elitism as one of practicality – it’s difficult to talk business and do a hard sell when a long line of people are impatiently waiting their turn to take a snootful in front of a small booth with limited space.

The “ancillary sessions” I refer to above are almost always seminars and masterclasses and if you’re wondering, a seminar is an informative get together for anyone who’s interested with maybe a tasting tacked on, while a masterclass is exactly what it describes. This is why when Richard Seale goes into the technical details of the endochronic properties of resublimated thiotimoline it’s a masterclass (and usually leads to a thundering stampede for the exits five minutes in), while a run-through of six agricole rhums by a distributor is closer to a seminar.

All these events can be spread out over a week or, more commonly, two to three days.  The recently concluded London TWE Rum Show was on Friday and Saturday with the Trade session between 12-4 on Friday and the public given access after 5pm, and 11am-6pm on Saturday. The Berlin festival, by contrast, tends to be 12pm-9pm Saturday and Sunday, with professionals or media people being let in an hour before either one. Most follow one or the other, or, like the Miami Rum Festival, split it up into two half days sessions in two different venues, one for seminars, one for tasting.

The Planning

What these facts point up, however, is the importance by a prospective attendee of at least some planning. Not all rum festivals have the same brands and companies in attendance, so it’s worthwhile checking out what they have to offer. For instance, Brit festivals (TWE, Manchester, UK, etc) would have a stronger representation of British-made rums yet be shy of American ones, while American shows would not have much from the UK and Europe, would probably ignore most agricoles and the Far East, while being stronger on local producers and maybe South America.  Berlin has always had a balanced representation of both as well as Latin America, Reunion and Mauritius; and Paris has been best at cane juice varietals, agricoles, grogues, and obscure small distilleries from Asia. Just about all festivals have their local in-country star boys and major international brands from the Caribbean – El Dorado, Foursquare, St. Lucia Distillers, Bacardi, Mount Gay, Flor de Cana, Hampden, Worthy Park, Appleton, Angostura and so on. Knowing these things helps you chose the rum festival holiday better, I argue, especially if one is not a resident of the city (or the country) in which the rum festival is happening. Fortunately, these days there are loads to chose from.

Secondly, with respect to planning, it’s always useful figure out in advance if any of the seminars or sessions held alongside the main event are worth your time (not least because usually you have to pay to attend, though the prices vary) and address an interest…or not. Booking in advance is recommended because seating is almost always limited, and popular ones sell out fast – any session with Velier or Foursquare or Hampden tends to go quickly, for example, while something more esoteric like “Misunderstandings in the use of language regarding rum” can have you and the presenter having a good dialogue but not much else. I usually stagger the few I attend around both days to divide up the time, and find them particularly useful to provide a break in between very intense tasting sessions, as well as resting my feet.

Thirdly, as noted above, unless you’re okay with simply wandering around, talking to people and randomly stopping wherever it suits you, it is a good idea to know which specific brands and companies are exhibiting. There are several reasons for this. For one it helps you prioritise where to spend your time during a day when it is very likely you will be having more rum in a short period than usual. You may have an interest in Panamanian or Colombian rons, or French Island agricoles, or new American micro-distilleries, so would ensure you know those are represented and which brands are attending. Also, by the end of the day you’ll have a good buzz on and your focus won’t be top notch — so tasting those rums you really want to try and talking to people who really interest you the most is best done while some of your faculties remain. It’s also good to remember that there are always some brands that are more popular than others and will always draw a crowd and it’s difficult to get close enough to talk to anyone, let alone get a decent pour – therefore finding them early before they themselves get tired and irritable at repeating the same schtick for the umpteenth time is a good idea.

The Process

If this is your first rum festival or your fifth, the rules are the same for all of us more experienced hacks. Don’t drink and drive and ensure you have your transport to home or hotel organised. 

For experienced festival attendees – especially those in Europe who have several good ones in close proximity (Paris, London, Marseille, Manchester, Berlin, etc) that are relatively easy to get to and are really top class – it is no particular problem to get around, and I doubt the rules are different for other parts of the world, from Canada to Australia.  As with all things, get a transport pass, have an Uber, or hang with folks you know who themselves know where they’re going. 

Also, I strongly recommend eating something before you set out.  And take a bottle of water with you – most festivals provide (or sell) water, but why take a chance? Normally a tasting glass is provided at the entrance, and if you can snag a second one, take it. Trust me, it helps. 1. And while this might sound odd, I’d really recommend going with a friend or two, or a small group.  The experience is enhanced when it’s shared.

Once at the festival itself, one of the most important things to always keep in mind is that you will be there for a few hours at the very least (my personal record is seven) and be tasting a lot of rums, very quickly. Palate fatigue is a real thing, and so is intoxication, both of which derail the experience. Therefore, take it easy, take your time, and most of all, take small sips, and nose more than taste. Pace yourself. There are often black spittoons on or by all the booths so you can spit, and while I don’t use them very often, I know their utility and don’t think it makes me look like a rum snob at all. Spend as much time at a booth as you please, and talk to the (usually really friendly) people there, especially if you are interested in their products, because they’ll always be happy to tell you all about their company, how they make their rums, and small anecdotes that make it all interesting.

Drink lots of water, and stop whenever you feel like it to take a breather and have a snack or a palate cleanser (if available).  Keep an eye on the clock in case there’s a master class you forgot about, because that’s really easy to do when you meet up a bunch of rum chums and get to talking, or are standing in a line at the food truck for a sandwich and are focused on that and not the time. I’ve made that mistake a few times and strolled in just as everyone else was leaving, asking me where I had been the whole time.

I say take tiny sips, and I mean that. The objective is not to get drunk, not gun back shots as if you were at a bar – though getting at minimum a good buzz is a near-inevitability – but to be able to taste and enjoy the rums. Look around at the festival officials: girls and guys with lanyards and badges denoting staff, judges, guests, press, or exhibitors — they flit from booth to booth like butterflies but stay relatively sober because (a) they try tasting only what they like and are curious about and (b) they take small sips (if at all) and take their time with it.  With some practise, you can more or less stay reasonably sober and attentive and still taste stuff hours into the rum fest without completely blowing out your nose or palate. 

One other point I should perhaps raise is that of keeping your ears pricked and your eyes peeled, especially at the larger festivals where it’s unlikely that you can try something from every single booth in the time available.  Look for crowds, search for the brands you never heard of, the companies that are obscure (or from obscure places), listen to people talking, try and step back and take an overview to see where the new stars of the show are. There are always one or two new producers who are flying under the radar yet have a quality that should not be missed and which you’ll regret not having tried after it’s all over. Hampden and Worthy Park in 2017 at the German Rum Fest, Liberia’s Sangar a year later, the new Asian rums debuting in Paris in 2018 (Issan, Sampan, Laodi, etc), Lazy Dodo from Mauritius, Toucan from French Guiana), and the new British rum distilleries in the UK festivals – all these had small footprints at the time but were considered bellwethers of rums and trends to come.

Party Time: bars, events, afterparties

One of the best things about being a part of the greater rum community, is the camaraderie and friendship surrounding the participants at non-fest off-the-grid little events. There have been many enthusiastic posts over the years about the Barbados Rum Experience, for example, and various pub crawls at one rum festival or the other, or additional brand-sponsored tastings where one can hear whole dissertations on new releases. When the world agricole rum tour was being organised by Jerry Gitany and Benoit Bail several years ago, Benoit arranged an opening of the 250th Anniversary Saint James agricole rum at the Brandenburg gate in Berlin…at midnight. Aficionados who know each other through social media and commenting and memories of excursions past, sometimes have little parties of their own, or meetups in famed rum bars someplace (Trailer Happiness, Lebensstern, Smuggler’s Cove, Grandma Caner’s apartment, you know the ones), for everyone who feels like it to attend.  These are often more fun than the fests themselves and my strong advice is, unless you have a reason for not doing so, attend as many as you can, and party hearty.

There’s no set rule for any of this and knowing where to go is mostly a matter of paying attention, plugging in, watching what influencers’ websites and social media say about what’s going on – which almost demands being a member of various FB rum clubs or instagrammers who put their professional rum lives out there. Sometimes all it takes is keeping ears open for conversations at popular booths, or knowing somebody who knows somebody else who mentioned that their friends are going to this or that establishment at such and such a time….

These events are rarely, if ever, about tasting rums…though of course that features in all of them.  It’s about hanging out with a bunch of like minded folks, and just talking, laughing, sharing experiences, and making new discoveries (“Man I tasted this rum the other day and it’s fantastic, here, check out the sample!”) that may not have been considered before. I have the greatest memories of listening to Yoshi Takeuchi tell a hilarious story in a bar in Paris about being mugged in Marseille, of meeting Sly Augustin at Trailer Happiness in London (and being enthusiastically hustled behind the bar to meet his Guyanese cook), or of manfully trying to remove the obstinate metal sealing on a bottle of a 1930s Martinique rhum at an afterparty of my own while Jazz and Indy laughed themselves silly (the rhum turned out to be completely oxidised crap), or of Florian showing off a sample of the legendary J. Wray & Nephew 17 YO at Lebensstern (while chasing away a particularly persistent hooker) but then being told “Sniff only!”  You simply can’t make sh*t like this up and the fact that I remember them so clearly says a lot about how much fun they all were.

Summing up

While I’m all for randomising the experience and just pottering aimlessly around a cavernous hall showing off booths in all directions, I honestly do believe that one can have the best and greatest experiences at fests, classes and surrounding events with a little bit of organisation in advance, some forethought on staying sober, and the complete willingness to just have some fun and go wherever the party is happening. Whether official tastings on a stage, or an unofficial get together in a sleepy bar at 2am where the rum is flowing and the conversation is cheerful, it’s an experience to be savoured. 

And if your sleep gets interrupted and you go on short rations of energy and sobriety for a few days, well, isn’t that what it’s really all about at confabs like these? We must all make some sacrifices in the name of creating new and cherished friendships, and memories. I’ve got tons of my own, and that is why I wrote this, because there’s absolutely no reason you can’t too.


Other notes:

Aug 172022
 

When it comes to Australia and its rums, it’s likely that only two names immediately jump to mind (assuming you know of any at all and are not from there yourself): Bundaberg and Beenleigh. Both are relatively long-lived companies that predate many better-known producers founded much more recently in other parts of the world, yet it is only recently that awareness of them has climbed. Of course, this is in a large part due to association with or ownership by other major spirits companies with worldwide clout and visibility that can be leveraged, as well as social media trends.

Those two companies aside, however, few western consumers have tasted a wider selection of rums from Down Under. Australian rums don’t make it to rum shows or rum festivals (except in their own region) and pricing problems prohibit easy import or muling of bottles to and from the country, whether by distributors or individuals. But there is a vibrant and dynamic rum culture in Australia, and in the last two decades — paralleling the rum renaissance in the west — a host of small distilleries has cropped up, almost all single- or family-owned enterprises that make small batch pot still production. Because of the lack of any blogger or writer or reviewer in Australia who has a broad-based international readership, little of this has reached the attention of the wider rum world until very recently, when Mr. and Mrs. Rum issued the 2021 Australian Rum Advent Calendar. For the first time a wide variety of rums became available for people to try, and it was my good fortune to get hold of a box.

I systematically wrote the reviews one by one, and while they are now done, the thoughts they engender about Australian distillery culture and the rums they make, are too many to fit easily into a single review. Granted that twenty-plus reviews is hardly a complete sampling of the entire country, yet I feel that the points that occurred to me as the process continued — and at the end when I was summing up — are relevant in a more general context…more, at least, than just an observation on this or that distillery.

The first is evident from the tenor of the reviews: it’s something of a surprise how good the rums were (and are). Few scored below 80 points, and many were eye openers. I’ve tasted some really foul American, Canadian and Japanese rums which are thankfully not widely available, but here, small and local distillers I had never heard of before were making impressive young rums and cane juice spirits that held themselves up well even when rated against Caribbean rums of greater fame and heritage. Some were essays in the craft, to be sure, and in many cases the rough edges remained visible, the rums too young, the style not yet complete; yet I firmly believe that many will only get better as time goes on, and skills and technique get more refined — and hopefully they will get the attention and kudos they deserve.

The operations making these rums are, for the most part, micro-distilleries, and serve a regional market (some are only at a town- or state-level). A few large ones like Beenleigh and Bundaberg export abroad, but this is an exceptional situation. What characterises most of the distilleries that produced these rums is that they are either sole-proprietorships, husband-and-wife teams, or set up by a few friends, and while I don’t know anything about their financial situation, it seems to me that what they do is a personal thing, a labour of love, and their own funds and families and friendship networks are quite invested in the success of what is at end a small business that has some unique restrictions.

For one, they are hampered by the “ageing law”: rum may not be called “rum” until it’s been aged for at least two years in Australia, a law that has been on the books since 1906. Initially enacted to prevent low grade, poorly made, unaged moonshine — which quite literally, could be and often was, lethal — unscrupulously being sold to unknowing patrons, it is not completely a relic of rougher colonial times as I had thought. Alcoholism and abuse by both buyers and sellers is still a problem today and this is one reason why the law remains, and taxes on alcohol remain quite high.

The law’s intention (if not its ultimate effect) was and is to remove unaged full-proof rum from easy distribution to vulnerable segments of the population, though of course it only really affects legally established distilleries, not outback hoocheries beyond the easy reach of regulators, lawmakers or taxmen. But the unintended consequence of this is that one of the potential revenue spinners of new distilleries which need cash flow to recoup their substantial initial capital outlay – the sale of unaged white rum, especially if made from cane juice – is removed, as it cannot be sold as “rum”. 

Inventive and agile distillers have gotten around this issue by releasing such rums as “cane spirit” yet undoubtedly sales are foregone by application of a law which has not kept pace with developments in the wider rumiverse, where such cane spirits are called rums. Elsewhere in the world, they also go by names like charanda, grogue, clairin, aguardiente or agricole and have devoted consumers who prize the authentic nature of the spirits produced in such a fashion. The problem in Australia as elsewhere, is, of course, that those not already into rum won’t make the connection between these varieties and “real” rum, which again impacts sales and hampers recognition.

The two-year rule therefore prioritises and incentivises aged rums and other spirits without such restrictions, and this means that for at least those two years (likely more – James McPherson suggests five) no rum distillery can really make cash flow on rum alone while its stock is maturing. This requires Australian distillers to focus on other money-makers that can provide more immediate revenues: the most common of these is gin, which is why the gin varieties and volumes in Australia are so great. Unaged cane spirit is another. However, unaged bulk sales abroad — where 10,000-litre or greater iso-containers are the norm — are usually not feasible, because volumes of rum which are distilled are relatively small, sometimes as little as a few thousand litres annually.

And it must be conceded that most distillers are in it to make whiskies, not rums, and like the American micro distillers I’ve mentioned before, rums are a sideshow, if not a complete afterthought – there are many more whisky distillers to be found on Google Maps than rum-focused ones, for example. Some distillers make yet other products in addition to gins and whiskies — spiced spirits, vodkas, limoncello, liqueurs, etc. But the consequence of all this diversity is very much the same as it is in America: focus is diluted and expertise is scattershot, and deep experience, while not absent, is thin on the ground and takes longer to develop than in an operation where it’s rum, and only rum that’s the first spirit of make (I’m not criticising distillers’ necessary choices, only mentioning this is an inevitable outgrowth of the rules).

But seen from the outside, clearly there is talent and to spare in Australia and a genuine love of rums. After all, people keep drinking the stuff, and if it’s being bought, it’ll continue getting made. It didn’t matter whether it was a hundred-year-old distillery, or one established less than a decade ago: almost all the rums I tried were of good quality, with some real standouts. The size or age of the distillery had at best a marginal impact on quality — for example, Killik (founded in 2019) had an unaged white rum was way better than the venerable Beenleigh’s 3 Year Old White, and Black Gate’s Dark Overproof (from a company established in 2009) was its equal though aged. 

The key determinants of really good Australian rums seemed to be a combination of their proof points (stronger was mostly better than weaker, though not always) and the ability of their distillers to think a little outside the box, play around and go for something new – they pounced on niche techniques to seek competitive advantage. Since just about all the rums came from a pot still or a hybrid pot/column and had the 2-year age restriction (Hoochery’s Spike’s Reserve aged 7 years and Tin Shed’s Requiem at 6, were the oldest), it was fermentation and source material that helped carry the flag, and high scoring distilleries like Winding Road, Aisling, Tin Shed, Black Gate and Killik had points of uniqueness in their production methodology unrelated to ageing. Some used cane juice or syrup rather than molasses, others went into longer ferments or used dunder and relentlessly experimented to get “Jamaican style” rums out the other end, while still others played around with finishes and odd casks. 

That said, a not unreasonable question is whether they display anything specific to themselves, something uniquely Australian that would allow someone with even a smidgen of experience to stand up straight and immediately identify a rum from Oz.  After all, say what you will about the Bundie, one sniff of that thing and after you stop spilling your guts and recover your sight, you’d instantly know it for what it was, sight unseen. Are the ones I’ve been reviewing anything like that?

In my personal opinion, not really.  In fact, the strongest impression I took away from this admittedly limited sample set — and one which had been tickling me since I tasted the first indie bottlers’ Beenleighs years ago — is how modern and contemporary they tasted, and that’s both a compliment and an observation. While the quality was indisputably there, the tasted profiles often conformed to the formal regional “styles” already popularised by existing countries and their flagship distilleries. To put it another way, it was hard for me to try these rums blind (as I did) and not instinctively see Barbados, Antigua, Trinidad, Panama, or St. Lucia, depending on which it was. They have the same nature – much improved by being fully pot still distillate, to be sure — that makes them fine drinks, but not clearly identifiable as being from Australia. Even the ones that suggested Jamaica were like that (though more Appleton than Hampden or Worthy Park, it must be conceded).  The most distinctive were the unaged agricole-style cane juice rums like Winding Road’s Coastal Cane, or high ester unaged rums like Killik’s Silver Overproof. Those you could tell came from someplace new, someplace damned fine.

Does this matter? Not entirely, because good rums are good rums and people will always gravitate towards tasty spirits that don’t break the bank.  It’s only superdorks, ur-geeks and rabid rum aficionados (did somebody say “Caner!” ?? Hush, ye snickerers) that make these superfine distinctions.  However, for a more globally recognized Australian rum category to truly emerge will to some extent depend on being able to sway rum lovers the world around on not only quality, but uniqueness: because, why would anyone in the US or Europe buy an Australian-made Jamaica-style rum when the real deal from Hampden or WP or Appleton can be had more easily and for less? I honestly hope that a localised, Australia-centric style of rum will slowly come into focus because of such pressures, and a move away from already existing styles will help.

Wrapping up, then: notwithstanding all the remarks above, I loved these rums. Almost without exception, every single one of the samples in the calendar displayed a quality that for distilleries so small and often so young, was nothing short of astounding. They are not yet top-tier, bestest-of-the-restest, but damn, they did come close in places, they were good for what they were, and will only get better. The hard and often unappreciated work — of so many individual distillers, so many obsessive rummies and their patiently eye-rolling spouses, who experiment without rest or reward day in and day out — really has achieved something wonderful in Australia. I hope to lay hands on more in the years to come, or at the very least more advent calendars as they become available. Because good or bad or indifferent or spectacular, it’s worth it to see a new rum region rise up, snap into focus and add new some fruit to the great rum tree. We should all be grateful for that, no matter where we live.


Further reading


 

Apr 182022
 


Originally published November 2020. Updated April 2022


Introduction

More and more resources are coming online even as – or perhaps because – an increasing amount of people, young and old and in between, are coming into rum.  They arrive new, or from some other spirit, and are wont to inquire “Where can I find out about…?”  The questions are always the same and after more than ten years of doing this, I sometimes think I’ve seen them all:

  • What rum do I start with?
  • If I like this, what would you recommend?
  • What’s the sugar thing all about?
  • How much?
  • What’s it worth?
  • Where can I find…?
  • What to read?
  • How? Where? When? Why? What? Who?

Several years ago (February 2016 for those who like exactitude), Josh Miller of Inu-a-Kena, who was one of the USA’s premier reviewers before he turned to other (hopefully rum-related) interests and let his site slide into a state of semi-somnolence, published an article called “Plugging into the Rum World.” This was a listing of all online resources he felt were useful for people now getting into the subculture.

Five years on, that list remains one of the only gatherings of material related to online rum resources anyone has ever bothered to publish.  Many bloggers (especially the Old Guard) put out introductions to their work and to rum and just about all have a blogroll of favoured linked sites as a sidebar, and I know of several podcasts which mention websites people can use to get more info  – it’s just that they’re scattered around too much and who has the time or the interest to ferret out all this stuff from many different locations?

Moreover, when you just make a list of links, it does lack some context, or your own opinion of how useful they are or what they provide. That’s why I wished Josh’s list had some more commentary and narrative to flesh it out (but then, as has often been rather sourly observed, even my grocery list apparently can’t be shorter than the galley proofs for “War & Peace”).

Anyway, since years have now passed, I felt that maybe it was time to kick the tyres, slap on a new coat of paint and update the thing. So here is my own detailing of all online and other resources I feel are of value to the budding Rum Geek. 

(Disclaimer: I am not into tiki, cocktails or mixology, so this listing does not address that aspect of the rumisphere).


General – Social Media and Interactive Sites

For those who are just starting out and want to get a sense of the larger online community, it is strongly recommended that one gets on Facebook and joins any of the many rum clubs that have most of the commentary and fast breaking news. There’s an entire ecosystem out there, whether general in nature or focused on specific countries, specific brands or themes.

Questions get asked and get answered, reviews get shared, knowledge gets offered, lists both useful and useless get posted, and fierce debates of equal parts generosity, virulence, knowledge, foolishness, intelligence and wit go on for ages.  It’s the liveliest rum place on the net, bar none. You could post a question as obscure as “Going to Magadan, any good rum bars there?” and have three responses before your ice melts (and yes I’ve been there and no there aren’t any).

The big FB Rum Clubs are:

Other general gathering points:

More specialized corners of the FB rum scene are thematic, distillery- or country-specific, or “deeper knowledge-bases”. Many are private and require a vetting process to get in but it’s usually quite easy. (NB: After a while you’ll realize though, that many people are members of many clubs simultaneously, and so multiple-club cross postings of similar articles or comments are unnecessary).

…there’s tons more for specific companies but those are run by industry not fans and so I exclude them. Too there are many local city-level rum clubs and sometimes all it takes is a question on the main fora, and someone in your area pops up and says, “yeah, we got one…”

The other major conversational forum-style resource available is reddit, which to me has taken pride of place ever since the demise of the previous two main rum discussion sites: Sir Scrotimus Maximus (went dark) and the original Ministry of Rum (got overtaken by Ed Hamilton’s own FB page).  Somewhat surprisingly, there are only two reddit fora thus far, though the main one links to other spirits and cocktail forums.

/r/rum This is the main site with over 25,000 readers.  Tons of content, ranging from “Look what I got today!” to relinked articles, reviews and quite often, variations on “Help!” Conversations are generally more in depth here, and certainly more civilized than the brawling testosterone-addled saloon of FB. Lots of short-form reviewers lurk on this site, and I want to specifically recommend Tarquin, T8ke, Zoorado, SpicVanDyke and the LIFO Accountant. Both the question “What do I start with?” and the happy chirp “Look what I got!” are most commonly posted on this subreddit.

/r/RumSerious (Full disclosure – I am the moderator of the sub). Created in late 2020, the site is an aggregator for links to news, others’ reviews and more focused articles. Not much serious discussion going on here yet but I continue to live in hope.

/r/tiki Lots of rum subjects turn up here and it’s a useful gathering place for those whose interests in tiki and rum intersect.

I’m deliberately ignoring other social media pipelines like Instagram and Twitter because they are not crowdsourced, don’t have much narrative or commentary, and focus much more on the individual.  Therefore as information sources, they are not that handy.


Reviewers’ Blogs & Websites

On my own site I subdivide reviewers into those who are active, semi-active and dormant — here, for the sake of brevity, I’ll try to restrict myself to those who are regulars and have content going up on a fairly consistent basis. 

Reviewers

  • The Fat Rum Pirate (UK) – Wes Burgin remains the second most prolific writer of reviews out there (Serge is the first). The common man’s best friend in rum, with strong opinions – you’ll never be in doubt where he’s coming from – and tons of reviews.
  • WhiskyFun (France) – Serge Valentin is the guy who has written more reviews about rum than anyone in the world (he’s also done almost 16,000 whisky tasting notes but that’s a minor distraction, and a sideline from his unstated, undeclared true love of rums) in a brutally brief, humorous, short-form style that has been copied by many other reviewers.
  • Rum Ratings – This is a user-driven populist score-and-comment aggregator.  From a reviewer’s ivory-tower perspective it’s not so hot, but as a barometer for the tastes of the larger rum drinking population it can’t be beat and shows why, for example, the Diplo Res Ex remains a perennial favourite in spite of all the negative reviews.
  • The Rum Barrel Blog (UK) – Barman Alex Sandu used to post his reviews directly into FB until he gave in and opened a site of his own.  This guy posts mainly reviews, and he’s quite good, one of those understated people who will turn up a decade from now with a thousand tasting notes you never knew were there.
  • Single Cask Rum – Marius Elder does short form reviews of mostly the independent bottlers’ scene. What he posts is amazing, because he does flights — of similar bottlers, similar years, similar geographical places — to make comparatives clear, and the bottles in those flights are often a geek’s fond dream.
  • The Rums of the Man With the Stroller (French) – Laurent Cuvier is more a magazine style writer than a reviewer, yet his site has no shortage of those either, and he serves the French language market very nicely.  Plus, all round cool guy. The poussette has been retired, by the way.
  • Le Blog a Roger (French) – Run by a guy whose tongue-in-cheek nom-de-plume is Roger Caroni, there’s a lot more to his site than just rums…also whiskies and armagnacs. Good writing, brief notes, nice layout.
  • Who Rhum the World? (French) – Oliver Scars does like his rums, and writes about the top end consistently and well, especially the Velier Caroni and Demerara ranges.
  • Barrel Aged Thoughts (German) – A site geared primarily towards independents, and a strong love of Caronis, Jamaicans and Demeraras. Nicely long form type of review style.
  • John Go’s Malternatives – John, based in the Philippines, writes occasionally on rum for Malt online magazine.  Good tasting notes — and its his background narrative for each rum that I really enjoy and which will probably remain in the memory longest.
  • Whisky Digest (FB) – Now here’s a gentleman from Stuttgart who eschews a formal website, and whose tasting notes and scores are posted on FB and Instagram only. Crisp, witty, informative, readable mini reviews, really nice stuff. Love his work. Also posts reviews on Instagram, which is unusual for written work.
  • *Added 88 Bamboo is an interesting website that was started around 2020 by two whisky guys in Singapore to concentrate on…well, whisky.  As luck would have it they allowed guest posts from time to time, and one gentleman, Weixiang Liu, a cheerfully self-proclaimed “coffee brewologist and occasional rum addict,” started to pen some short rum reviews (about 70+ are on the site, most of them his). The writing is nice and the selections are well done.

Others

  • Rum Revelations (Canada) – Occasional and valuable content by Ivar de Laat out of Toronto, who is usually to be found commenting on FB’s various fora and who runs the Rum Club Canada FB group. 
  • Roob Dogg Drinks is run by Toronto-based Reuben Virasami, whose family hails from Guyana. The site went live in January 2021 and posts remain intermittent, but always well written and informative.
  • Rumtastic (UK) – “Another UK Rum Blog” his website self-effacingly says, and he modestly and deprecatingly considered himself a merely “awesome, ace, wicked dude” in a comment to me some time ago.  Short, brief, trenchant reviews, always good to read.
  • Master Quill (Holland) – Alex and I are long correspondents and I always read his reviews of rum, which take second place to his writing about whiskies, but are useful nevertheless.  Like most European bloggers, he concentrates mostly on the independents.
  • Québec Rhum – This large Francophone Canadian site is unusual in that it is actually more like a club than a single person’s interests the way so many others on this list are: within it reside rum reviews, distillery visits, master class programs and some cost-defraying merchandise.  For my money, of course, it’s the reviews that are of interest but it certainly seems to be the premiere rum club in Canada, bar none.

Dormant Sites With Good Content

  • Du Rhum (French) – Cyril Weglarz is a fiercely independent all rounder, writing reviews, essays and even a book (The Silent Ones, see below).  He’s noted for taking down Dictador and other brands for inclusion of undeclared additives and remains the only blogger – ever – to have sent rums for an independent laboratory analysis, over and beyond using a hydrometer.
  • Rum Diaries Blog (UK) – Busy with work these days, great content and reviews, some of which are quite in-depth. As of 2021 he had not really written anything just posts pics and comments on FB, so may drop off this list soon but the work done to date is really quite excellent.
  • Rum Shop Boy (UK) – Simon’s Johnson’s excellent website of rum reviews. Personal issues make him less prolific than before: he assures me he has not walked away and when he returns I’ll move this entry back up.
  • Rum Gallery (USA) – no longer updated for some years, I include it for the back catalogue, because Dave Russell has been active on the review since before 2010 and so has many reviews of rums we don’t see any more, as well as those from America.
  • Rum Howler Blog (Canada) – Chip Dykstra reviews out of Edmonton in Canada, and is one of the oldest voices in reviewer-dom still publishing. He has done rather less of rum of late than of other spirits, and remains on this list for the same reason Dave Russell does – because his reviews of rums from before the Renaissance are a good resource and he covers Canada and North America better than most. Not so hot for the newer stuff or independents, though.
  • PhilthyRum (Australia)  – One of the few who posted about and from Australia, the site has not been updated since November 2018.  What a shame.

News Sites and Newsletters

Not much news out there, the older sites have all been subsumed into the juggernaut that is Facebook.  There do remain some holdouts that try to stem the tide of the Big Blue F and here are a few

  • RumPorter – This site is in French, Spanish and English, and has both a paid and free section. The articles are well written and well researched and may be the best online magazine dealing with rum that is currently extant.
  • Coeur de Chauffe (French) – Magazine-style deep-dive content, curated by Nico Rumlover (which I suspect is not his real name, but ok 🙂 ).
  • Got Rum? – US-based ad-heavy magazine which publishes monthly. Paul Senft, one of the only remaining US rum reviewers left standing, posts his reviews here, and historical essays are provided by Marco Pierini. The rest is mostly news bits and pieces, of varying quality.
  • The Rum Lab – There’s a website for this, with useful stuff like the Rum Connoisseur of the week, various infographics and news…my own preference is to subscribe to the newsletter which delivers it to your inbox every week.  Good way to stay on top of the news if you don’t think FB is serving you up the rum related stories you like.
  • *Added Instant Rum (French) – This is a magazine aggregator (i.e., no original content) which reposts sources and links of articles having to do with rum, in French.

© istock.com/Rassco

Online Research, Technical, Background & History

Once you get deeper into the subculture, it stands to reason you’re going to want to know more, and social media is rarely the place for anyone who needs to go into the weeds and count the blades. And not everyone writes, or wants to write, or reads just about reviews, the latest rums, their rumfest visits – some like the leisurely examination of a subject down to the nth degree.

  • Cocktail Wonk – Without question, freelance writer Matt Pietrek is the guy with the widest span of essays and longform pieces on technical and general aspects of the subject of rum, in the world. In his articles he has covered distillery visits and histories, technical production details, in-depth breakdowns and translations of governing regulations like GIs and the AOC, interviews and much more. Sooner or later, everyone who has a question on some technical piece of rum geekery lands on the rum section of this site.
  • Rum Tasting Notes – Now renamed “Rum-X”. This is not a website, but a mobile application and is a successor to the lauded and much-missed site Reference Rhum.  It is an app allowing you to input your tasting notes for whatever rums you are working with, to make a collection of your own and to curate it … but its real value lies in being a database, a reference of as many rums as can be input by its users.  Last I checked in March 2022, there are over 12,000 rums in the library.
  • WikiRum is another such app, but it differs in that it also has a fully functioning website in both French and English, and also with nearly 8,500 entries.
  • American Distillery Index – Produced by Will Hoekenga (not the last time he turns up here) as part of the American Rum Report, it lists every distillery he could find in the USA by state, provides the website, a list of their rums and some very brief historical notes. There is an Australian Distillery Index that I use when doing research, but it’s not as well laid out.
  • The Boston Apothecary – Very technical articles on distillation.  The September 2020 article was called “Birectifier Analysis of Clairin Sajous,” so not airport bookstore material, if you catch my drift.
  • Peter’ Rum Labels out of Czechoslovakia defies easy categorization.  It’s one of the most unique rum-focused sites in existence, and the best for what it is: a compendium of pictures of labels from rum bottles.  Ah, but there’s so much more: distillery and brand histories, obscure vintages and labels and producers….it’s an invitation to browse through rum’s history in a unique way that simply has no equal.

Sugar Lists

This is a subject that continues to inflate blood pressures around the world.  Aside from the “wtf, is that true?” moments afflicting new rum drinkers, the most common question is “Does anyone have a list of rums that contain it?” Well, no.  Nobody does.  But many have hydrometer readings that translate into inferences as to the amount of additives (assumed to be sugar), and these are:


Podcasts

  • Five minutes of rum – 88 (for now) short and accessible episodes about specific rums plus a bit of text background, some photos and cocktails. If time is of essence, here’s a place to go. Not updated since October 2021.
  • Single Cast (French) – The big names of the Francophone rhum scene – Benoit Bail, Jerry Gitany, Laurent Cuvier, Christine Lambert, Roger Caroni – run these fortnightly podcasts, which make me despair at the execrable quality of my French language skills. Great content.
  • Ralfy – Well, yes, Ralfy does do primarily whiskies on his eponymous vlog and rum takes a serious back seat. He does do rums occasionally, however, and his folksy style, easy banter, and barstool wisdom are really fun to watch (or just listen to), whether it’s in a rum review, or an opinion piece.
  • Zavvy.co – A video platform which co-founders Federico Hernandez and Will Hoekenga (remember him from the American Rum Index?) intended as a live streaming tool for rum festivals, repurposed after COVID-19 shattered the world’s bar industry and cancelled all rumfests.  Now it is a weekly series of interviews and discussions with members of the industry
  • ACR has some really useful virtual distillery tours and “Rum Talk” sessions with distillery people 
  • Rumcast – This podcast run by John Gulla out of Miami and Will Hoekinga from Tennessee was very busy from April to August of 2020, then declined due to both the pandemic and the attention switching to Zavvy (Will Hoekinga is part of it, so that may be why). In 2021 the show went back up to a regular schedule of once a fortnight and passed their 50th podcast in March 2022.  Very in-depth and knowledgeable interviews and occasionally just the two guys riffing on some rum related subject or other.
  • Global Rum Room (FB) – This is a place where every Friday, rumfolk from around the world just hang out and sh*t talk, using a Zoom link.  The link is usually posted weekly and to be found in the group page. It’s a private group, so an invitation is needed but as far as I know nobody has ever been turned away.

Video Blogs

  • Rum on the Couch – Dave Marsland, who runs the UK based Manchester Rum Festival, hosts brief conversational look-what-I-got videos and reviews of mostly one bottle at a time. He reminds me a lot of The Fat Rum Pirate’s informal written style. He really does, quite often, review from his couch. Lots of information and opinion presented in an easygoing fashion.
  • The New World Rum Club – A new YouTube entrant, fresh out of the gate in January 2021 and already the content has me going “wow!” The Foursquare ECS overview is great (and doesn’t have a single tasting note). So far Simon concentrates on narratives, a gradually increasing amount of reviews, and if he continues like he started, this channel is going places.
  • Added: Ready Set Rum – Another new YouTube vlogger, Jamé Wills, a Floridian originally from Trinidad (though his accent tilts more towards Jamaican on occasion).  His rum video reviews are longer than most, and what characterizes them is his cheerful laid-back energy and the guests he brings in; the conversational back-and-forth makes each video a comfortable and fun watch.
  • Added: Consider as well the videos of Scott Ferguson’s vlog “Different Spirits” (lots of rums reviews, some whiskies and other stuff, each about half an hour). He moonlights quite often on /r/rum on Reddit as a commentator and reviewer. The August 2022 episode “Introduction to Rum” is particularly good.
  • Added: Diary of a Rum Hunter is too new for sweeping opinions about quality, for now. Darren has an armchair conversation and rum review thing going, but occasionally moves around in the real world to showcase the subject (as he did with the one about doubling his money on auctions). Each review, with one exception, is about 20-30 minutes. Hasn’t posted anything since December 2021.
  • Added: Rum Reviews (Tik Tok). Hugely enthusiastic and very short notes and reviews of mostly spiced rums, which I would not normally include but nobody else is doing it to this extent and they need a home too. The guy who runs this is the enormously entertaining and energetic Steve the Barman who has a YouTube channel and an Instagram Feed which seem to have very different content from TikTok. Unsurprisingly given his handle, his perspective is that of a barman, and one of knowledge sharing, not reviews so much

Specific Articles

Even within the fast moving rum community where things change on a daily basis, some articles stand out as being more than a flash in the pan and survive the test of time. Most bloggers content themselves with reviews and news, and a few go further into serious research or opinionating. Here some that bear reading:

  • Tarquin (Rachel) Underspoon’s List of what Rums to Start With.  Every boozer and every blogger sooner or later addresses this issue, and the lists change constantly depending on who’s writing it, and when. This is one of the best.
  • The Cocktail Wonk’s article on E&A Scheer. This is the article that allowed laymen to understand what writers meant when they spoke about “brokers” buying bulk rum and then selling it to independent bottlers.  It introduced the largest and oldest of them all, Scheer, to the larger public in an original article nobody else even thought to think about.
  • The History of Demerara Distilleries, written by Marco Freyr of Germany, is the most comprehensive, heavily referenced, historically rigorous treatise on all the Guianese sugar plantations and distilleries ever written. No one who wants to know about what the DDL heritage still are all about can pass this monumental work by. The ‘Wonk has a two-part Cliff-notes version, here and here which is less professorial, based on his visits and interviews.
  • Josh Miller’s well written piece on the development of Rhum Agricole.
  • *Added The Man With A Stroller, Laurent Cuvier, has, as of January 2022, a seriously good 12-part series of mini reviews exclusively dedicated to White Cane Juice Rums. You’ll have to use Google translate to convert the French (note: the link here goes to Part 12; links to the other 11 are at the bottom)
  • [Shameless plug alert!] The Age of Velier’s Demeraras. A favourite within my own writing, a deeply researched, deeply felt, three-part article on the impact Velier’s near-legendary Demerara rums had on the larger rumiverse. Two others are the History of the 151s, and the deep dive into all the different kinds of barrels and containers rum is and can be stored in.

Shopping Sites

Well, I can’t entirely ignore the question of “Where can I get…?” and get asked it more often than you might imagine. However, there are so many of sites nowadays, that I can’t really list them all.  That said, here are some of the major ones I know of that other people have spoken about before.  I’ll add to them as I try more, or get recommendations from readers.

(Note: listing them here is not an endorsement of their prices, selections or shipping policies; nor have I used them all myself, and they may not ship to you).

USA

EU & UK

Canada


The Final Question

I wanted to address the one question that comes up in my private correspondence perhaps more often even than “Where can I find…?” or “Have you tried…?”.  

And that’s “How much is this bottle worth?” 

Aside from the trite response of It’s worth whatever someone is willing to pay, there is no online answer, and I know of no resource that provides it as a service outside of an auction house or a site like RumAuctioneer where the public will respond by bidding, or not. One can, of course, always check on the FB rum fora above, post a picture and a description and ask there, and indeed, that is nowadays as good a method as any.  Outside that, don’t know of any.

So, that said, I never provide a website resource or give a numerical answer, and my response is always the same: “It is worth drinking.” 


Summing up

When I look down this listing of online resources (and below in the books section), I am struck by what an enormous wealth of information it represents, what an investment of so many people’s time and effort and energy and money.  The commitment to produce such a cornucopia of writing and talking and resources, all for free, is humbling.  

In the last eleven years since I began writing, we have seen the rise of blogs, published authors, rum festivals, and websites, even self-bottlings and special cask purchases by individuals who just wanted to pass some stuff around to friends and maybe recover a buck or two.  New companies sprung up.  New fans entered the field.  Rum profiles and whole marketing campaigns changed around us. The thirst for knowledge and advice became so great that a veritable tsunami of bloggers rose to meet the challenge – not always to educate the eager or sell to the proles, but sometimes just to share the experience or to express a deeply held opinion. 

It’s good we have that. In spite of the many disagreements that pepper the various discussions on and offline, the interest and the passion about rum remains, and results in a treasure trove of online resources any neophyte can only admire and be grateful for.  As I do, and I am.


Appendix – Books On Rum

Books are not an online resource per se, so I chose to put them in as an appendix.  I do however believe they have great value as resources in their own right, and not everything that is useful to an interested party can always be found online.

Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of reference materials in the old style format.  No matter how many posts one has, how many essays, how many eruditely researched historical pieces or heartbreaking works of staggeringly unappreciated genius, there’s still something about saying one has published an actual book that can’t be beat. Here’s a few that are worth reading (and yes, I know there are more):

  • Rums of the Eastern Caribbean (Ed Hamilton) – Released in 1995 at the very birth of the modern rum renaissance, this book was varied survey of as many distilleries and rums as Mr. Hamilton found the time to visit over many years of sailing around the Caribbean. Out of print and out of date, it’s never been updated or reprinted.  Based on solid first hand experience of the time (1990s and before), and many rum junkies who make distillery trips part of their overall rum education are treading in his footsteps. (It was followed up in 1997 by another book called “The Complete Guide to Rum”).
  • Rum (Dave Broom) – This 2003 book combined narrative and photographs, and included a survey of most of the world’s rum producing regions to that time.  It was weak on soleras, missed independents altogether and almost ignored Asia, but had one key new ingredient – the introduction and codification of rum into styles: Jamaican, Guyanese, Bajan, Spanish and French island (agricole). Remains enormously influential, though by now somewhat dated and overtaken by events (he issued a follow-up “Rum: The Manual” in 2016, the same year as “Rum Curious” by Fred Minnick came out).
  • Atlas Du Rhum (Luca Gargano) – A coffee-table sized book that came out around 2014. Unfortunately only available in Italian and French for now.  It’s a distillery by distillery synopsis of almost every rum making facility in the Caribbean and copies the format of Broom’s book and the limited focus of Hamilton’s, and does it better than either. Beautifully photographed, full of historical and technical detail.  Hopefully it gets either a Volume 2 or an update for this decade, at some point, and FFS let’s have an English edition!
  • French Rum – A History 1639-1902 (Marco Pierini).  This is one of those books that should be longer, just so we can see what happened after Mont Pelee erupted in 1902.  Still, let’s not be ungrateful.  Going back into the origins of distilled spirits and distillation in the Ancient World, Marco slowly and patiently traces the evolution of rum, and while hampered by a somewhat professorial and pedantic writing style, it remains a solid work of research and scholarship.
  • The Silent Ones (Cyril Weglarz) – Few books about rum’s subculture impressed and moved me as much as Cyril’s. In it, he toured the Caribbean islands (on his own dime), and interviewed the people we never hear about: the workers, those in the cane field, the lab, the distillery.  And provided a portrait of these silent and unsung people, allowing us to see beyond superstar ambassadors and producers, to the things these quieter people do and the lives they lead.
  • Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki (Martin & Rebecca Cate) – Addressed to the cocktail and tiki crowd in 2016 (as is self evident from the title) the reason I include this book here is because of the Cates’ proposal for another method classification for rums that goes beyond the too-limited styles of Dave Broom, and is perhaps more accessible than the technical rigour of the one suggested by Luca Gargano. Jury is still out there. Other than that, just a fun read for anyone into the bar and mixing scene.
  • Minimalist Tiki (Matt Pietrek) – If I include one, I have to include the other.  Matt self published his book about matters tiki in 2019, and again, it is a book whose subject is obvious.  Except, not really – the section about rum,  its antecedents and background, the summing up of the subject to 2019, is really very well done and pleasantly excessive, maybe ⅓ of the whole thing. The photos are great and I’m sure to learn a thing or two about mixing drinks in the other ⅔. For now, it’s the bit about rum I covet.
  • Rum Curious (Fred Minnick) – Building on the previous book by the Cates, this takes rum in its entirety as its subject, and covers history, production, regulations, tastings, cocktails and more. It’s a great primer for any beginner, still recent enough to be relevant (many of the issues it mentions, like additives, disclosure, labelling, regulations, remain hotly debated to this day), though occasionally dated with some of the rums considered top end, and very weak in global rum brands from outside the Caribbean.
  • And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails (Wayne Curtis) – This is a book about rum, cocktails and American history.  It is not for getting an overview of the entire rum industry or the issues that surround it, or any kind of tasting notes or reviews.  But it is an enormously entertaining and informative read, and you’ll pick up quite a bit around the margins that cannot but increase your appreciation for the spirit as a whole.
  • A Jamaican Plantation: The History of Worthy Park 1670-1970 (Michael Craton & James Walvin) – A deep dive into the history of one of the best known Jamaican distilleries.  (I’m sure there are others that speak to other distilleries and plantation, but this is the one I happen to have, and have read).
  • The Distillers Guide to Rum (Ian Smiley, Eric Watson, Michael Delevante) – For a book that came out in 2013, it remains useful and not yet dated.  As its title indicates, it is about distillation methodology, and there is some good introductory rum material as well.  If you want to know about equipment, ingredients, fermentation, blending, vatting, maturation, that’s all there – and then there’s supplementary stuff about the subject (styles, bars, cocktails, etc) as well, making it a useful book for anyone who wants to know more about that aspect of the subject.
Jan 182022
 

 

Shochu, along with awamori, is the oldest distilled spirit made in Japan, just about all of it in the south island of Kyushu and its surrounding islands, and so distinct that several varieties have their own geographical protections. It’s versatile, interesting, very drinkable, and is becoming even more popular than sake in the last years, especially in Japan, where most of it is consumed. And while the focus of my work is rum, and the point of this article is to highlight local spirits based on sugar cane, I must be clear that the cane spirit known as kokuto shochu is just one sub-type of the spirit.

1781 Map showing southern Kyushu and Ryukyu Islands (c) wikiwand.com

History

Scholars dispute whether the art of distillation came from Korea (due to similarities in distillation technology) or from Okinawa (liquor shipping records from the 1500s detailing cargoes from Okinawa to Japan date back at least that far), but in general it’s acknowledged that both routes are valid, and the only real unknown is which came first. Distillation technology appears to have been spread widely via the robust China sea trade in the late 1400s onward; and there was a brisk trade between Korea and Japan at that time that disseminated knowledge quickly.

Initially shochu appears to have been something of a rural spirit, made by fishermen at first, then moving inland to farmers and home brewers and this continued from its origin in the 1500s, through the duration of the Tokugawa shogunate. This is possibly one of the reasons why so many raw ingredients can be used and still be titled shochu, because until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 there was little or no regulation – the Restoration brought in formalization of rules, licenses and some measure of quality control (and of course taxation).

Most shochu was authentic or honkaku shochu – we might call it artisanal today – until the early 1900s when the adoption of industrial column stills led to the rise of a second style called korui.  This is essentially mass produced alcohol close to 96% ABV off the still, which is then diluted down to below 36% (around 20% or so seems to be common), and is sold as a catch-all alcoholic drink, like an ersatz vodka – it is this variation which is closest to the similarly mass-produced, cheap, diluted and near-ubiquitous Korean soju.

Honkaku shochu, for all its cachet as an artisanal spirit now, was for centuries considered a local drink not traded anywhere and only found in Japan; indeed, until the 1970s even within Japan it was considered something of a blue-collar worker’s tipple limited to, and almost all consumed in, the southern island of Kyushu and its surrounding islands. 

Benisango kokotu shochu. Photo (c) Whiskey Richard at Nomunication.jp

Basics

First of all, shochu is a distilled alcohol, not made like and completely distinct from nihonshu, or sake (which is brewed like beer is, though it is not a beer itself); it shares close kinship with another uniquely Japanese spirit from Okinawa called awamori, while having its own special rules that make it, again, distinct (shochu is very much defined by how it’s made, not from what); honkaku shochu has no real relationship with the Korean drink soju (unless it’s the barely known traditional Andong soju) and should never be confused with it; and like aguardientes of the Americas, many different raw materials can be used to make shochu (fifty-plus, by some estimates), including but not limited to barley, buckwheat, sake lees, rice, sweet potatoes, kelp, green tea, flowers, mushrooms…and sugar cane. Each has its own peculiarities and naming conventions, and because this is not a primer on shochu as a whole — there are other, better and more in-depth sources and wikipedia for the curious deep divers — I must keep things brief, refer you to the “sources”, below for further reading, and will concentrate most of this article on the one variation that is made from sugar cane: kokuto shochu.

Fermentation

The above points aside, several aspects of the drink are common to all varieties.  All shochus have a dual fermentation system (awamori only has one, which is one of the main dividers separating the two classes of drinks): one fermentation converts starches into sugars and the other converts these sugars into alcohol. These are really multiple parallel fermentations, and starch conversion and fermentation to alcohol occur simultaneously from start to finish.  Both use one of several kinds of a mold (fungus) called koji, which is also utilized in the making of soy sauce, miso, rice vinegars, sake and awamori, and the type of koji used has a discernible impact on the final flavour of the resultant shochu.

Kokuto means ‘brown,’ ‘black’ or ‘dark’ sugar (sources vary as to which is the true and exact meaning) and is akin to jaggery of India, or the panela of Latin America; now, since shochu deriving from sugar directly doesn’t require that first fermentation pass given that the base alcohol source (sugar) is already in existence, it would seem to be an irrelevant step — but in Japanese tax law, to be called kokuto shochu, the first fermentation must happen, and must happen with rice koji. Failing that, the product must be classified and taxed as some other distilled spirit, like rum. Indeed, leaving out the first step is what the Ogasawara Islands did in the pre-war years when they first experimented with brown sugar shochu using a single fermentation cycle — but the war shut down production and by the time they restarted, the tax law had come into effect and they simply resorted to calling it rum, one of which I’ve actually tried.

Photo from wikimedia commons

Distillation

Shochus can be distilled in either multiple passes or single ones, and the type of still is not a disqualifier (though it can be a restriction). Multiple distillations from high efficiency columnar stills result in a more odorless high-proof spirit and is classified as korui shochu, “Class A” but it’s important to understand that this class is about process, and unrelated to quality. Korui shochus are usually made from molasses, potatoes or corn, and are distilled to 95% or greater and then diluted down to below 36%, always in large capacity distilleries – in that it has similarities with cheap rums around the world.

The more interesting variations of the spirit — at least from my own perspective, given my interest in more artisanal cane spirits — are the Class B (Otsurui) shochus which are all the honkaku shochus.  As with Class A, the most common base ingredients are rice, cane, barely, sweet potatoes, etc. After fermentation they are – and must be, by law – distilled only once, and only in pot stills. In the old days, many of these stills, especially in the smaller distilleries, were actually made of wood, including cedar (take that, DDL), but this is rare nowadays. Given the single distillation methodology and the still itself, the flavours are bursting out, even at the low strength at which it comes off – 45% ABV or less (if it were more it would no longer be honkaku and the tax breaks would not be applicable). For the rum aficionado, the drink is, essentially, almost tailor-made for taking neat, though it should be stated clearly that in Japan it’s usually diluted or drunk on the rocks.

Ageing

As with rum, the ageing of shochu can be short, medium or long: however, in a divergence from artisanal white rums which have such a strong presence in the rum world, completely unaged shochu is rare. Shochu can be rested or aged in steel tanks, clay pots, wooden barrels or large wooden casks – once it was rare for ageing to exceed three years, because then, especially with wooden casks of any kind, the shochu would get too dark and thus be deemed a whisky, with its attendant and different tax regime. However, in the last two decades this limit has been far exceeded, because at the three year point the shochu could then be labelled as koshu or “old alcohol” and can be sold for a higher price.  There are now shochus as old as thirty years on the market (not necessarily aged in oak, mind you), almost all sold only in Japan.

As an interesting side note, ageing is not always or only done in warehouses or temperature-controlled buildings as is common elsewhere in the rum world, but occasionally in caves, tunnels and limestone caverns where variations in temperature and humidity are kept to a minimum. This is probably just a matter of available space, climate control and geographical convenience, rather than any kind of cultural tradition, but Stephen Lyman remarked to me that it is actually preferred by shochu makers, and some even excavate their own underground caverns to age their stocks.

Kokuto sugar (c) Chris Pellegrini, kanpai.us

Kokuto shochu specifically

Kokuto shochu therefore has all the above aspects in common with the other base-material varietals.  It is, however, indigenous to and identified completely and only with the Amami islands off the coast of Kagoshima (between Kyushu and Okinawa, in the south of Japan) where there has been a long history of producing it from locally grown cane. So much so, in fact, that it is the recipient of a Geographical Indicator of its own. Amami kokuto shochu is made in any of 28 distilleries there, spread out over five islands and cannot legally be made anywhere else.

Originally part of the Ryukyu Kingdom of Okinawa, they were taken over by the more powerful southern Satsuma Domain in 1609, and turned the islands into one huge sugar cane plantation. For centuries they repressively discouraged the use of the valuable sugar being turned into alcohol (which could lead to – horrors! – losing revenue and distracting the workforce), but the privations of the post-war period when all rice was diverted from alcohol-making to a food source, brought kokuto sugar distillate out of the shadows and kokuto shochu gained some legitimacy at last.

For reasons to do with surplus stocks, politics and tax law in these post-WW2 years, special recognition was given to this type of shochu as ‘brown sugar shochu’ (so long as they used rice koji, and two fermentation passes) to develop the industry and the local region.  The spirit remains thus recognized to this day, and is generally bottled at around 25-30% ABV (tax laws change at 25% for most shochus so that has become a sort of unofficial standard elsewhere, but kokuto shochu received a tax break for stronger versions that lasted until 2008, so 30% is more common there).

Aside from the requisite two-pass fermentation and use of rice koji, kokuto shochu is also different from regular rum in one other respect – it can only be made from (a) kokuto sugar, which is unrefined sugar very high in mineral content (i.e., without any molasses removed or added back in as may be the case in the west), or (b) blocks of dried molasses deriving from that sugar, that are added to the rice-koji ferment for the second fermentation.  So, no cane juice, no gooey molasses, no rendered sugar cane “honey”.  If a Japanese distillery used any of these materials, a different tax law would govern production, and it would be classified as rum or a liqueur – and indeed, in the interests of expediency, those few rum makers as do exist in Japan, prefer to go this route and produce what we would see as “traditional” rum like Cor Cor, Ogasawara, Ryomi, Nine Leaves, etc..

Photo CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Sales

Kokuto shochu (as are all other kinds) is mostly drunk within Japan and is not widely known outside it. Some eastern- and western-seaboard US states carry it, and there is a store in Berlin called Ginza (closed currently due to COVID) that I was unable to buy from, or visit to taste what they had. I imagine there are more out there. However, for the moment, the good stuff, the best stuff, all remains in Japan and is mostly consumed there. 

Wrap up

Rum lovers are often fixated on just a few areas of the world: the Caribbean and South/Latin America; the new distilleries in Europe, the UK, and North America; and micro distilleries in Asia and the Pacific, plus the occasional nod to big ass industrial conglomerates like Tanduay and McDowell’s.  South Pacific Distillers and some of the Pacific Islands are getting some traction.  But underneath all these well known places and names coil smaller operations, artisanal ones that have a tradition far more interesting, and far older. They produce what is recognizably rum in a form that is distinct and interesting and broadens the understanding of the sugar cane spirit.  Shochu is one of these, and it worth seeking out.


Reviewed Kokuto Shochus

 


Other Notes

  • “Macrons” have been removed from transliterations of Japanese words used here, e.g. kokutō, kōji, and shōchū.
  • This article is meant as an introduction only, since the field of Japanese spirits – even if restricted to just cane-based ones – is huge (and fascinating). Sources, below, provide additional recommendations for reading.

Sources

Nov 092021
 

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


 

Photo (c) WIRD, from their FB Page

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

They key write-ups that currently exist online are the articles that are based on the research published by Cedrik (in 2018) and Nick Arvanitis (in 2015) — adding to it now with some digging around on my own, here are some clarifications. None of it is new, but some re-posting is occasionally necessary for such articles to refresh and consolidate the facts.

“Blackrock” refers to WIRD as a whole, since the distillery is located next to an area of that name in NW Bridgetown (the capital), which was once a separate village. In the parlance, then, the WIRD distillery was sometimes referred to as “Blackrock” though this was never an official title – which didn’t stop Cadenhead and others from using it. There is no “Blackrock Still” and never has been.

Secondly, there is in fact a “Rockley” pot still, which had possibly been acquired by a company called Batson’s (they were gathering the stills of closing operations for some reason) when the Rockley Distillery shuttered — Nick suggests it was transformed into a golf course in the late 1800s / early 1900s but provides no dates, and there is indeed a Rockley Resort and golf club in the SE of Bridgetown today. But I can’t find any reference to Batson’s online at all, nor the precise date when Rockley’s went belly-up — it is assumed to be at least a century ago. Nick writes that WIRD picked up a pot still from Batson’s between 1905 and 1920 (unlikely to be the one from Rockley), and it did work for a bit, but has not been operational since the 1950s.

This then leads to the other thread in this story which is the post-acquisition data provided by Alexandre Gabriel. In a FB video in 2018, summarized by Cedrik in his guest post on Single Cask, he noted that WIRD did indeed have a pot still from Batson’s acquired in 1936 which was inactive, as well as another pot still, the Rockley, which they got that same year, and was also long non-functional (in a 2021 FB post, WIRD claims a quote by John Dore’s president David Pym, that it’s the oldest rum pot still in the world, which I imagine would miff both DDL and Rivers Royale). According to their researches, it was apparently made by James Shears and Sons, a British coppersmith, active from 1785 to 1891, and in use between 1936 (date of acquisition) to the 1960s. What this all means, though, is that there is no such thing as a rum made on the Rockley still in the post-1995 years of the current rum renaissance, and even earlier – the labels are all misleading, especially those of the much-vaunted year 1986. 

The consensus these days is that yet a third pot still — acquired from Gregg’s Farms in the 1950s and which has remained operational to this day — provided the distillate for those rums in the last twenty years which bear the name Blackrock or Rockley. However, Cedrik adds that some of the older distillate might have come from the triple chamber Vulcan still which was variously stated as being inactive since the 1980s or 2000 (depending on the interview) and it was later confirmed that the most famous Rockley vintages from 1986 and 2000 were made with a combination of the Vulcan (used as a wash still) and the Gregg (as a spirit still). 

Yet, as Cedrik so perceptively notes, even if there is no such thing as a Rockley-still rum, there is such a thing as a Rockley style. This has nothing to do with the erroneous association with a non-functional named still.  What it is, is a flavour profile.  It has notes of iodine, tar, petrol, brine, wax and heavier pot still accents, with honey and discernible esters.  It is either loved or hated but very noticeable after one has gone through several Barbados rums. Marco Freyr often told me he could identify that profile by smell alone even if the bottler did not state it on the label, and I see no reason to doubt him.

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

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


 

 

Mar 312021
 

From the largest barrels (probably better called vats, at the left side)…..

Introduction

Although most of us are aware of the fact that rum, like many other spirits, is aged in barrels, it’s not always clear how large (or small) those barrels actually are, why they are called what they are, or what their original functions were. We just hear “barrels”, visualize a cylindrical container made of of wooden staves held in place by three bands, and think American oak, Limousin, French, amburana, or what have you, and move on. Occasionally we would read something like “refill barrel” or “hogshead” and if we have any more in depth queries, a trip to wikipedia or a specific site 1 can usually clear that right up.

But I think I’m going to go a little deeper today, and examine each type of barrel in its turn, not restrict it to just rums and try and give you some more info. As with many subjects, what on the surface looks to be a fairly straightforward subject is actually rife with all the usual complexities and complications humans seem to love bringing to anything they create. 

Note: barrels are used to hold and/or more than one spirit during their lifetimes, so it will not be strange to find barrels used by makers of whiskies, wines, oils or what have you in this list.

Roman transport of wine jars and barrels

General and historical2

Ever since the first quantity of anything – whether solid or liquid – had to be carried or stored, mankind has invented a container for the purpose (and then a means to measure it).  Primitive man used woven reeds, tree bark, then waterproof containers made of the skins or intestines of animals, then fired mud or clay. 

In the early history of fermented spirits (wine), the clay amphora was the vessel used to store and transport them. Herodotus noted that ancient Mesopotamians used barrels made of palm wood for transport of wine – however, the difficulty of working with palm led to alternatives being explored, and eventually barrels constructed of staves and hoops not dissimilar to those in use today were made (since at least 2600 BC in Egypt – for measuring corn) and have been a feature of western culture for more than two millennia. Barrels made of oak came into widespread use during the time of the Roman Empire and have remained staples of the industry ever since, not just because of their convenience as storage media but because of their impact on the taste of the spirit it stored (which for centuries was wine). 

In China and the far east (including Indonesia), wines and other alcoholic spirits were often stored in earthenware or terracotta (clay) amphorae, but these were fragile and gradually replaced by wooden casks after the arrival of the European colonial powers – though not always of oak…teak was one wood widely used in Indonesia, for example.

Over the last seventy years the development of shipping containers, stainless steel vats and steel/plastic drums has rendered the wooden barrel or cask obsolete as a container for transport.  However, the oak barrel’s use as an ageing medium for spirits remains completely unaffected. 

The shape of a barrel is defined by two simple physical properties: the bulging middle allows them to be more easily rolled and turned whether full or empty; and the rounded construction transfers pressure well, allowing them to be stacked in a way square edged construction would not. Also, white oak is the preferred medium for spirits barrels, both because it is not as piney or resin-y as other woods (it is relatively neutral, not bitter), it is also more waterproof after treatment and transfers flavours like vanillin better, especially when charred. There’s loads more technical data around this subject – I’m just scratching the surface, really – but for now, this will suffice.

Units of measure 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Barrels are a very old form of container, and the further back we go, the more we diverge from the metric system: then we run into imperial and localized units of measure, differences between nations (e.g. US or UK), or the purpose of what the barrel is meant to contain, which impacts measurements down to modern times. Every culture had its measurements bases and units, often related to physical norms, such as measurements of the human body, the carrying or hauling capacity of man or animal, or the relationship of volume and weight.  Unsurprisingly, standardization was a constant problem and volumetric containers like barrels were no exception.

 

Wine foudres

For example, a US dry barrel may be considered 115.6 liters, but also 7,056 cubic inches or 3.28 US bushels, or “exactly” 26.25 US dry-gallons (and we won’t even go into the interior and exterior measurements, lengths or thicknesses of staves, diameter of head, distance between heads, size of bulge and on and on). To add to the confusion, barrels of cornmeal, sugar, cement, flour, butter or salt are defined by weight (and different ones for each, mind you) not volume. 

Fluid barrels are also different because they vary according to the particular liquid being measured…and where that’s happening (again, mostly US and UK).  They can variously be measured in US gallons or imperial, be defined whether it’s containing beer, oil, or other liquids, or with reference to other supposedly “standard” sizes, like “half a hogshead” or a “euro-keg.”

For the sake of this essay I’m going to mostly stick with the western barrels and not all  other containers of measure that have existed throughout history in other cultures and times. Also, I’ll refer to all measurements in liters (with notes on US/UK/other sizes), and reflect fluid barrels, not dry weight or other purposes. Lastly, barrels specific to goods like gunpowder, flour, pork or corn are excluded.


30,000-liter foudres at Saint James, Martinique (photo courtesy of Olivier Scars. from his visit and blog post),

Foudres, Muids and Tonels (1,000 liters to 30,000 liters)

The largest wooden containers which hold alcohol for ageing are foudres , which rum producers have happily co-opted from the wine makers of France. Sherry makers always thought they had the biggest and baddest barrels themselves – and although they have no standardized barrel as such, their tonel (the name can’t be a coincidence) is 800-2000 liters in capacity and therefore shares DNA with the huge foudres and muids of the wine industry, both of which also exceed 1000 liters. Some can go as high as 5000 liters, the Karukera distillery (see photo below) has one of 10,000 liters, and the Olympic champ for size must go to the 63 titanic foudres at Saint James in Martinique (left) each of which is a mind boggling 30,000 liters. And while outside the scope of discussion here, note also the use of the non-barrel-shaped Intermediate Bulk Container (IBC), which are modern, re-useable, multi-use container used for mass handling and shipping of liquids, semi-solids, and solids. These do not, however, have any application to the in situ slow, patient process of ageing which is what wooden containers are used for.

* The word foudre is, interestingly enough, not of French origin (in old French and heraldry it means “lightning” or “thunderbolt”), but from proto-Germanic and Old High German roots – it derives from “foeder” and “fuodar” which were terms used to denote a large barrel for ageing beer or wine.  The word and its variations then spread throughout Europe in medieval times.

Tun (~ 950-1000 liters, Old English 252 wine gallons, two “pipes”)

Of all the wooden containers grouped under the blanket term of barrels and used in the spirits industry, the tun is one of the largest, being considered in modern times to be around one thousand liters, depending on what is being measured (though it should be observed that there are larger wooden vessels used in other spirits, noted below). It is also an extremely old word, dating back to the Old Norse and Middle Irish word tunna which denoted any cask or a barrel, and may have derived from the Old Irish tonn which meant skin, or wineskin. It was therefore a word with relationships to both volume and weight (though aspects of even older words with connotations of enclosing also exist). It was a measure of liquid volume.

The tun itself was a large vessel for storing and shipping primarily wine, honey and oil, and for measuring large volumes of beer or ale – I’m not entirely sure if it was discontinued for rum and whiskey industries, but nowadays it is considered an antiquated term for a large barrel and has faded from the common speech. It use survives in the names of containers known as the lauter tun and the mash tun, both used in the beer brewing industry

The volume-holding definition of a tun has never been strictly standardized. Nowadays, in the US customary system, the tun is defined as 252 US fluid gallons (about 954 litres), and in the imperial system, it is 210 imperial gallons (about 955 litres). The French have a similar Brobdingnagian cask called a Bordeaux tonneau, which holds 900 liters, or 1200 wine bottles, though its size can vary down to 500 liters (see picture above).

The fluid volume of a tun was somewhat settled on, when, during the early 1500s, efforts were made in England to standardize weights and measures and volumes which were often so localized as to be useless – in 1507 a tun was 240 gallons of oil or wine, but could also be 208, 240 or 256 gallons (the latter seems to have been the most common). Finally, during Henry VIII’s reign (1509-1547) a tun was fixed as the equivalent of 252 wine gallons (~954 liters), or two pipes, a number which facilitated easy division by smaller integers and which had a mass of approximately one long ton. Later, when wine gallons were redefined in 1707 as 231 cubic inches, and the imperial system was adopted in 1824, both this (210 imperial gallons) and the US system (252 US or “Queen Anne” gallons) still worked out to 954 liters. Note that in the beer industry the tun was sometimes said to have 1150 liters based on 252 imperial gallons and there are references elsewhere that say the thing holds 982 liters…so it’s not as if there is a final number to speak of here.

Gorda (700 liters, 185 US gallons, 154 Imperial gallons)

This huge barrel has fallen out of favour in the Scotch whisky industry, since its capacity is close to the maximum permitted barrel size of 700 liters.  It is closely identified with American whiskey which continues to utilize it on a limited basis, usually for blending purposes.

Nowadays it is not common — being nearly three times the size of an American Standard Barrel, it’s simply too large (the name itself is Spanish for “fat”), and this creates problems for short term ageing (less surface area contact with the liquid). Also, it is difficult to char properly with existing equipment, problematic to move easily, and even more difficult rack in a warehouse given their weight when filled. That said, the large capacity makes it useful for producing blended, vatted whiskies.

Again, the sherry industry has a cask shorter and fatter than the 600 liter bota gorda (fat cask), called a bocoy.  This is usually around 700 liters capacity, and is therefore similar to the 700-800 liter tonelete, a small tonel.

Leaguer (~680 liters / 150 imperial gallons (varies))

A leaguer is another large cask, but seems to have less connection to the British spirits industry and more of the storage of water on board sailing ships and Dutch measurement systems from the 1700s. An archaic word, it has faded from common usage and can only be found in a few nautical references, many of which contradict each other. 

For example, wikipedia has no direct entry for it but mentions that a 33-foot launch from 1804 (a launch was the largest boat carried by a warship or merchantman in the age of sail) could carry 14 leaguers of 680 liters each; Nelson’s body was supposedly preserved in a leaguer (filled with brandy, not rum); the wordnik page calls it (erroneously, in my view) a tun, and states it as being 159 gallons without attribution, though this might come from the OED (shorter edition); the Society of Nautical Research has various sources in the conversation that define it as 250 gallons, 159 gallons or 190 wine gallons of water. Note that a leaguer was generally agreed by all modern sources to be outside of the subdivided tun-butt-puncheon-hogshead-tierce-barrel system.

That said, its origin is from the old Dutch word legger, part of the now-obsolete 17th century Dutch and South African measurement of capacity for wine and spirits which was finally abandoned in 1922. In this system, fluid measurements were related to the standard kanne (a can) of 11/32 Dutch gallons (1.329 liters), which was defined in Amsterdam. 388 kannes or 152 Dutch gallons were equal to 1 legger (~576 liters, roughly analogous to a butt, referred to below). Further subdivisions of a legger were as follows:

Legger → half legger → pipe → half-pipe → ahm (or aum) → half aum → anker → half anker → flask → kanne. 

These varied sizes of barrels were used most often in Dutch shipping for their fluid or dry stores. However, given that no current barrel or system of volume uses the word, this section is included for completeness only; to avoid further confusion and for the sake of brevity, here’s the reference you can look up if you want more.

Pipe barrel – note the narrower profile [Photo (c) oak-barrel.com]

Port Pipe (650 liters / 171.7 US gallons / 143 Imperial gallons) 

Compared to their chubby and squat Madeira cousins, Port Pipes more resemble giant American Standard Barrels (ASBs). The word pipe in this instance refers not the smoker’s implement but to the Portuguese word pipa, meaning “cask”, such as were once used to mature port; it’s something of a coincidence, perhaps, that the shape is slightly more cylindrical, longer (or taller) and narrower than a standard barrel. The size varies with some sources noting them as 540 liters capacity, while others mentioning 650 liters.

As the name implies, they are used to mature Port wines. They are then quite often sold on and utilized as “second use” barrels in whisky distilleries, and more recently, in an occasional rum making establishment. More recently, American craft distillers have taken a liking to them in helping expand American whiskey’s flavors, along side Madeira, Malaga and Marsala barrels (see below)

Madeira Drum (up to 650 liters / 171.7 Imperial gallons / 143 US gallons) 

Squat Madeira casks, called drums, are made using very thick European / French oak staves and are shaped rather wider, and shorter than other barrels. In the whiskey industry they are most often used as a finishing cask, and less frequently for primary maturation. Note however that madeira casks (of any kind) are sometimes much less than the 650 liters noted in the title and can range from 225 liters to 300 liters, or even 500 liters according to another source.

Demi-Muid (600 liters / 132 Imperial gallons / 158.5 US gallons)

These large-capacity oak barrels are typically used in the Rhône Valley in France in the wine industry, but have no application or use in spirits as far as I am aware. Weighing in at 124 kg (264 lbs) they are about four feet (117cm) high, with eight metal hoops.  Most wineries prefer to use the more manageable puncheons, but demi-muids are still made. The sherry equivalent is a bota gorda, also 600 liters.

The full size muid is a barrel-type with a volume of 1,300 liters, most common in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape area, while the smaller demi-muid (half size version) is common in Champagne and Languedoc-Roussillon. A muid is sometimes equated to a poinçon (puncheon) or is one of the possible types of barrique barrels (see below). 

…to the smaller and more common variations. Heights are as close to scale as I could make them

Butts

In medieval French and Italian, the botte (Spanish had the word bota) was considered to be half of a tun, or 1,008 pints and referred to the same barrel as a pipe (above).  They may have been equivalent at one time, but modern usage of the terms makes the distinction in between the larger capacity pipe and the slightly less voluminous butt, which is more or less standardized at 500 liters (though not consistently so)

Sherry Butt (500 liters / 132 gallons / 110 imperial gallons)

These tall casks are built with thicker staves, and are the most common type of cask in the sherry industry, and also the most common finishing cask in the whiskey industry. The demand for Sherry butts in the Scotch industry in particular is so great that a whole Sherry butt industry has grown up to support it, seasoning the casks with a Sherry style wine that is usually distilled into brandy rather than bottled as the real product. It is sometimes called a bota de extraccion / embarque which translates as “export butt.” Similar to the bota bodeguera with a capacity of 567 liters

Malaga Butt (500 liters)

The Malaga butt is from Spain as is clear from the name; with this barrel some noticeable lengthening similar to a Marsala cask starts to take place culminating in the port pipe (see above). It’s a relatively tall and narrow cask from Europe, utilizing thicker than normal ok staves. It is commonly used in the sherry industry in Spain and again, also within the whisky industry as a finishing barrel.

Illustration (c) Cask88.com

Marsala Cask (500 liters / 132 gallons / 110 imperial gallons)

As the name states this comes from the Marsala region of the island of Sicily where they are used to store and age dry or sweet fortified wine of that name. Fortified Marsala was, and is, made using a process called in perpetuum, similar to the solera system used to produce sherry and some rums. The Marsala casks can and are used for the whisky finishing process (not so much primary maturation) and due to the sweet dark type of wine, whiskies that mature in these casks are usually somewhat darker than normal. (Additional info on Sicilian wines is presented in this interesting article).

Puncheons

A puncheon rum was originally a high-proof, heavy-type rum said to have been first produced in Trinidad, at Caroni, in 1627, but that was probably only because of the barrel it was stored in: the term itself is far older, dating back to early medieval times (~13th century) when it denoted either an instrument to make a hole or a mark (like a punch in gold or silver jewelry) or to the old French ponchon or poinçon– a barrel of a certain volume and value, marked with a stamp. It was therefore occasionally referred to as a “punch barrel” to mean it had been calibrated by punching marks into it after an inspection. 

UK/US puncheons 

Historically the puncheon was a British unit for beer, wines and spirits, and an American one for the capacity of a barrel of that name holding wine.  However, it has been subject to some variations. In the UK it has been at one time or another 318-546 liters (70-120 imperial gallons) while the Americans defined it as 318 liters (84 US gallons and 4/3 of a Hogshead (see below)). The RumLab’s infographic that notes it as 450 liters exactly, is therefore somewhat imprecise. Note that a puncheon was also referred to as a tertian or tercian (see below) because at one time it was in fact ⅓ of a tun, at around 330 liters. Nowadays they have a rather greater capacity than that, ranging from 500-700 liters depending on what it is used to mature – sherry puncheons are supposedly larger than those used for rums.

Machine Puncheon (500 liters / 132 US gallons / 110 Imperial gallons)

This is a short and fat cask made with thick staves of American oak and according to various sources is the one used most by the rum industry.  It shares a similar capacity with the Sherry Shape Puncheon (also 500 liters), but that one has a different shape – thinner and longer staves are used here, making it more akin to a pipe.

A 500L tonneau and a 250L barrique

Barrique (Cognac) (300 liters / 79 US gallons / 66 Imperial gallons)

The word barrique is a very old one and although long in use in English, itself comes from even older words in Gaul (baril), vulgar latin (barrica) and old French / Occitan (barrica) all of which relate to wooden casks used for storage.

Barriques are relatively small casks used most often to age or store wines, cognac and grappa, and are often toasted to enhance flavour profiles.  They come in two types, and this is the larger version, used mostly in the wine and cognac industry and then subsequently in the whisky world as second-hand casks for finishing purposes. It is slightly more elongated than a butt and close to a hogshead in capacity and in place of metal hoops binding the staves together, is distinguished by the traditional use of wooden ones. As far as I am aware, few rum makers use them given their access to alternatives.

Note also that a cognac cask, as this is sometimes referred to, can have a capacity of 350 liters. It depends on the cooperage, the size desired by the maison, and to some extent local tradition.

HDPE Drums (250 liters / 55 Imperial gallons / 65 US gallons)

Almost exclusively for transport and storage of bulk spirits and oils, the high density polyethylene containers are considered inert and food safe, and are therefore useful to ship large quantities of neutral spirit around the world for blenders or third party bottlers to turn into gins, vodkas or other (even cheaper) drinks.  They have no place in the traditions of maturation which makes sense since they do not interact with the liquid inside.

Hogshead (225-250 liters /  59-66 US gallons / 49-54 Imperial gallons)

Surely there is no more evocative name for a barrel than this one, yet the etymology is uncertain. The words “hogge’s” and “hed” are demonstrably what they mean today, but the connection with the cask and a pig’s head remains unclear – some say it’s a resemblance thing. It dates back from the Germanic languages in the late medieval period (~14th century) and referred to a measure of capacity equivalent to 240 liters (63 wine gallons, 52½ imperial gallons, or specifically half a pipe, half a butt or a quarter of a tun) – it was standardized by an Act of Parliament in 1423, though it continued to vary geographically elsewhere, as well as depending on the liquid inside. Now a unit of liquid measurement, originally it could refer to any appropriately sized container holding tobacco, beer, wine, ale, cider, sugar, molasses, sardines, oil, herring, or even eels. Within the spirits industry the 225-liter hogshead made of white American oak is primarily used for maturing bourbon before being sent elsewhere to be used in the rum and scotch whisky industries.

It is the practice in the whisky industry to break down five ex-bourbon “standard” barrels (ASB, see below) into staves and to reassemble them with new ends to make four larger 250 liter casks called “hoggies” as the larger casks are more efficient to store volumes of spirits in warehouses. 

Also, in the sherry industry, there is a 250 liter barrel called a media bota, which is half the size of the regular bota.

225L wine barrel, or barrique

Barrique (Bordeaux) (225 liters / 59 US gallons / 49 Imperial gallons)

A second type of barrique exists, used predominantly in the wine industry, specifically Bordeaux in France, where the measurement of 225 liters was fixed by law in 1866. Before that, the size varied according to the region and could be anything between 136 and 400 liters. It is slightly smaller than the 300-liter cognac version, but retains the traditional wooden hoops, and the secondary use as a whisky finishing barrel. There are also Burgundy barriques, which are closely sized at 228 liters.

The size and popularity of these Bordeaux-sized barrels supposedly derived from their ease of use: one man could roll a barrique around, and only two people were needed to load one. Note that the word barrique is simply French for “cask.” It is further subdivided into a feuillette of just about half this size (110 liters) and a quarteau half again as small and sometimes called a “quarter-barrique” (55 liters).

American Standard Barrel, 200L

American Standard Barrel (200 liters / 53 US gallons / 44 Imperial gallons / ⅕ tun )

No matter how many other sizes of barrel there are, the most common current barrel in use is the American one, whose size is denoted as the “American Standard Barrel” or “Bourbon barrel” and is sometimes noted as being just a smaller hogshead, without the cool name. The reason behind its ubiquity is the US law that requires most American whiskeys to be aged in new oak barrels – consequently, after a single use they are useless there, which creates a massive surplus. The barrels are exported – often by breaking them down into staves and then reassembling them into hogsheads elsewhere – for reuse in maturing other spirit types including rum, tequila, tabasco pepper sauce, and of course Scotch and Irish whiskies. This makes the ASB the most commonly used barrel in the world. Unsurprisingly, American distillers think these casks provide the optimum surface-area ratio for maturing spirits.

Note that its origin in America means it is not directly related or numerically tied to the imperial system of the English wine cask sizings of tun-pipe-puncheon-hogshead-tierce-barrel-rundlet.  The origins of both are, however, undoubtedly the same and just adjusted for customary local usage. There are references to the capacity being 50-53 US gallons (180-200 liters) but most places I checked and people I spoke to maintain that 200 liters / 53 US gallons is the standard.

Tierce (158-160 liters / 35 Imperial gallons / 42 US gallons)

The word itself is of antique Roman (latin) and old French origin, and means “the third” or “a third”. The tierce was ½ of a puncheon, ⅓ of a butt or pipe, and ⅙ of a tun – when the now-archaic imperial system was instituted in the 15th century the tun was redefined to make it easily divisible by other integers and smaller barrel sizes. Its primary purpose was for wine transport, rum maturation and the storage of salted goods like fish or pork. It is almost exactly the same as a British Brewery Barrel (160 liters but also denoted as 288 pints or 43 gallons) or the Beer Barrel (140 liters, 35 imperial gallons, 42 US gallons) which in turn was used mostly in the storage of beer, ale or lager. This subsystem of liquid measurement had its own peculiarities of barrel sizes and names, like the kilderkin and the firkin (see below)

Most entries on the tierce refer to its relationship to the oil barrel. The oil boom in Pennsylvania in the 1860s created a shortage of containers (let alone standardized ones), so any barrel of whatever shape or size was used, including the 40 US gallon whiskey barrels and the 42 US gallon tierces, the former of which was far more common, and available. In 1866, to counter ever-increasing buyer distrust about measures, oil producers came together and settled on the whisky barrel as the standard barrel of measure and added an allowance of two extra gallons “in favour of the buyer”. This made a standard oil barrel 42 US gallons, the same capacity as the tierce from the time of Richard III of England.

Octave (unclear – 125 liters or 50 liters)

The Whisky Exchange’s blog made reference to an Octave barrel, naming it a quarter the size of a butt, or around 125 liters, which was considered small enough to allow for faster maturation but large enough to permit that maturation to be slower and take longer. Clearly the name refers to it being ⅛ of a tun. That said, the Whisky.com page on cask sizes states that the octave was ⅛ of a butt, or 50 liters but since the very same article also notes that a butt is 500 liters or so, then their math isn’t quite right since one eight of that amount is actually 62.5 liters.  WhiskyIntelligence also mentions that it’s 50 liters, ⅛ of a “standard cask” except that there is no standard cask of 400 liters, so again, something of a puzzle. AD Rattray’s “Octave Project” also refers to it as 50 liters (no further qualifications). Let’s agree that it’s one eighth of something, whether a tun or a butt.

Wine Barrel (~120 liters / 26 Imperial gallons / 31.5 US gallons)

Not utilized in the spirits industry as far as I am aware, this barrel remains in use by wine makers and is the equivalent of ½ a wine hogshead or ⅛ of a tun.  It therefore shares both the general size and the relative obscurity of an octave. This particular type of barrel is likely the same as the small French wine cask called a feuillette (110 liters).  I have no doubt that the wine industry has similar subgradings and fractions of large containers being called other names as the barrel size decreases, but that is peculiar to wine and not the primary focus here, so I’ll simply note it, and pass on.

Kilderkin (81.83 liters / 18 Imperial gallons / 21.62 US gallons)

A kilderkin is half a british Brewery Barrel and conforms to British brewery measuring systems (not those of wine which then became those of distilled spirits). It is mentioned here for completeness, but is not in use for the spirits industry in any consistent or meaningful way.  Note that over time there were several differing measurements for this medium sized barrel – initially it was 16 ale or beer gallons (73.94 liters) but was redefined in 1688 to 17 gallons, and again in 1803 to its current size of 18 imperial gallons of ale or beer.

The various ratios are: 1 Beer (or British Brewery) barrel = 2 kilderkins = 4 firkins.  For the geek squad, note that the word is from the Middle English and this in turn from the Middle Dutch words kinderkin a variant of kindekijn (small cask), and a diminutive of kintal (i.e., “little kintal”) which is a corruption of the Latin word quintale. It has old French and even Arabic roots, stretching back through Byzantine Greek and into the Latin word centenarium (hard “c”) which referred to a hundred pounds, later a hundredweight. It is possible that a barrel of such capacity filled with wine, ale or beer weighed this much, but I was unable to prove that and so the reason why it was named a quintale remains unknown.

Photo (c) fanaticscountryattic.com

Rundlet (68-70 liters / 15 Imperial gallons / 18.1 US gallons)

Part of the wine measurement system also used by distilleries, a rundlet is 1/7 of a butt and 1/14 of a tun, which makes those parent barrels’ odd sizings and capacities – chosen for easy subdivision – make rather more sense. A rundlet is another one of those archaic barrel sizes once common in Britain, and was originally defined as about 18 wine gallons and then in 1824 (the date of adoption of the imperial system) settled on 15 imperial gallons

Traditionally for the transport of wine, the cask size has now fallen into disuse and has more interest from a historical perspective than anything else. The word comes from old Middle English and Anglo-Norman words “rondelet” and “rondel” (with connotations of a round shape, no doubt.)

The name has passed into the company of equally archaic and seldom-used colloquialism like “quent” and means any small barrel of no certain dimensions which may contain anywhere from 3 to 20 gallons.

Quarter Cask (50 liters / 11 Imperial gallons / 13 US gallons)

A quarter cask is exactly what its name says it is, a cask one quarter of the size of another one – in this case, the American Standard barrel – and made in exact proportion.  Its attraction, of course, is in providing a much greater surface area to liquid ratio, thereby making the maturation process more rapid.  However, it is mostly used by smaller brewers and distillers or even those practising from home. It’s sometimes confused with a firkin (see below) but the two barrels are quite distinct types and sizes – the quarter cask one has its origin in the US spirits business, while the firkin (and kilderkin) both come from European beer and ale brewing traditions. Both, however, are a quarter the size of their “parent” barrel.

Firkin (41 liters / 9 Imperial gallons / 11 US gallons)

As noted , the firkin has its origin in the brewing industry, though differing shapes of it were also used for dry goods storage (sugar, flour, peas, etc): it is ½ the size of a kilderkin, and a ¼ of British Brewery Barrel (sometimes called ale or beer barrels), and is occasionally but  misleadingly referred to as a quarter cask because it is a quarter the size of the standard brewing barrel of 160 liters.  Here I make a clear distinction between the firkin and the American quarter cask because of its different size and origin. The firkin’s use in spirits predates the micro-distillery and DIY brewing boom in the US, and has been used for a long time by Scottish distilleries to speed up cask-spirit interaction, as well as to sell more affordable quantities of spirits to private buyers (as was noted in the origin story of the SMWS, for example). 

But as stated, its origin was with brewing and storage of ale and beer and to this day a firkin of 9 imperial gallons, or 72 pints is used to deliver cask conditioned beer to publicans (pubs), though the volume of consumable beer within it is usually less.  It is not always shaped like a barrel, but sometimes like a bucket, which makes sense given its use for storage and transport by an individual.

As to the origin of the word: it comes from the same source as the kilderkin, namely Middle Dutch vierdekijn, meaning “little Fourth.”

Blood Barrel / Blood Tub (40 liters / 9 Imperial gallons / 11 US gallons)

A small barrel used in beer making, but also for moving spirits on horses or mules.  It therefore has no ageing usage, just for transport and small scale sales to private individuals, such as in private casks.  They sport a somewhat more elongated oval shape to facilitate carriage and fastening. The exact reason it’s called a “blood” barrel is unknown – it may be because it was used to capture blood from slaughtered animals for use in sausages or some such (my surmise).

Pin (20 liters / 4.5 Imperial gallons /  5.4 US gallons)

Used by home brewers or by microbrewers, this small container is ½ of a firkin (see above). There is no point to ageing anything in a cask so small and reactive where it made of wood, so it’s mostly a storage medium, and plastic variations of this size – known as “polypins” are popular for homebrewing and small deliveries, as well as in beer festivals.

There are also minipins of around 10 liters which are used to serve ale in people’s homes in the UK.  Half the size of a pin, they are usually filled by decanting from any larger container like a pin or a firkin.

Barracoon / barrack (4 liters / 0.9 Imperial gallons / 1 US gallon)

At the very bottom end of the scale is the barracoon, which is perhaps more decorative than functional and displays a peculiar insensitivity for word useage, since the word itself actually means a pen or cage used to keep slaves awaiting shipment during the slave trade.  I can find no reference to this tiny cask in a dictionary, or in online encyclopedias. Diffords mentions it without any narrative whatsoever, and ASW Distillery out of Georgia in the US gives it a quick mention without context. Neither describe what it could be used for, though it seems clear that it could only be for some kind of personal use, since it is far too small for any kind of serious commercial application.


15.3 gallon Stainless Steel Keg

Kegs

Kegs are a kind of small barrel insofar as the shape is the same, and like barrels, have their own subculture and nomenclature.  The term is not in common usage for the rum (or spirits) industry, but everyone is familiar with it from quaffing suds.

Traditionally, a keg made of wood was simply a small barrel of indeterminate size – it was used to transport solid goods like nails or gunpowder or corn, or liquids like oil and wine.  Its use therefore tended more towards the private than the commercial. Nowadays a keg is often made of metal (stainless steel), very much associated with beer, and has a stated purpose of keeping a carbonated beverage under pressure to keep it from going flat.

That said, it remains curiously non-standardized: where the capacity might be the same, the linear measurements might differ, and vice versa. However, in the USA a full sized keg is seen as a half barrel, or 15.5 US gallons, a quarter-barrel of 7.75 gallons or some subdivision thereof. The key to this is that it doesn’t refer to any of the barrels I have listed above (like the ASB), but a US beer barrel, which is listed as 31 US gallons (about 117 liters).  

Of course, beer kegs can come in any kind of size and the accepted convention that they are smaller than a barrel is about all that can be said for them. They can range from 5 liters (1.32 US gallons) for a mini-keg or “Bubba”, to 19 liters (5 US gallons) for a “Corny keg” or “Home Brew” then in ever increasing volumes to a half barrel, a pony keg, an import keg (also known as a “standard European” keg of 50 liters) and then finally the Full Keg of 15.5 US gallons as noted in the paragraph above. Of course there are other variations and sizes and names, but these are the common ones.

A subset of this is the so-called Euro-keg of a commonly accepted capacity of 50 liters.  There are smaller subdivisions of this size in Germany (which with a complete Teutonic lack of imagination names them DIN 6647-1 and DIN 6647-2 for example) and the UK denominates its keg size as 11 imperial gallons, which happily works out to 50.007 liters.  But in an interesting aside, in some places within Germany where a pour is half a liter, a keg’s capacity is measured in beers, not liters, so that’s pretty cool.


Vats

A vat is any large volume barrel, and is a general catch-all term, not one that is rigorously defined in any official system of weights and measures.  It therefore is in the same league as the French foudre and muid, or a tub or a tank, also large-volume containers without clear volumetric definitions. Because of the size, such vessels are at the other end of the scale from kegs or pins. 

It is also a very old word, dating back to the Proto-indo-European prefix “pod-” (or vessel) – a word itself at the root of pot. It developed into proto-Germanic “fata” (again, for a vessel or container) and a similar meaning in the Old English “fæt”, though I think it’s similarity to water and wasser suggests a water storage vessel as well.  From there it moved into Medieval English and was gradually turned into “fat” meaning a vessel or tank and was used to describe large container used for tanning hides and wine making, with cognates all over the northern European world. 

These days, due to its lack of definition and lots of other alternatives, the word is very general in nature. Its use in spirits is retained in calling tanks “vats” especially when producing “vatted whiskies” or naming blended rums like Vat 19.


Intermediate Bulk Containers (wikipedia)

Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs)(1040 or 1250 liters / 228 or  275 Imperial gallons / 275 or 330 US gallons)

Not used for ageing, they are akin to the HDPE drums mentioned briefly above. They are multi-purpose industrial-grade, intermediately-sized and mostly cube-shaped shipping containers, easy to stack or store; and used for the transport and storage of liquids, semi-solids and solids. Their popularity stems from a combination of storage efficiency (they fit into less space than equivalent volume barrels), utility and flexibility since they can be of many shapes and sizes, and of metal, plastic or a composite and are often manufactured to exacting (Government- or industry-mandated) standards permitting transport of hazardous materials.

IBCs come in two varieties, rigid and flexible. Rigid ones are made of plastic, composite, carbon steel or stainless steel, while flexible IBC can be made from fiberboard, wood, aluminium, plastic, and often are seen as heavy sacks. Oak does not fit into their makeup anywhere.

20′ ISO Bulk Shipping Container – 26,000 Liters

Unsurprisingly rum (and other spirits) are not normally stored in these containers, since they are inert and have no impact on the profile. They are not part of any systems of weights and measures outside the logistics industry. Nor do they have any tradition in the back-history of rum, the distilleries,  plantations, or the shipping trade – they are, in point of fact, a modern innovation like the standardized shipping container and are used in modern transport mechanisms.  So, for bulk transport and/or storage of alcohol, whether on site or in a vessel, they have their uses and I include them here for completeness.

ISO Bulk Shipping containers with a capacity of thousands of liters are also quite common for distilleries which ship spirits around the world.   The 20′ Tank Shipping Container mentioned in this article, for example, has a capacity of 26,000 liters. As rum is now shipped globally in massive quantities by huge distillery operations, doing so via the space-inefficient means of wooden barrels clearly is a non starter.


Trivia

An article like this leads down many obscure rabbit holes that are at tangents to the main purpose.  I collect them because I’m a trivia nut and because some of them are just so damned interesting.

  • Someone who makes barrels is called a “barrel maker” or cooper. However, coopers make many different kinds of enclosed containers, including not just the familiar terms above (hogsheads, firkins, kegs, kilderkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts and pins) but buckets, vats, tubs, butter churns, troughs and breakers.
  • The term barrel to refer to the shooting tube of a cannon (and later, a gun) is directly related to the barrels discussed above.  Early metallurgical technology was not sufficiently advanced to contain the explosive force of gunpowder combustion without the tube down which the cannonball would go, warping or exploding. This tube, or pipe, which was sometimes made from staves of metal, needed to be periodically braced with hoops along its length for structural reinforcement – this produced an appearance somewhat reminiscent of storage barrels being stacked together, hence in English it adopted the term of barrel.
  • I said above that a leaguer is an archaic term for a water barrel on board ship in the Age of Sail, though references to such barrels holding wine also exist.  One of the most peculiar is a page from the 1907 “Clive’s South African Arithmetic for Standard IV” which had a question requiring the student to convert a half-leaguer to pints.


Other

I have excluded non standardized storage media like tanks, casks (oddly, this is not a defined unit or container of measure or storage, though of course everyone knows what one is), reservoirs, containers, pots, flasks, tubs, drums, or cans.  There’s a fair bit of information about these things, but they have limited applicability to spirits generally and rum specifically.


Sources

Jul 192020
 

Introduction

One of the rum-producing countries about which we don’t know enough is India, home of companies like Rhea, Amrut, Radico Khaitan, Krimpi, Tilaknagar, McDowell’s (part of Diageo) and the subject of today’s biography, Mohan Meakin. Originally it was to form part of the review of their Old Monk Supreme XXX Vatted Rum, but when I delved into the weeds, the “tale grew in the telling” until it was clear that it deserved a full treatment by itself.

The Founders and Early Years

The company that eventually became Mohan Meakin was founded by a Scottish businessman named Edward Abraham Dyer. He was the son of a British officer, John Dyer, who served in the East India Company’s Naval Service (and whose father in turn had served in the Royal Navy in the 18th century) and had lived in India from around the 1820s. Edward Dyer, born in Bengal (c.1830), was educated in England as an engineer but did not seem to want to pursue a military career and returned to India around 1850 (or earlier, there’s some confusion here).  With his brother John he determined to use his family money to open a brewery, as to this point beer could only come to India around the Cape of Good Hope and this made it prohibitively expensive. One attempt to brew had been made in a hamlet called Kasauli south of Shimla in the northern Indian province of Himachal Pradesh, but it had failed in the 1840s. 

Kasauli Brewery. Photo (c) Havinder Chandigarh

Kasauli became a cantonment and hill station of the British East India Company in 1845 (India had not yet been taken over by the British Crown), and Dyer set up his initial beer brewery there, Asia’s first. He chose the site because it was the location of the previous failed attempt, was similar in climate to his Scottish homeland, had a good supply of pure springwater, and (perhaps more importantly) a ready supply of British “John Company” troops and civilians in Shimla and elsewhere in the Punjab. His intention was initially to make beer, but expanded that idea to ale and whisky as well.  He brought brewing and distilling equipment (including pot stills, some of which are still in use today) from Britain by steamer, ship and ox carts, up the Ganges and to Shimla, thence to Kasauli; once set up, he began making whisky, India Pale Ale, and Lion beer, the latter also being a first in all Asia.

As Kasauli began using most of the springwater to supply its growing population, the brewery was dismantled and moved to Solan, 10km to the east, further downhill and closer to both the railhead and better water supply, while leaving the distillery in place, and both distillery and brewery remain operational to the current time. At the inception the brewery/distillery had simply been named the Kasauli Brewery. However, after the British East India Company annexed the Punjab in 1849 (this highanded action was part of what led to the 1857 mutiny) and British law extended to it, including company law, Dyer incorporated the company as Dyer Breweries Limited in 1855 which is the date seen on MM’s logo to this day, though the exact date of the company’s true operational inception remains somewhat unclear…it’s very likely earlier (sources conflict – see other notes, below).

Original Pot stills used for making whisky (c) smacindia.com

The distillery initially made the well regarded malt whisky called “Solan No. 1” which took the name of the nearby town to which the brewery subsequently relocated, and this remained the best selling Indian whisky until the 1980s when new rivals toppled it.  The ale and beer and whisky made by Dyer’s were so popular that he was able to expand rapidly.  In the following decades, to add to the ones at Kasauli and Solan, he established breweries and distilleries at Lucknow (in Uttar Pradesh),  Mandalay in Burma (now Myanmar), Murree, Rawalpindi and Quetta (in Pakistan –  where Murree Brewery remains that country’s largest and oldest manufacturer of alcoholic products and is now a public company); and interests in yet more companies in southern India and Ceylon.


As a not-entirely-irrelevant aside, the Dyers were considered second class British at best, commercial creatures, being as they were “box-wallahs” (“in the trade” – both terms were ones of condescension and contempt) and not either Government or military — and this was looked down upon in the caste-ridden British society of the day. Unsurprisingly this would have led them in turn to denigrate all Indians as their inferiors, an attitude strengthened by the fear engendered by the Rising (aka the Mutiny) of 1857. Indians were considered beneath notice, whether servants, employees or independent suppliers of sugar cane, like the ancestors of Indy and Jazz Singh of Skylark Spirits, who, according to family legend, supplied the brewery when it started to make rum.  And this in turn undoubtedly influenced the mentality of General Reginald Dyer, Edward’s son, who earned for himself the sobriquet of “The Butcher of Amritsar” for having his soldiers fire into an unarmed crowd in 1919.  This was considered a fatal blow to British rule in India and led to both independence in 1947, and  the takeover of the company in 1949 by Indians, as well as the emigration of many Indians like the Singhs’ parents, to Britain.


While the Dyer name contained within the original company title has vanished (see below), the other half has proved more durable, and lasted to the present day.  Unfortunately, considerably less is recorded or known about H.G. Meakin as a person (including what the “H.G” actually stands for – one comment [below] says it stood for “Herery George”) than about Edward Dyer, in spite of his achievements being as great.

In origins, it is recorded that Meakin came from a successful brewing family in Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England, which is quite an interesting place in its own right.  It has a long history of beer making and many small breweries there going back centuries, with the Meakin name traceable as far back as 1726 when they were brewers and victuallers, in which line of business they continued until Charrington bought them out in 1872 … after which the trail gets chilly. The problem is, H.G. Meakin is not referenced anywhere, and even the Lewis Meakin genealogy from the early 1800s lists no direct relative with the initials H.G. (the comment below states he was the grandson of Lewis Meakin). Yet the Mohan Meakin website and other sources state that he came from Burton-on-Trent, was related to the Meakins and had brewery training as a result of these connections. 

Burton-Upon-Trent in 1905. The Charrington Abbey Brewery at right was taken over from the Meakins in 1872 (© The History Press; David Smith Collection).

When he came to India, or what precisely he did when he got there, is another annoying mystery — the earliest reference to the company is an arrangement by the Bengal Government who were dealing with Meakin’s brewery for twelve years prior to 1884 when Meakin was already in “Kusowlie” (see image clipping below).

(Click to enlarge)

So by 1872 Meakin was there, and certainly by 1887 he must have been quite successful (or had gotten money via the family), because he had the financial resources to buy the Kasauli and Solan breweries from Dyer, who was seeking to expand elsewhere. If we assume Meakin was around 30-35 at this time – hustle and bustle in the business world attend to youth more than old age, especially in colonial India –  then he was likely born in the 1840s and came to the subcontinent by the late 1860s / early 1870s. Over the next thirty years, Meakin bought or begun other spirits enterprises in Ranikhet, Dalhousie, Chakrata, Darjeeling, Kirkee and Nuwara Eliya (in what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka), creating an arc of production centres (mostly) in the northern highlands that spanned the entire subcontinent. Unsurprisingly, both Dyer’s and Meakin’s enterprises were established mostly in the cantonment towns where there were large numbers of British soldiers and Government officials who were in need of refreshment.

Distribution of Dyer’s and Meakin’s various distilleries and breweries prior to merging

The two businesses ostensibly went their separate ways after their commercial transaction in 1887, but the First World War was beneficial to both since their sales of beer and spirits rose significantly (aside from increased local sales in India, beer and malted barley were sent to Egypt for the armed forces and civilians there), and there is some indication of cooperation between them at this time. It is easy, therefore, to imagine the Dyers (not Edward – he had probably passed away by this time) and the Meakins getting together to discuss a combined future, and in the 1920s they established a joint venture called Dyer Meakin & Co. Ltd – clearly the darkness of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre by Edward’s son Reginald, had not extended far enough to besmirch the Dyer name or cause it to be discreetly retired from the company masthead.

A consequence of this joint venture was that operations were restructured: brewing was suspended at Kasauli while upgraded, modernized and extended at Solan, and extensive malting continued at Kasauli.  As the years moved on, modernization permitted increased production with the latest machinery and apparatus, and some of the unprofitable brewing centres were shuttered, with Solan, Kasauli and Lucknow being greatly expanded. Also, in April 1937, Burma became a separately administered colony of Great Britain, and operations there had to be separated from those of India for tax and administrative reasons. The Joint Venture at this point was retired and became a merged public company which was renamed with a complete lack of originality, to Dyer Meakin Breweries Ltd and this was listed on the London Stock Exchange.

The writing was, however, on the wall for Empire, which was now on its last legs. The Great War had drained Britain of an entire generation of young men, and nearly bankrupted it.  The next war finished the job and part of the conditions for American help during WW2 was for Britain to relinquish its empire and move the colonies towards self-government and independence, a task that was accomplished, but bloodily, and with great loss of life – especially in India and the disaster that was Partition.

Indian Ownership: Post-Independence

I am unclear what economic restrictions attended to Britons who owned property and businesses in India at Independence in 1947, but most of my reading suggests wholesale expropriation was not on the cards and British businesses were allowed to continue much as before.  Nevertheless, it could not have been easy for such companies to function in a “we got ours now” environment where thousands of British families had already returned “home,” and where a fierce nationalism and dislike of all things colonial pervaded the business and professional atmosphere.

It is likely for this reason, and perhaps also other subtle (and not so subtle) pressures brought to bear, that those family members of Meakins and Dyers remaining with the company, decided to dispose of their interest, and when a Brahmin ex-employee Narendra Nath Mohan raised appropriate funds and came to London in 1948, they made a deal to sell their shares (no further details available) and Mohan took ownership in 1949. The modern era of Mohan Meakin dates from this point, yet, interestingly, the name did not change and it remained Dyer Meakin Breweries for another seventeen years and the company did not diversify its alcoholic production into other areas for another five.

NN Mohan built new breweries in Lucknow, Khopoli (near Mumbai) and Ghaziabad (in Uttar Pradesh). In the decades that followed, he created a sort of industrial hub in Ghaziabad for what would be a conglomerate, and expanded into other (sometimes self reinforcing) lines of businesses – brewery, distillery, malt house, glass factory, an ice factory and engineering works. Clearly, the man had great vision for the future and did not intend to stay with just what he had bought.

However, up to that point, the products made by the company remained what they always had been – whisky and beer.  These were popular – Lion and Golden Eagle beers remained the most widely sold in India, with Solan No.1 doing the honours for whisky – but that was it. In the early 1950s, in an effort to diversify, NN and one of his three sons, Ved Ratan Mohan (“VR”), came up with what would become one of their signature, flagship brands, the Old Monk rum. VR, 26 at the time, wanted to channel inspiration he had taken from Benedictine monks in Europe, as well as to take on the Hercules rum sold exclusively to the armed forces (he retired a Colonel himself). 

With his father, he created the blend of rums aged (oak-vats) for seven years (it is unclear where the initial stock originated, one of many such unknowns that were okay then but certainly not now) and infused with undisclosed spices (another aspect never mentioned). Initially the idea was standard barroom bottles but VR liked the crinkled squat Old Parr whisky bottles and appropriated their design, later settling a court case with Old Parr to allow them (MM) to keep the transparent variation.

Picture provided courtesy of reddit user /biggunbuster
Note the “Made in Punjab only” and “For sale to paramilitary forces only” statements

The Old Monk rum was at first released in December 1954, and issued in limited quantities to the armed forces, where it shattered class barriers that heretofore had relegated rum to a jawan’s drink, not that of the officer class. By also positioning Old Monk as a more exclusive and upper class rum (especially by ensuring its availability in 5-star hotels), it became such a hit that distribution was expanded to the whole country, and it remained the best selling, most popular rum in India for the next fifty years, with other variations being added over the time.  


The question of who exactly the Old Monk was, remains a matter of some conjecture and there are three stories [1] it’s a stylized Benedictine monk such as originally inspired V.R. Mohan [2] it represents one of the founders of the old house, H.G. Meakin himself, and is an homage to his influence, and [3] it represents a British monk who used to hang around the factory where the rums were made and aged, shadowing the master blender – his advice was so good that when Old Monk was first launched the name and bottle were based on him (this of course implies that aged rum was being made and sold by the company for years before 1954, but I simply have no proof of this and so cannot state it with assurance).


The company gradually expanded its repertoire of spirits, and while years of introduction are not known, the Solan No.1 brand has been joined by whiskies like Diplomat Deluxe, Colonel’s Special, Black Knight and Summer Hall. In keeping with many diversified companies, they also developed  locally made gins like Big Ben and London Dry and Kaplanski vodka (implying a multi-column still had been put into operation) and an ever-expanding line of Old Monk series of rums. 

The company itself, however, did not remain Dyer Meakin.  The story goes that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused to visit the brewery while touring Shimla in 1960 – when asked, he gave the predictable answer of it bearing the name of General Reginal Dyer with all its tragic and negative  associations.  It took another six years, but in 1966 it was renamed Moham Meakin Breweries, and in 1980, by now a conglomerate of some note, it was renamed again, to Mohan Meakin Ltd, and was subsequently listed on the Calcutta Stock Exchange, where it remains to this day. 

The Modern Era of Ved Rattan Mohan and Kapil Mohan

Col. Ved Rattan Mohan

Management also changed.  In 1969 Narendra Nath Mohan passed away, and his enterprising son Colonel Ved Rattan, took over. He was quite a character, apparently: a flamboyant bon vivant, he was an MP, mayor of Lucknow, chairman of Censor Board of Film Certification and even a favourite of Mrs Indira Gandhi — and parties held at his home were equally likely to be attended by Bollywood stars as by politicians. However, he had little time to make a mark on the company, as in 1973 he died at the young age of 45, and he had had just enough time to initiate the diversification of the companies into other food and beverage areas like cereals, fruit juices and mineral waters, which his successors would nurture and develop.

This put the management of the company in the hands of the second brother, Brigadier General Kapil Mohan, who at the time was heading up the marketing and distribution arm of the company, Trade Links. He was to lead Mohan Meakin for the next 42 years, until 2015 (he died in early 2018). He expanded the company’s liquor business, following from his brother’s innovations in other lines of F&B and led the company into the new century – albeit with mixed results.

Although a teetotaller himself, he ensured the vatted 7 YO Old Monk’s success by adding to the range, introducing a Deluxe XXX Rum, Gold Reserve, the Supreme XXX Rum, a white rum and Old Monk XXX Rum which I suppose is some low level standard that’s even cheaper than all the others. The brand of Old Monk rum went on to become a best selling rum, not just in India, but abroad.  In the Indian Diaspora it was not unknown to have visiting friends be asked to bring a bottle over, as older folks recalled their first sips in college back in the day. 

What was surprising that until very recently, the company did not advertise at all, claiming that they had no spare cash to waste and word of mouth would make it sell.  That may be true, although the innate conservatism of the country (which did not even allow kissing onscreen in its movies until very recently) and the obvious restrictions of what it allowed and allows into advertising media surely played its part.  Alcohol and cigarettes are currently not allowed on TV commercials, for example.  Still,  even with those restrictions at that time, the army remained a loyal bulk purchaser and their influence on the entire society made the affordable Old Monk rums to be continual and enormous sellers.  The expanding line of alcohols and the cheap beers the company made did the rest.

The New Century – Threats, Opportunities, Declines

This could not, however, continue. India was slowly opening up to world trade after failure of the planned socialist economy of the 50s, 60s and 70s. It had flirted with Prohibition in the 1960s but it was soon lifted (alcohol remains illegal in a few places), and now other competitors were not only being allowed into the Indian market, but were springing up home grown. To this was added the increase in energy prices and export fees within India, which squeezed margins for the company.  

Old Monk was the market leader until about 2002 — not just in the rum field (which it comfortably dominated to that point) but the entire branded spirits market in the whole country, including whisky.  And that included the other large spirit combine (United Spirits) whisky named Bagpiper.  Even McDowell’s “Celebration” rum sold barely 50% of what Monk moved and in India the Monk was almost an icon of the local drinking scene, a rite of drunken passage for young college grads, the way Bacardi or the Kraken is in other places now. 

By the mid 2000s the decline in the fortunes of the company’s flagship products was getting attention, some of which commentators and insiders laid at the feet of  Kapil “Dad” and his no-advertising policy and his martial, regimented approach to innovation and development, which was ill suited to less restrictive and less traditional newcomers who played by nimbler and more innovative rules. Because, unlike Mohan Meakin, other domestic firms moved fast: United Spirits, Radico Khaitan, Allied Blender’s and Distillers, Tilak Nagar Industries, Khoday’s, Amrut Distilleries, John Distilleries, Simbhaoli Sugars, Empee Distilleries, Jagatjit Industries…they all added sparkle and pizzazz, new products, splashy marketing strategies, aggressive promotion, and they started to sell much better.  The combination of canny advertising and clever market moves made McDowell’s Celebration move ahead — by 2011 it sold almost four times as much as Old Monk, in 2014 seven times as many units (15 million cases to 2 million). 

Perhaps the Brigadier’s confidence originally had some foundation – Old Monk was not just a local seller (however much in decline) but an international favourite that actually outsold Bacardi in some places. But that didn’t matter because the finances of the company started to show losses between 2005-2015, the same period during which Old Monk’s share of the Indian rum market fell from 15% to 5%. There were brief lurches into profit as MM divested land and other assets but overall no significant moves were made to revamp the lineup or change the business strategy or allow advertising on a level other companies were doing (“We do not advertise. I will not, and as long as I am in this chair, we will not,” huffed the 84-year-old Mohan in 2012, believing then as before, that a good product is its own advertisement). 

And the hits just kept on coming:

Mohan Meakin suffered the shutdown of the Lucknow brewery and distillery almost overnight in 2009 (caused by Wave Distilleries’ Ponty Chada getting a near monopoly of the liquor business in what can only be described as an underhand political deal – clearly India has nothing to learn from Barbados when it comes to cutthroat business practices and skullduggery); Tamil Nadu’s state took over all liquor procurement and sales (which all but removed Old Monk from state shelves for years in one of the most resolutely rum-drinking markets in India); perhaps worse, Indians were drinking less rum and switching to whisky as the move towards premiumization began; and to add insult to injury, the Indian Army, long a bastion of the company’s sales, actually seemed to be buying more Contessa rum from rival Radico Khaitan, than Old Monk.

Also, unlike United Spirits who made McDowell’s (and which was taken over by Diageo in 2013-2014), Mohan Meakin adamantly refused to countenance any strategic partnership, let alone a sale, though it had been approached for its beer business by both Budweiser and Carlsberg, and even scuttled talks of a takeover by SABMiller in 2006 by insisting any lease (and not an outright sale) be for ten years, which of course was as good as saying “not interested”.  The fact that some 66% of equity was held by the family in 2012 surely made such decisions easier, but no less problematic or short-sighted in the absence of a clear plan for revitalizing the firm’s fortunes. It comes as no surprise that even loyal employees of the company sniffed disparagingly in 2016 that the management was a bunch of old farts (at the time some members of the board were well into their eighties) out of touch with a much different and fast-moving world where predators were always circling and there was no longer any insulation from foreign competition such as had permitted their initial growth.

Brigadier Kapil Mohan retired in 2015 due to ill health (he kept on contributing in a consulting capacity), and the reins were passed to a new generation, the third, exemplified by Vinay and Hemant Mohan, his nephews.  They learned from the beginning of their employment with the company in the early 1990s that they had to start at the bottom and learn each part of the large and complex organization they might one day manage. 

Left to Right: Hemant Mohan, Brigadier Kapil Mohan, Vinay Mohan (c 2000s)

Hemant took over as Managing Director of the company (he has been working in MM since 1991), and tried to address the enormous problems he had inherited, with Vinay on the board as a director lending support. In 2015 MM began to issue a premium variety of Old Monk (this was either the 12 YO in the bottle shaped like a figurine, or perhaps the Legend) with some success, but in a cost cutting move that annoyed many loyal buyers who prized their personal relationships with the company’s sales representatives, they outsourced distribution to a third party who had no such feel for old and valued clients. However, that aside, there were signs of improvement: new product launches, rebranding, more aggressive marketing, a drive to premiumisation with Old Monk Gold Reserve, Old Monk Supreme and some limited edition bottlings – all these helped bolster sales to more than five million cases in 2017 after touching an all-time low of 3.5 million cases just a few years prior. 

By the mid-teens the company had settled some of the earlier issues referred to above and in a 2016 interview, Vinay Mohan said that loss making entities like the glass factory had been shut down, Tamil Nadu had been “sorted” and markets in Bengal and Maharashtra were showing good growth. He dismissed any notions of the company going under or Old Monk being discontinued or sold, and glossed over distribution problems that continued to plague the company; and in the following years the company put out many statements where they flatly said they would never discontinue Old Monk unless the entire company went belly-up. Well, okay.  Certainly some of the cost cutting had its intended effect, for while operating income grew sluggishly in the three years to 2017, net profit doubled and debt declined 40%. Whether the “Ready to drink” flavoured range of underproof cocktail rums released in 2018 (and other such marketing strategies) was successful and can arrest the long term issues the company faces is yet to be seen.

The future is cautiously optimistic, and only time will tell whether they can weather the storm.  They are fighting a battle on many fronts: aggressive competition from huge multinational spirits conglomerates boasting many renowned brands of their own; first-mover advantages they squandered by the many missed opportunities foregone as the markets opened; increased drive to premiumization and an ever-more-crowded marketplace for really good rums, in which Old Monk is not regarded as a top tier product by anyone outside India and served to a population that has been blinded by the elegance-factor of high end whiskies.

The Old Monk Line (not complete)

On the flip side, Old Monk is an international brand and does have devoted fans — one such formed a group called COMRADE (the Council of Old Monk Rum Addicted Drinkers and Eccentrics); also, the widely scattered diaspora remembers it fondly, and the army continues to be a supporter – but the new generation of company management intends to expand beyond these notions of half-remembered and faded old glory. They want to recapture their lost market share by targeting different audiences (primarily young adults and the new middle class), with more limited edition releases, different blends and even tap into the ready-to-drink “instant cocktails,” flavoured editions and infused white rums – and that extends beyond rum, and to their whisky and vodka brands as well.  

If they can diversify into more export markets while retaining those markets they already have, expand into other price point products and fix their distribution problems within Asia generally and India in particular, then it’s likely they will do just fine.  And then India will continue to be represented well in the category, perhaps by a rum that won’t be just another vanilla-infused has-been from decades ago, but a true and pure rum that will take its place with all the other good ones so many people from around the world are enjoying right now.


Brief Timeline of the Company

  • 1855 Dyer’s is registered as a limited liability company
  • 1884 Dyer’s Murree Brewery of Punjab acquires Ceylon Brewery
  • 1887 Meakin Breweries bought Solan and Kasauli operations from Dyer
  • 1920s Joint Venture with Dyer and Meakin’s operations
  • 1937 Full merger of both businesses to form Dyer Meakin Breweries Ltd.
  • 1949 – Narendra Nath Mohan takes control of Mohan Meakin
  • 1954 Colonel Ved Rattan Mohan (1928-1973) creates the Old Monk brand with his father 
  • 1966 Dyer Meakin renamed Mohan Meakin
  • 1967 Mysore Fruit Products becomes a subsidiary
  • 1969 VR Mohan takes over Mohan Meakin
  • 1973 Brigadier Kapil Mohan (VR’s younger brother)takes over MM after VR dies.
  • 1975 Glass factory opened in Fiji
  • 1978 Another distillery opened in Bhutan
  • 1980 Company name changes to Mohan Meakin Ltd. Experiments with carbonated sodas
  • 1982 Expansion into the USA
  • 1983 Brewery set up in Chennai
  • 1986 Decline in profits as energy prices rise
  • 1990 Hemant Mohan joins company (son of Sukhdev Mohanr)
  • 1994 Vinay Mohan joins company (son of Sukhdev Mohan)
  • 1995 Highland Queen and Grand Reserve whisky brands launched
  • 2015 Hemant Mohan takes over as MD as Brigadier retires for health reasons
  • 2018 Brigadier Mohan dies at 88 (reported 6 Jan 2018). Hemant Mohan becomes CEO
  • 2018 “Ready to drink” range debuts on the market, released to arrest the slide of sales

Other Notes

  1. Some sources, including wikipedia, say Edward Dyer was in India from as far back as the 1820s but this conflicts with more formal published accounts which say he returned in 1850.  The date of the first brewing and distilling operation is similarly problematic, some saying 1850 or so, others saying a generation earlier. The stories can be somewhat reconciled if we accept that Dyer’s father or someone known to him was the man who set up that first brewery which failed in 1840, and then Edward Dyer, armed with that knowledge, came back with modern equipment in 1850 to begin the new distillery and brewery. This article is the only one I’ve seen suggesting such an interpretation but it in turn conflicts with other accounts which give Dyer’s date of birth as 1831.
  2. Still, I believe that wikipedia is in error here: it states Dyer and Meakin merged in 1835 and this is inconsistent with too many other sources. Edward Dyer had to be at least 30 in 1835 under this interpretation, so assuming he was born in 1805 or so, this would make him 60 years old, give or take, when his son Reginald was born in 1864. I find this unlikely.
  3. There is a story that Rocky Mohan (Ved Rattan Mohan’s son), who is retired from the company, sold the Lucknow distillery to Ponty Chada, the man who engineered the monopoly for Wave Distilleries in Uttar Pradesh in 2009, but this is not reported elsewhere.

 


Sources

 

Dec 042019
 

Ten years ago, overproof rums (which I mentally designate as anything 70% ABV and above even though I’m well aware there are other definitions) were limited to the famed 151s – juice at 75.5%, often lightly aged, and designed as mixing agents of no particular distinction or sophistication. “Something tossed off in between more serious efforts,” I wrote once, not without a certain newbie disdain.  They were fun to write about, but hardly “serious.”

But then over the years a strange thing happened – some producers, independents in particular, began releasing rums at serious cask strength and many were powerful and tasty enough to make the shortcomings of the 151s evident, and interest started to go in a different direction – stronger, not tied to a number, and either unaged or straight from the cask after some years.  I don’t know if there was a sort of unspoken race to the top for some of these kinds of rums – but I can say that power and seriously good taste were and are not always mutually exclusive, and man, they just keep on getting better. They became, in short, very serious rums indeed.

Clearly the interest in knowing about, owning or just trying such record-setting rums is there. That said, clickbait listmakers don’t respond to the challenge with much in the way of knowledge. If you search “strongest rums in the world” then at the top comes this epically useless 2017 list from SpoonUniversity.com which was out of date even before it went to press. Then, there was a recent re-post of the not-really-very-good 2018 Unsobered “Definitive” list of the strongest rums in the world, which certainly wasn’t definitive in any sense but which got some attention, and an amazing amount of traction and commentary was showered on Steve Leukanech’s FB Ministry of Rum comment thread of the Sunset Very Strong the same week, and there’s always a bunch of good humoured and ribald commentary whenever someone puts up a picture of the latest monster of proof they found in some backwater bar, and tried.

And so, seeing that, I thought I would recap my experience with a (hopefully better) list of those explosive rums that really are among the strongest you can find.  I won’t call mine “definitive” – I’m sure there’s stuff lurking around waiting to pounce on my glottis and mug my palate someplace – but it’s a good place to start, and better yet, I keep updating the list and have tried most, so there’s a brief blurb for each of those. I began at 70% and worked my way up in increasing proof points, not quality or preference (this created issues later as more and more rums blasted past that arbitrary marker, but to take a higher starting point would have meant excluding the 151s which was not something that sat well with me: and so, the list keeps getting longer.  My bad).

Hope you like, hope you can find one or two, and whatever the case, have fun…but be careful when you do.  Some of these rums are liquid gelignite with a short fuse, and should be handled with hat respectfully doffed and head reverently bowed.


Neisson L’Esprit Blanc, Martinique – 70%

Just because I only have one or two agricoles in this list doesn’t mean there aren’t others, just that I haven’t found, bought or tried them yet.  There are some at varying levels of proof in the sixties, but so far one of the best and most powerful of this kind is this fruity, grassy and delicious 70% white rhino from one of the best of the Martinique estates, Neisson. Clear, crisp, a salty sweet clairin on steroids mixed with the softness of a good agricole style rum.

Jack Iron Grenada Overproof, Grenada – 70%

Westerhall, which is not a distillery, assembles this 140-proof beefcake in Grenada from Angostura stock from Trinidad, and it’s possibly named (with salty islander humour) after various manly parts. It’s not really that impressive a rum – an industrial column-still filtered white rarely is – with few exceptional tastes, made mostly for locals or to paralyze visiting tourists. I think if they ever bothered to age it or stop with the filtration, they might actually have something interesting here.  Thus far, over and beyond local bragging rights, not really. Note that there was an earlier version at 75% ABV as well, made on Carriacou and now discontinued, but when it stopped being made is unclear.

L’Esprit Diamond 2005 11 YO, Guyana/France – 71.4%

L’Esprit out of Brittany may be one of the most unappreciated under-the-radar indies around and demonstrates that with this 11 year old rum from the Diamond column still, which I assumed to be the French Savalle, just because the flavours in this thing are so massive.  Initially you might think that (a) there can’t be much flavour in something so strong and (b) it’s a wooden still — you’d be wrong on both counts. I gave this thing 89 points and it remains the best of the 70%-or-greater rums I’ve yet tried.

Takamaka Bay White Overproof, Seychelles – 72%

This Indian Ocean rum is no longer being made – it was discontinued in the early 2000s and replaced with a 69% blanc; still, I think it’s worth a try if you can find it. It’s a column still distillate with a pinch of pot still high-ester juice thrown in for kicks, and is quite a tasty dram, perhaps because it’s unaged and unfiltered.  I think the 69% version is made the same way with perhaps some tweaking of the column and pot elements and proportions. Yummy.

Plantation Original Dark Overproof 73 %.

Also discontinued and now replaced with the OFTD, the Original Dark was the steroid-enhanced version of the eminently forgettable 40% rum with the same name (minus “overproof”). Sourced from Trinidad (Angostura), a blend of young rums with some 8 YO to add some depth, and briefly aged in heavily charred ex-bourbon casks with a final turn in Cognac casks. Based on observed colour and tasting notes written by others, I think caramel was added to darken it, but thus far I’ve never tried it myself, since at the time when it was available I didn’t have it, or funds, available.  I’ll pick one up one of these days, since I heard it’s quite good.

Lemon Hart Golden Jamaican Rum (1970s) – 73%

Since this rum – whose antecedents stretch back to the 1950s – is no longer in production either, it’s debatable whether to include it here, but it and others like it have been turning up at the new online auction sites with some regularity, and so I’ll include it because I’ve tried it and so have several of my friends. Blended, as was standard practice back then, and I don’t know whether aged or not…probably for a year or two. The taste, though – wow. Nuts, whole sacks of fruits, plus sawdust and the scent of mouldy long-abandoned libraries and decomposing chesterfields.

Longueteau Genesis, Guadeloupe – 73.51%

Not a rhum I’ve had the privilege of trying, but Henrik of the slumbering site RumCorner has, and he was batted and smacked flat by the enormous proof of the thing: “…overpowers you and pins you to the ground…and that’s from a foot away,” he wrote, before waxing eloquent on its heat and puissance, licorice, salt, grass and agricole-like character.  In fact, he compared to a dialled-down Sajous, even though it was actually weaker than the Genesis, which says much for the control that Longueteau displayed in making this unaged blanc brawler. As soon as I was reminded about it, I instantly went to his dealer and traded for a sample, which, with my logistics and luck, should get in six months.

SMWS R3.5 “Marmite XO”, Barbados/Scotland – 74.8%

Richard Seale once fiercely denied that Foursquare had anything to do with either this or the R3.4, and he was correct – the rum came from WIRD. But there’s no dishonour attached to that location, because this was one strongly-made, strongly-tasting, well-assembled piece of work at a high proof, which any maker would have been proud to release. I liked it so much that I spent an inordinate amount of time lovingly polishing my language to give it proper respect, and both review and rum remain among my favourites to this day.

Forres Park Puncheon White Overproof, Trinidad – 75%

Meh. Cocktail fodder. Not really that impressive once you accept its growly strength.  It used to be made by Fernandes Distillery before it sold out to Angostura and maybe it was better back then.  The slick, cool, almost vodka-style presentation of the bottle hides the fact that the column still rum which was triple filtered (what, once wasn’t enough?) only tasted glancingly of sweet and salt and light fruits, but lacked any kind of individual character that distinguishes several other rums on this list (above and below it). 

SMWS R3.4 “Makes You Strong Like a Lion” Barbados/Scotland – 75.3%

The L’Esprit 2005 got 89 points, but this one came roaring right behind it with extra five points of proof and lagged by one point of score (88). What an amazing rum this was, with a rich and sensuously creamy palate, bags of competing flavours and a terrific finish; and while hot and sharp and damned spicy, also eminently drinkable.  Not sure who would mix this given the price or sip it given the proof. It’s a ball-busting sheep-shagger of a rum, and if it can still be found, completely worth a try or a buy, whatever is easier.

All the various “151” rums (no need to list just one) – 75.5%

It may be unfair of me to lump all the various 151s together into one basket.  They are as different as chalk and cheese among themselves – just see how wildly, widely variant the following are: Habitation Velier’s Forsythe 151 (Jamaica), Brugal (blanc), Tilambic (Mauritius), Lost Spirits “Cuban Inspired” (USA), Bacardi (Cuba), Lemon Hart (Canada by way of Guyana), Cavalier (Antigua), Appleton (Jamaica), and so on and so on.  What unites them is their intent – they were all made to be barroom mixers, quality a secondary concern, strength and bragging rights being the key (the Forsythe 151 may be an exception, being more an educational tool, IMHO).  Well, maybe. If I had a choice, I’d still say the Lemon Hart is a long standing favourite. But they all have something about them that makes them fun drinks to chuck into a killer cocktail or chug straight down the glottis.  (Note: the link in the title of this entry takes you to a history of the 151s with a list of all the ones I’ve identified at the bottom).

Inner Circle Cask Strength 5 YO Rum (Australia) – 75.9%

This is a rum with a long history, dating back to the 1950s when the “Inner Circle” brand was first released in Australia. It was bottled in three strengths, which in turn were identified by coloured dots – Underproof (38-40%, the red dot), Overproof (57% or so, green dot) and 33 Overproof (73-75%, black dot).This last has now been resurrected and is for sale in Oz — I’ve not so far managed to acquire one.  I’ve heard it’s a beast, though — so the search continues, since I’m as vain as anyone else who boasts about sampling these uber-mensches of rum, and don’t want the Aussies to have all the fun.

Velier Caroni 1982 23 YO Full Proof Rum – 77.3%

One of the classic canon of the Caronis released by Velier and now an object of cult worship, a unicorn rum for many. “A shattering experience” I wrote with trembling hands in 2017 and I meant it. Steroidal fortitude and a cheerful lack of caution for one’s health is needed to drink this rum; and it’s not the best Caroni out there…for sure it is one of the better ones, though.  I don’t always agree with these multiple micro-bottlings from the same year that characterize the vast Velier Caroni output over the years, yet I also think that to dilute this thing down to a more manageable proof point  would have been our loss.  Now at least we can say we’ve had it. And take a week-long nap.

L’Esprit Beenleigh 2013 5YO Australian Rum – 78.1% and 2014 6 YO 78.%

Australia adds another to the list with this European bottling of rum from the land of Oz, and another released a year later.  The first is a sharp knife to the glottis, a Conrad-like moment of stormy weather.  The second, with an additional year of ageing, is much tamer, much better, though still seriously strong. What surprises, after one recovers, is how traditional both seem (aside from the power) – you walk in expecting a Bundie, say, but emerge with a jacked-up Caribbean-type rum.  That doesn’t make either one bad in any sense, just two very interesting overproofs from a country whose rums we don’t know enough about.

Stroh 80, Austria – 80%

Apparently Stroh does indeed now use Caribbean distillate for their various proofed expressions, and it’s marginally more drinkable these days as a consequence.  The initial review I did was the old version, and hearkens back to rum verschnitt that was so popular in Germany in the 19th and early 20th century.  Not my cup of tea, really. A spiced rum, and we have enough real ones out there for me not to worry too much about it. It’s strong and ethanol-y as hell, and should only be used as a flavouring agent for pastries, or an Austrian jägertee

Denros Strong Rum, St Lucia – 80%

A filtered white column still rum from St. Lucia Distillers, it’s not made for export and remains most common on the island. It is supposedly the base ingredient for most of the various “spice” rums made in rumshops around the island, but of course, locals would drink it neat or with coconut water just as fast.  So far I’ve not managed to track a bottle down for myself — perhaps it’s time to see if it’s as good as rumour suggests it is.

SMWS R5.1 Long Pond 9 Year Old “Mint Humbugs”, Jamaica/Scotland – 81.3%

This is a rum that knocked me straight into next week, and I’ve used it to smack any amount of rum newbs in Canada down the stairs.  Too bad I can’t ship it to Europe to bludgeon some of my Danish friends, because for sure, few have ever had anything like it and it was the strongest and most badass Jamaican I’ve ever found before the Wild Tiger roared onto the scene and dethroned it. And I still think it’s one of Jamaica’s best overproofs.

L’Esprit South Pacific Distillery 2018 Unaged White – 83%

Strong, amazing flavour profile, pot still, unaged, and a mass of flavour.  I’m no bartender or cocktail guru, but even so I would not mix this into any of the usual simple concoctions I make for myself….it’s too original for that. It’s one of a pair of white and unaged rums L’esprit made, both almost off the charts.  Who would ever have thought there was a market for a clear unaged white lightning like this?

Sunset Very Strong, St. Vincent – 84.5%

The rum that was, for the longest while, the Big Bad Wolf, spoken of in hushed whispers in the darkened corners of seedy bars with equal parts fear and awe. It took me ages to get one, and when I did I wasn’t disappointed – there’s a sweet, light-flavoured berry-like aspect to it that somehow doesn’t get stomped flat by that titanic proof. I don’t know many who have sampled it who didn’t immediately run over to post the experience on social media, and who can blame them? It’s a snarling, barking-mad street brawler, a monster with more culture than might have been expected, and a riot to try neat.

L’Esprit Diamond 2018 Unaged White – 85% 

Just about the most bruisingly shattering overproof ever released by an independent bottler, and it’s a miracle that it doesn’t fall over its strength and onto its face (like, oh the Forres Park, above). It does the Habitation Velier PM one better in strength though not being quite as good in flavour.  Do I care? Not a bit, they’re brothers in arms, these two, being Port Mourant unaged distillates and leaves off the same branch of the same tree. It shows how good the PM wooden still profile can be when carefully selected, at any strength, at any age.

Romdeluxe “Wild Tiger” 2018, Jamaica/Denmark – 85.2%

Wild Tiger is one of many “wildlife” series of rums released thus far (2019) by Romdeluxe out of Denmark, their first. It gained instant notoriety in early 2019 not just by it handsome design or its near-unaged nature (it had been rested in inert tanks for ten years, which is rather unusual, then chucked into ex-Madeira casks for three months) but its high price, the massive DOK-level ester count, and that screaming proof of 85.2%. It was and is not for the faint of heart or the lean of purse, that much is certain. I cross myself and the street whenever I see one.  Since then Rom Deluxe has released several strong rums in the 80% or greater range.

Marienburg 90, Suriname – 90%

Somewhere out there there’s a rum more powerful than this, but you have to ask what sane purpose it could possibly serve when you might as well just get some ethanol and add a drop of water and get the Marienburg (which also makes an 81% version for export – the 90% is for local consumption).  There is something in the Surinamese paint stripper, a smidgen of clear, bright smell and taste, but this is the bleeding edge of strength, a rum one demerit away from being charged with assault with intent to drunk — and at this stage and beyond it, it’s all sound and fury signifying little. I kinda-sorta appreciate that it’s not a complete and utter mess of heat and fire, and respect Marienburg for grabbing the brass ring.  But over and beyond that, there’s not much point to it, really, unless you understand that this is the rum Chuck Norris uses to dilute his whisky.

Rivers Antoine 180 Proof White Grenadian Rum – 90%

I’ve heard different stories about Rivers’ rums, of which thus far I’ve only tried and written about the relatively “tame” 69% – and that’s that the proof varies wildly from batch to batch and is never entirely the strength you think you’re getting.  It’s artisanal to a fault, pot stilled, and I know the 69% is a flavour bomb so epic that even with its limited distribution I named it a Key Rum. I can only imagine what a 90% ABV version would be like, assuming it exists and is not just an urban legend (it is included here for completeness).  If it’s formally released to the market, then I’ve never seen a legitimizing post, or heard anyone speak of it as a fact, ever.  Maybe anyone who knows for sure remained at Rivers after a sip and has yet to wake up.

Rom Deluxe “Destillation Strength” Dominican Republic 474 Esters Unaged Rum – 93% ABV

In March 2022, the Marienburg lost the crown after reigning just about undisputed since, oh, whenever it was issued. I have no idea what possessed Rom Deluxe out of Denmark to release this MechaRumzilla, but my God, I have to get me a bottle. Because the issue behind all the metaphors and flowery language a review would inevitably entail, is this: can a rum maintain a taste profile worth drinking in any way, even when stuffed with esters, at that strength? Can’t wait to shred my tonsils and find out.


Additions and Honourable Mentions, Included After the Original List Was Published

Unsurprisingly, people were tripping over themselves to send me candidates that should make the list, and there were some that barely missed the cut – in both cases, I obviously hadn’t known of or tried them, hence their inadvertent omission.  Here are the ones that were added after the initial post came out, and you’ll have to make your own assessment of their quality, or let me know of your experience.

Old Brothers Hampden 86.3% LROK White Rum

360 bottles of this incredibly ferocious high ester rum were released by a small indie called Old Brothers around 2019 , and the juice was stuffed into small flasks of surpassing simplicity and aesthetic beauty. Even though I haven’t tasted it (a post about it on FB alerted me to its existence). I can’t help but desire a bottle, just because of its ice-cold blonde-femme-fatale looks, straight out of some Hitchcock movie where the dame offs the innocent rum reviewer right after love everlasting is fervently declared.

Maggie’s Farm Airline Proof – 70%

Maggie’s Farm is an American Distillery I’ve heard a fair bit about but whose products I’ve not so far managed to try.  Their cheekily named Airline Proof clocks in at the bottom end of my arbitrary scale, is a white rum, and I expect it was so titled so as to let people understand that yes, you could in fact take it on an airplane in the US and not get arrested for transporting dangerous materials and making the world unsafe for democracy.

DOK – Trelawny Jamaica Rum – Aficionados x Fine Drams – 69% / 85.76%

Here’s a fan-released DOK for sale on Fine Drams, and while originally it oozed off the still at 85.76% and close to the bleeding max of esterland (~1489 g/hLPA), whoever bottled it decided to take the cautious approach and dialled it down to the for-sale level of 69%.  Even at that strength, I was told it sold out in fifteen minutes, which means that whatever some people dismissively say about the purpose of a DOK rum, there’s a market for ’em. Note that RomDelux did in fact release 149 bottles at full 85.76% still strength, as noted by a guy in reddit here, and another one here.

(Click photo to expand)

Royal Hawaiian Spirits 95% Rum

In May 2020 the RHS Distillery on Maui (Hawaii), which rather amusingly calls itself the “Willie Wonka of alcohol” applied for TTB label approval for a 95% rum which immediately drew online sniffs of disapproval for being nothing more than a vodka at best, grain neutral spirit at worst – because at that strength just about all the flavour-providing congeners have been stripped out.  Nevertheless, though the company seems to operate an industrial facility making a wide range of distilled spirits for all comers (very much like Florida Distillers who make Ron Carlos, you will recall), if their claim that this product is made from cane is true then it is still a rum (barely) and must be mentioned.  I must say, however, I would approach tasting it with a certain caution…and maybe even dread. For sure this product will hold the crown for the strongest rum ever made, for the foreseeable future, whatever its quality, or lack thereof.

Plantation Extreme No. 4 Jamaica (Clarendon) 35 YO 74.8%

Plantation should not be written off from consumers tastes simply because it gets so much hate for its stance on Barbados and Jamaican GIs.  It must be judged on the rums it makes as well, and the Extreme series of rums, which take provision of information to a whole new level and are bottled at muscular cask strengths, every time (plus, I think they dispensed with the dosage).  This one, a seriously bulked up Jamaican, is one of the beefier ones and I look forward to trying it not just for the strength, but that amazing (continental) age.

Dillon Brut de Colonne Rhum Blanc Agricole 71.3%

An unaged white rhum from Martinique’s Dillon distillery, about which we don’t know enough and from which we don’t try enough.  This still-strength beefcake is likely the strongest they have ever made or will ever make…until the next one, and Pete Holland of the Floating Rum Shack twigged me on to it (that’s his picture, so thanks Pete!) remarking “Once you try high proof, is it ever possible to go back?” A good question.  I probably need to find this thing just to see, and for sure, if it comes up to scratch, it’ll make my third list of great white rums when the time comes.

Velier Caroni 1982 Heavy 23 YO (1982 – 2005) 77.3% | Caroni 1985 Heavy 20 YO (1985 – 2005) 75.5% | Caroni 1996 Heavy 20 YO (1996-2016)(Cask R3721) Legend” 70.8%  | Caroni 1996 Heavy 20 YO (1996-2016)(Cask R3718) Legend” 70.8%  | Caroni 1996 “Trilogy” Heavy (1996 – 2016) 70.28%

Five of Velier’s legendary Caronis make this list, all clocking in at 70% ABV or greater.  They are, unsurprisingly, hard to get at reasonable prices nowadays, and to some extent there’s a real similarity among them all, since they are varied branches off the same tree.  Once hardly known, their reputation and their cost has exploded over the last five years and any one of them would be a worthy purchase – and with its mix of fusel oil, dark fruits, tar, wood chips and no shortage of amazing flavours, I’d say the 77.3% gets my vote for now. Serge thought so too, back in the day….but beware of the price tag, which recently topped £2600 just a few months ago at auction.

rockch12 (2)Cadenhead Single Cask Black Rock WIRR 1986-1998 12 YO 73.4%

Another rum I have not gotten to try, one of the varied editions of the famed 1986 Rockley pot still from WIRD. At a stunning 73.4% this is a surprisingly hefty rum to have come out of the 1990s, when rum was just making its first baby steps to becoming more than a light Cuban blend wannabe. Few have managed to try it, fewer still to write about it.  Marius of Single Cask (from whom I pilfered the picture) is one of them, and he, even though not entirely won over by it, still gave the rum a solid 87 points.

Saint James Brut de Colonne Rhum Agricole Blanc BIO 74.2%

After having tried Saint James’s titanically flavoured pot still juice, it’s a no-brainer that this 100% organic unaged white rum powered by 74.2% of mad horsepower is something which I and any lover of white column still juice has to get a hold of.  Stuff like this makes the soft light white mixers of the 60s scurry home to hide in their mama’s skirts, and will cheerfuly blow up any unprepared glottis that doesn’t pay it the requisite respect.  I can’t wait to try it myself.

Pere Labat 70.7 Rhum Blanc Agricole (Brut de Colonne) 70.7%

Indies and the agricole makers are sure raising the bar for overproofs.  Here’s a lovely still-strength white agricole that just squeaks by the arbitrary bar I set to cut off the wannabes.  I don’t know how good it is but Facebook chatter suggests it’s intense, smoky, salty and comes with optional extra-length claws to add to the fangs it already has.  I want one of these for myself.

 

Rom Deluxe Jamaicans (Hampden) – R.17 “Rhino” 5th Anniversary Edition 2019-2021 <2 YO 86.2% | R.20 “Springbok” (C<>H)  2020-2022 86% | R.23 “Pronghorn” (C<>H) 2020-2021 < 2YO 86% | R.32 “Wolf” (HGML) 2020-2022 <2YO 86%

I have to get myself some of these.  These are all weapons grade rums, the sort of thing tinpot banana-republic dictators only wish they had in their arsenals to dissuade unwashed insurrectionsists who insist on weird things like, you know, their rights. By now Rom Deluxe has morphed into a full blown Indie, and I wonder if they deliberately seek out rums like this to blow our minds. It’s a full blown Hampden pot still rum from Jamaica, and yes, it’s a high-ester DOK funk bomb as well.  Go wild.

Barikken (France) Montebello Distillery 81.6º Brut de Colonne (Unaged)

Unaged, white, clean, agricole. Gradually the agricole makers are coming up to the level of the Latin/Cuban and English style monsters of proof, though one could reasonably ask why they bother.  The taste profile of this one is almost, but not quite taken over by the power of its strength, and is a fitting answer why at least they wanted to try…and should try for even more in the years to come. It’s really quite something.

Montebello Edition Oge Cheapfret Brut de Colonne 77% ABV (Unaged)

Not to be outdone, Montebello released an unaged column still white of their own, though not quite as powerful; I think this came out in 2021 or 2022.  So far I have yet to taste it and can’t provide much commentary.

 

 

Engenho do Norte Branca 78% ABV

Engenho do Norte is a distillery located on the north coast of Madeira and they have several lines of rums: Rum North, Zarco, 980, 970, Lido, and the cane-juice agricoles of the “Branca” or “White” series.  These come in several varieties, from a sedate 40%, up to the previous Big Gun, the 60% “Fire”.  In April 2022 a new version without a name was promoted, setting a new proof point record for the company of 78% ABV – but so far I have not seen any reviews or comments, and it has still not made it to the company website, probably because they’re afraid it might spontaneously combust.

Distillerie de Taha’a, Pari Pari, French Polynesia – “T” Double Distillation 74º

I’m fairly sure nobody outside the region has heard much about this small distillery in French Polynesia.  Yet they seem  to have made a quiet reputation for themselves over the last four or five years.  Their products are cane juice rhums for the most part (Rum-X lists a dozen or so), at various strengths and with occasional ageing, and finishes. This double distilled agricole-style rhum is definitely one I want to try: for its strength, its terroire, its origin and yes, damn it, for sheer curiosity. (NB: I can’t remember where I picked the photo from — it languished in my to-do basket for a while — so I apologize to the owner for the lack of attribution – will correct if notified).

L’Esprit Still Strength “A Jamaican Distillery” 2019 Unaged White Rum – 85.6%

I’m not sure if L’Esprit has gone off on a tangent with these massive overproofs.  I thought the Fiji and Diamond were pretty much the standard badasses the company put out; not so – in 2020 Tristan clearly wanted to outdo his previous efforts and issued 279 copies of this Jamaican monster. I have a sample dissolving a bottle somewhere in a lead lined box suspended in superconducting coils channelling a magnetic field to keep it from doing some weird scientific sh*t…like maybe creating a singularity.  But I can’t wait to try this one.


If I had to chose the best of the lot I’d have to say the Neisson, the SMWSs and the L’Esprits vie for the top spots, with the Wild Tiger coming in sharp right behind them, and I’d give a fond hat-tip to both the old and new Lemon Harts.  This is completely subjective of course, and frankly it might be better to start with which is worst and move up from there, rather than try and go via levels of force, as I have done.

Clearly though, just because some massively-ripped and generously-torqued overproof rum is aged for years, doesn’t means it is as good or better than some unaged white.  Depending on your tastes, both can be amazing…for sure they’re all a riotous frisson of hot-snot excitement to try. On the flip side, the Marienburg suggests there is an upper limit to this game, and I think when we hit around 90% or thereabouts, even though there’s stronger, we ram into a wall — beyond which lies sh*t-and-go-blind madness and the simple lunacy of wanting to just say “I made the strongest” or “I drank it.” without rhyme or reason. I know there’s a 96% beefcake out there, but so far I’ve not found it to sample myself, and while it is a cardinal error to opine in advance of personal experience in these matters, I can’t say that I believe it’ll be some earth shaking world beater. By the time you hit that strength you’re drinking neutral alcohol and unless there’s an ageing regiment in place to add some flavour chops, why exactly are you bothering to drink it?

But never mind. Overproofs might originally have been made to be titanic mixers and were even, as I once surmised, throwaway efforts released in between more serious rums.  But rums made by the SMWS, Romdeluxe, L’Esprit and others have shown that cask strength juice with minimal ageing, if carefully selected and judiciously issued, can boast some serious taste chops too, and they don’t need to be aiming for the “Most Powerful Rum in the World” to be just damned fine rums. If you want the street cred of actually being able to say you’ve had something stronger than any of your rum chums, this list is for you.  Me, I’d also think of it as another milestone in my education of the diversity of rum.  

And okay, yeah, maybe after drinking one of these, I would quietly admire and thump my biscuit chest in the mirror once or twice when Mrs. Caner isn’t looking (and snickering) and chirp my boast to the wall, that “I did this.” I could never entirely deny that.


Other notes

  • In my researches I found a lot of references to the Charley’s JB Overproof Rum at 80% ABV; however, every photo available online is a low-res copy of the 63% version which I wrote about already, so I could not include it as an entry without better, umm, proof.
  • Thanks to Matt, Gregers and Henrik who added suggestions.
Sep 262019
 

Around two years back, I put up a list of those favourites of the mixing class, the white rums, and listed 21 examples I considered memorable up to that point. Back then, I contended that they might or might not be aged, but for pungency, strength, uniqueness and sheer enjoyment, they were an emerging trend that we should pay attention to.  And indeed, happily, in the time since then, we have seen quite a few new and interesting variations for sale, not least among the new micro distilleries that keep popping up. They must be thanking their lucky stars for this strong undercurrent of appreciation, because it allows unaged rums right off the still to be available for sale immediately – and be wanted! – rather than have to try to break into the mixing market with some kind of ersatz Bacardi knockoff in an effort to make cash flow

For the most part, I ignore bland mixing rums in my reviews, but that’s not because they’re bad, per se.  After all, they serve their purpose of providing an alcoholic jolt without question…just without fanfare or style, or uniqueness of any kind.  They are, to me, plain boring – complete yawn-throughs. In point of fact, providing alcohol is just about all they do, and like a chameleon, they take up the taste of whatever else is chucked into the glass. That’s their raison d’etre, and it would be incorrect to say they’re crap rums just for toeing the line of their creators.

Still: my own rather peculiar tasting desire is different, since I’m not a tiki enthusiast or a boozehound.  When it comes to whites, I’m a screaming masochist: I want snarling growling bastards, I want challenge, I want a smackdown of epic proportions, I want to check out that reeking dutty-stink-bukta over there that may be disgustingly strong, may have the foul stench of Mr. Olympia-level strength, may reek of esters and might pour undiluted sulphur and hogo and rancio and God only knows what else all over my schnozzola and my palate.  It’s perfectly all right to hate ‘em…but by God, I won’t be bored, because like those big-’n’-bad porknockers and bushmen I used to work with in my youth, while they might garb themselves in a glorious lack of sophistication, they’re honest and they’re strong and they’re badass, and they’ll give you the shirt off their backs without hesitation.

Not all rums listed below necessarily conform to those admittedly off-kilter personal standards of mine.  And sure, you might hate one or more (or all), and very likely have favoured candidates of your own which you’ll berate me for not listing.  Let’s just say that they’re all worth trying, some maybe only the one time, others quite a bit more. If you have not dipped your toes in here yet, then I hope you get to enjoy them, one day, as much as I did when I first got assaulted by their sometimes-rabid charms.


Martinique – Saint James pot still white rum (60%).  Surely this has been one of the most interesting rums of any kind (not just a white) of recent times, even though it’s been in production for many years.  Largely this is because most of the Martinique whites we try are from column stills – this one is from a pot still, takes no prisoners and is pungent, beefy and an all-round massive piece of work for a cocktail, or for the brave to sip neat.

Guyana – El Dorado 3 Year Old white rum (40%).  While it’s an oldie that is more of a standard rum than a real exciting new one, it remains a mid-tier favourite with good reason – because it derives from a blend of the wooden stills’ output, and even if it is filtered after ageing to make it colourless, even if it’s a “mere” living room strength, much of the elemental power of the stills still bleeds through. And that makes it a rumlet for a lesser god, so to speak.

Guyana-Italy. And yes, the Habitation Velier Port Mourant unaged white rum (59%) must come in for mention right alongside its softer cousin from DDL.  What a steaming, ferocious, tasty white this is. Salty, waxy, fruity, with anise and complexity to spare, it’s a wordless masterclass in appreciating the wooden stills, trapped in a single bottle. Velier sure raised the bar when it devoted a whole series of their HV rums to the blanc side.

Thailand – Issan (40%).  A contrast to the HV-PM above is difficult to imagine. Issan is a soft, mild, not too fierce sundowner.  Its charms are in ease and languor, not in some kind of rabid attack on your face like Velier prefers.  Even with that though, it showed great potential, a serious set of tastes, and if one walks in expecting little but a sweetened almost-liqueur, one is in for a welcome surprise.  If it ever goes higher than 40%, it’ll be an even better deal.

Guadeloupe – Longueteau Rhum Blanc Agricole 62°. If it had not been for Neisson’s L’Esprit 70%, or L’Esprit’s 85% mastodon of the Diamond, this might have had bragging rights for power, since most whites are 48-58% ABV and shine at that strength.  This one aimed higher, dared more and is a complete riot to have by itself, adhering to much of what we love about the unaged agricoles – the grassy, herbal, fruity notes, mixed in with a little pine-sol and a whole lot of attitude.

Mexico – ParanubesWhite Rum (54%). This is the closest to a clairin I’ve tried that isn’t from Haiti, and it possesses a glute-flexing character and Quasimodo-addled body second to none.  Unless you’re into clairins and mescals, please use caution when trying it; and if you can’t, don’t send me flaming emails about how the salt, wax, wet ashes, gherkins, and chilis created a melange of  shockingly rude baddassery that nearly collapsed your knees, stuttered your heart and loosened your sphincter. It’s as close to a complete original as I’ve tried in ages.

Grenada – Rivers Royale White Overproof. Retasting this 69% hard-charger was like rediscovering ancient whites, pure whites, pirate-grog-level whites, made in traditional ways.  It’s still not available for sale outside Granada, and I may have been premature naming it a Key Rum of the World. But if you can, taste it — just taste it — and tell me this is not one of the most amazing unaged clear rums you’ve ever had, melding sweet and salt and fruit and soup and a ton of other stuff I have no names for.  It’s a pale popskull nobody knows enough about, and that alone is reason to seek it out of you can. There’s a stronger version that never makes it off the island even in traveller’s suitcases

Madeira-Italy – Rum Nation Ilha da Madeira (50%). Madeira rums can use the “agricole” moniker and they do, but alas, are still not widely known, and therefore it’s up to the indies to raise their profile in the interim.  One of the first was Rum Nation’s 50% white from Engenho, which walked a fine line between “Z-z-z-z” and “WTF?” and came up with something both standard and queerly original. If it had a star sign, my guess would be would be Gemini. (Note: this entry is a re-taste because it was also on the first 2017 list and I had subsequently checked it out again).

Madeira-UK – Boutique-y Reizinho White Agricole (49.7%). The Boutique-y boys’ Reizinho comes from another indie, freshly minted and given lots of visibility by its enormously likeable rep, Pete Holland of Ye Olde Rum Shack (rumour has it that whenever brings his beautiful wife and cute-as-a-button daughter to a fest, sales jump 50% immediately); they chose well with their first such rum, and one of their selections became a standout of the whites in Paris 2019.  This one

Guyana-France – L’Esprit White Collection “PM” (85%). One of the most powerful rums ever unleashed (no other word will do) on defenseless rum drinkers, not quite eclipsing the HV PM above, but coming close and serving as another indicator that the wooden heritage stills at Diamond preserve their amazing taste profiles even when fresh off the stills. 85% ABV, and it means business, with licorice, caramel, vanilla, dark fruits and God only knows what else bursting out of every pore. I call mine “Shaft”.

Martinique – HSE Rhum Blanc Agricole 2016 (Parecellaire #1)(55%). I would not pretend that I can pick out the difference between various parcels of land which make up such atomized micro-productions.  Who cares, though? The rum is good with or without such details – it’s sweet, fragrant, fruity and has some old sweat-stained leather shoes ready to kick ass and take names. Tons of flavour and complexity, oodles of enjoyment.

Reunion-Italy – Habitation Velier HERR.  Merde I liked this. 62.5% of pure double distilled pot-still Harley-riding, jacket-sporting, leather-clad bad boy from the High Ester Still.  So flavourful and yet it loses nothing of its cane juice origins. Unaged, unmessed-with, bottled in 2017 and a serious rum from any angle, at any time, for any purpose. Savanna’s decision not to do away with the still that made this, back when they were modernizing, was a masterstroke. We should all be grateful.

Cabo Verde – Vulcao Grogue White (45%).  Based on its back-country pot-still antecedents, I was expecting something much more feral and raw and in-your-face than this ended up being. But it was lovely – gentle at the strength, packed with tasty notes of fruit, sugar water, brine and mint, channelling a delicious if off-beat agricole rhum and a character all its own.  I’d drink it neat any day of the week, There are others in the range, but this one remains my favourite

Haiti-Italy – Clairin Le Rocher (2017)(46.5%). For my money, the Le Rocher is the most approachable clairin of the four issued / distributed by Velier to date, the most tamed, the richest in depth of taste – and that’s even with the mounds of plastic that open the show. These develop into a glorious melange of fruits and veggies and herbs and citrus that’s a testament to Bethel Romelus’s deft use of syrup and a variation of dunder pits to get things moving.

South Africa – Mhoba White Rum (58%). There’s an upswell of interest in making rums in Africa, and one of South Africa’s newbies is Mhoba. Again we have an entrepreneur – Robert Greaves – practically self-building a micro-distillery, using a pot still and the results are excellent, not least because he’s gone straight to full proof without mucking about at 40%. Tart, fruity, acidic, hot, spicy, creamy, citrus-y….it’s an amazing initial effort, well worth seeking out.

Liberia – Sangar White (40%). Staying with Africa we have another pot still white rum contrastingly released at living room strength (because its initial prime market will be the US) and that succeeds well in spite of that limitation. It’s light, it’s tasty, and snorts and prances like a racehorse being held on a tight rein, and shows off brine, wax, olives, flowers and a nice smorgasbord of lighter fruits which harmonize well. A really good sipping drink, with just enough originality to make it stand out

Cabo Verde – Musica e Grogue White (44%). Clearly we have some Renaissance men making rum over on Cabo Verde, because not only are Jean-Pierre Engelbach and Simão Évora music lovers, but their careers and life-stories would fill a book. Plus, they make a really good white grogue in the same area as the Vulcao (above), crisp and yet gentle, firm and clear, with flowers, fruits and citrus coming together in a pleasant zen harmony.

Japan – Helios “Kiyomi” White Rum (40%). Nine Leaves makes what I suggest might the best white rums in Nippon, but other locals have been there longer, and some are starting to snap at its heels. Helios tried hard with this relatively tasty and intriguing white, with a 30 day fermentation period and column still output dialled down to 40% – and it certainly had some interesting, strong aromas and tastes (wet soot, iodine, brine, olives, light fruits and spices etc) even if it failed to impress overall. If they decided to up the strength and switch the source to their pot still, I think they have a shot at the brass ring – for now, it’s more an example of a “what-might-have-been” rum with some interesting stylistic touches than a really amazing product. 

French Antilles – Rhum Island “Agricultural” (50%).  This rhum is peculiar in that it is a blend, not the product of a single distillery – the source is from various (unnamed) distilleries in the French West Indies (its brother the “Red Cane” 53% is also along that vein, except it comes from distilleries in Guadeloupe and Marie Galante only). That makes it unique on this list, but one cannot fault the crisp, apple-like freshness of its taste, the way the creaminess of a tart fruit melds with the light zest of citrus and sour cream. Both this and the Red Cane are excellent, this one gets my vote by a whisker.

Viet Nam – Sampan White Overproof (54%). Much like Sangar and Issan and Mhoba above, one guy – a Fabio-channelling Frenchman named Antoine Pourcuitte – created a small distillery from scratch and is happily releasing three variations of this rum, all white, at 45%, 54% and 65%.  I only got to try the middle bear, and it blew my ears back handily – those earthy, briny, fruity aromas and the crisp snap of its tastes – olives, lemons, green apples, licorice and more – are really quite delicious. It marries “the freshness of an agricole with the slight complexity of an entry level vieux,” I wrote, and it’s good for any purpose you put it to.

Laos – Laodi Sugar Cane White Rhum (56%). A wonderful, massive delivery system for some serious juice-distilled joy. Salty, dusty, herbal, earthy and lemony smells, followed on by classic agricole-type clean grassiness and herbs, wrapped up in a creamy package that deliver some serious oomph. An enormously pleasing evolution from the same company’s original 56% Vientiane Agricole. I have no idea what else they make, just know that I want to find out.

Cabo Verde – Barbosa Grogue Pure Single Rum (45%). Given Velier’s footprint in the world of Haitian clairins, it’s a surprise they only have one grogue, and even that has hardly had any of the heavy-hitting marketing that characterized the launch and subsequent distribution of the Sajous, Casimir, Vaval and Le Rocher. It would be a mistake to exclude it from consideration, however. It has a bright and clean fruity nose, very refined, almost gentle (something like a Saint James rhum, I remember thinking).  The taste is crisper on the fruits, has some cold vegetable salad, a olive or two, green apples and lemongrass, and overall it’s a very easily sippable spirit.


So here we are, another 21 rums, all white, cane juice or cane syrup or molasses, which are worth a look if they ever cross your path. 

One thing that stands out with these rums is what a wide geographical range they cover – look at all those countries and islands they showcase, from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean (and this was after I excluded rums from the Pacific, the USA and Europe). No other spirit has ever had this kind of diversity, this kind of spread, with a profile for any taste, for any purpose.

Note also how, gradually, increasingly, pot stills are being represented – batch production is seen as inherently inefficient compared to the sheer volume a well-tended column still can generate, but the depth of flavour the former imbues its products, as well as gradually increasing efficiencies technological innovation provides.  

It’s also nice to see how full proof rums are taking center stage – many now take this to be a given and have grown up cutting their teeth on such powerful products, but I still recall when 40% was all you got and you had to pretend to be grateful: North Americans in particular still have far too much of that kind low-rent crowd-pleasing crap crowding out good stuff on their shelves.

A note should be spared for grogues.  The few that I’ve tried have been shown to be – for want of a better term – “not clairins”. They inhabit the space in between the fierce and uncompromising nature of the Haitian rhums, and the softer and more accessible Guadeloupe ones, while not being quite as clearly refined as those from Martinique.  That’s not to say I can always pick ‘em out of a blind test, or that they are somehow less (or more) than any other white rum…just that they are resolutely themselves and should be judged as such.

Asia, to my delight, keeps on throwing up new and interesting rums every year – some from new micro-distilleries, some by larger operations, but almost all of it is moving away from their softer and sweeter styles so beloved of tourists and backpacking boozers. I have yet to seriously attack Australia; and SE Asia and Micronesia continue to develop, so if I ever put out a third list, no doubt such regions will be better represented on the next go-around.

With respect to the rums here, my purpose is not to rate them in some kind of ascending or descending order, or to make a choice as to which is “best” – whatever that might mean. I just would like to make you aware, or remind you, that they exist.  The other day, a post on reddit asked about smooth agricole rhums. I read it and didn’t comment, but what the responses make clear is how many different white rums and rhums exist, and how many of them are — in people’s minds — associated with the Caribbean. I hope this second list of mine shows that there is much enjoyment to be had in sampling white rums from around the globe, no matter where you are, and that the future for the subcategory remains a vibrant and exciting one to be a part of as it unfolds.

 

Jun 282018
 

In Part I of this short series I described the trends within and position of the rumworld as it existed before Velier began issuing its Demerara rums, and in Part II provided a listing and some brief commentary of the rums themselves, as they were released.  In this conclusion, I’ll express my thinking regarding their influence, and also give an epilogue of some of the characters mentioned in Part I.


So, what made the Age? In a time when independent bottlings were already in their ascendancy, why did this one series of rums capture the common imagination to the point where many of the issues have become unicorns and personal grail quests and retail for prices that, on the face of it, are almost absurd?  And what was their impact on the wider rumiverse, then and now?

Part of their fame is certainly the proselytizing dynamism and enthusiasm of Luca Gargano himself. He is born storyteller, very focused and very knowledgeable;  when you meet him, you can tell he is enraptured with the subject of rum. He travels constantly to private tastings and rumfests, and is well regarded and well known around the world. The rise of Velier is in no small part attributable to the business acumen and personal force of this one man and the dynamic team of Young Turks he employs in his offices in Genoa.

But Luca aside, I think that the Age was what it was because it really was a first, on many differing levels. It broke new ground, created (or legitimized) many new trends, and demonstrated that the rum folks would buy top quality rums even with a limited outturn.  It summed up, codified and expanded principles of the rum world the way Citizen Kane did for film.

One has only to look at the way things were and the way things are to see the influence they had, and while it’s perfectly acceptable to state that Velier was only one aspect of the momentous changes in the world and the rum industry — that it was all inevitable anyway, and maybe they were just lucky bystanders who shone in reflected light of greater awareness — I contend that the Demerara series serves a useful marker in rum history that influenced much of what subsequently came along, and which we now take for granted and indeed, expect from a good rum

The Demerara rums released by Velier were several notches in quality above the equivalent rums produced almost anywhere else and entrenched the issue of tropical ageing as a viable way of releasing top quality rum, because aside from the major brands releasing their aged blends (often at 40-46%), it was almost unheard of to have tropically aged rums of such age produced at cask strength and so regularly. Almost without making a major point of it, the Age enhanced the concept of “pure”, and solidified the idea of “full proof” that otherwise might have taken much longer to get to develop.

The series pointed the way to the future of Foursquare rums, Mount Gay cask strengths, the El Dorado Rares, as well as English Harbour’s and St. Lucia Distillers’ new and more powerful expressions.  They provided an impetus for the re-invigorating of Jamaican distilleries, some of which were all but unknown if not actually defunct, and it could be argued that there is a line of descent from the estate-based Demerara full-proofs to the movement of these Jamaican distilleries to not just sell in bulk abroad, but to issue estate-specific marques of their own.

The Age also moved the epicenter of the top-echelon rums (not always the same as super-premiums) away from aged blends (like El Dorado’s own 21 and 25 year old rums, or Appleton’s 21 and 30 year olds) to single-barrel or limited-edition, estate-specific full proofs.  It gave the French agricoles a boost via Velier’s subsequent collaboration with Capovilla (which is not to downplay the impact of the hydrometer tests mentioned below), and provided small, new rum outfits like Nine Leaves and US micro-producers the confidence that their rums made to exacting specifications, at a higher strength and without additives had a chance to succeed in an increasingly crowded marketplace.  

And the Age led to a trend in increased participation of independents and private labels in the greater rum world: new or concurrently existing companies like Hamilton, EKTE, Transcontinental, Compagnie des Indes, Bristol Spirits, Mezan, Duncan Taylor, Secret Treasures, Svenska Eldevatten, Kill Devil, Excellence Rum, L’Esprit, as well as the older ones like the Scottish whisky makers, Plantation, Rum Nation, BBR, and Samaroli, are its inheritors (even if their inspiration was not a direct one and they might argue that they had already been doing so before 2005). Nowadays its not uncommon to see annual releases of many different expressions, from many different countries, instead of just a few (or one).

It would be incorrect to say that the Age of the Demeraras proceeded in isolation from the larger rum world.  While these Demeraras were being made, others were also gathering a head of steam (Silver Seal and Samaroli are good examples, which is why their older bottlings are expensive rarities on par with Veliers in their own right). All the larger independent bottlers increased their issue of stronger rums from around the world.  And I suggest that the work they have done when considered together has led to two of the other great divides in the rum world – cask strength versus standard, and continental (European) ageing versus tropical. To some extent Velier’s Demeraras raised awareness and provided some legitimacy for this trend if not actually initiating it.

Drejer, hydrometers, sugar and the fallout…

One other aspect of the rumworld not directly related to the Age detonated in late 2013 and early 2014, and must be considered. That was the work of the Finland’s ALKO and Sweden’s Systembolaget, closely followed by Johnny Drejer, in analyzing the contents and ABV levels of rums. They used a hydrometer to measure the actual ABV as the instruments displayed, and compared that against the labelled ABV – any difference over and beyond some kind of normal variation was an additive of some kind that changed the density. In the main, that was caramel or sugar in some form or other, and possibly glycerol and/or other adulterants.

Five short years ago, nobody on the consumer side of things ever thought to do such a test.  Who could afford that kind of thing with a commercial lab? — and if the producers were doing such analyses, they weren’t publishing. For years before that, there had been rumours and dark stories of additives going around,  it’s just that public domain evidence was lacking.  Many producers – excepting those prohibited by law from messing around – denied (and had always denied) additives outright, or spouted charming stories about secret cellars and stashes, family recipes, old traditions and rum heritage.   Most of the remainder hedged and never answered questions directly. 

When the Scandinavians started publishing their results, the roof blew off — it quite literally changed the rum landscape overnight. For the first time there was proof — clear, testable, incontrovertible proof — that something was being added to some very old and well-regarded rums to change them. Almost at once Richard Seale of Foursquare used his regular attendance at international rumfests to speak to the issue (as did Luca Gargano), and he, Johnny Drejer, Wes Burgin, Rum Shop Boy, 4FineSpiritsCyril of DuRhum, Phil Kellow, and Dave Russell proved that with some inexpensive home apparatus, you could do your own testing that would at the very least prove something else was in your favourite juice (though not what it was). All the blog owners mentioned above now maintain lists of rums and measurements of the ABV differences and the calculated dosage (that’s where the links direct you).

That direct measurement of, or reference to, a hydrometer test for ABV discrepancies has become a key determinant of honesty in labelling.  Conversations in social media that speak to rums known to have been “dosed” (as the practice has come to be called) are more likely than any other to end in verbal fisticuffs and name-calling, and has created a third great divide in the world of rum drinkers.

This may be seen to be at best peripheral to the Age, but what hydrometer tests and the emergent purity movement did, was instantly (if indirectly) provide enormous legitimacy to the entire Velier Demerara line and those of many of the European indies, as well as the whole pure-rums concept Luca had been talking about for so long. With the exception of the pre-2005 releases, the credibility of these rums was solidified at once, and the increasingly positive word of mouth and written reviews moved them to almost the pinnacle of must-have rums. I’m not saying other rums and producers didn’t benefit from the movement – Jamaican, Bajan and St Lucian rums in particular were were more than happy to trumpet their own purity, as did practically every independent bottler out there – just that Velier reaped a lot of kudos almost without trying, and this helped raise awareness of their Demerara rums. It’s an aside to the main thrust of this essay, but cannot be entirely ignored either.


Epilogue

Many of the players in this short history are still with us, so here’s an update.

The El Dorado 15 remains a staple of the rum drinking world to this day in spite of its now well-publicized dosage.  It has received much opprobrium for the lack of disclosure (DDL never commented on the matter of dosage until an interview with Shaun Caleb in 2020, and for the record the practice is being phased out) and has slipped somewhat in people’s estimation to being a second tier aged product.  Yet it remains enormously popular and is a perennial best seller, a rum many new entrants to the field refer to as a touchstone, even though DDL has moved to colonize the space Velier pioneered and begun issuing cask strength limited bottlings from the stills themselves in 2016 (the 1997 anniversary editions at 40% were essays in the craft but predated the Age and were never continued).

Photo (c) A Mountain of Crushed Ice

Ed Hamilton has withdrawn somewhat from his publishing and promotional work, and the Ministry of Rum website is a shadow of its glory days, with most of the traffic and rum-chum interaction shifting to Facebook, where his group is one of the top five in the world by user base.  Mr. Hamilton is a distributor of many distilleries’ rums into North America and in 2010 began to issue the Hamilton line of rums from around the Caribbean, all pure, all at cask strength. I quite liked the little I’ve tried.

Independent bottlers continue proliferating in Europe and all follow the trail of the Age – full proof, estate (or country) specific rums.  When from Guyana, it is now standard practice for the still to be referenced, with the “Diamond” moniker being perhaps the most confusing.

The internet has enabled not just one rum forum on one website, but a whole raft of international rum review websites from the USA, Australia, Japan, France, Germany, Denmark, Spain, and the UK.  Oddly, the Caribbean doesn’t have any (and I’m not sure that I qualify, ha ha). There are also news aggregators and online shops in a quantity that astounds anyone who saw it develop in so short a time. Aside from private sales on Facebook, websites are now one of the most common ways to source rums as opposed to walking into a shop. The many Facebook rum clubs  are the sites of enormously spirited discussions – these clubs (and to a lesser extent reddit) are the places to get the fastest response to any rum question, and the best in which to take a beating if you profess admiration for a dosed rum. 

Johnny Drejer and the others mentioned above are still updating rum sugar lists. They cover most common rums. The test is now considered almost de rigueur. It has its detractors – it can be impacted by more than just sugar, temperature variations affect the readings, it can be fooled by higher actual ABV being labelled as less, and you never know quite what’s been added – but it remains one of the strongest tools in the ongoing battle to have additives or dosage disclosed properly.

Luca Gargano of Velier, April 2018, Genoa

Velier has grown into one of the great distributors, enablers and independents of the rumworld (though they remain at heart a distributor), and not rested on their laurels, but gone from strength to strength. Luca, always on the lookout for new and interesting rums, scored a massive coup when he picked up thousands of barrels from the closed Trinidadian distillery Caroni in 2004. Velier has been issuing them in small batches for years, so much so that it could be argued that as the sun of appreciation set over the Age of Demeraras, it rose on the Age of Caroni (at least in the public perception). He has championed artisanal rums from Haiti and anywhere else where traditional, organic and pure rums are made. He has forged partnerships and fruitful collaborations with producers around the world.  One, with Richard Seale of Foursquare resulted in the conceptual thinking behind the Exceptional Series, as well as the collaborations of Habitation Velier, which are tensely awaited and snapped up fast by enthusiastic and knowledgeable rum folks. He has an involvement with Hampden out of Jamaica, and when the 70th Anniversary of Velier rolled around in 2017, partnered up with many producers to get special bottlings from them to mark the occasion. Velier has grown into a company with a scores of employees, and a turnover hundreds of times greater than that with which it began.

I appreciate this sounds like something of a hagiography, but that is not my intention.  The purpose of this long essay and this wrap-up, is simply to place the Demerara rums issued during those years at the centre of great changes in our world.  (Not the Caronis, because I contend that the appreciation for them took much longer to gestate; not so much the Rhum Rhum line done with Capovilla, since they remain something of a niche market, however popular; and certainly not the one-offs like the Basseterre 1995 and 1997 or the Courcelles 1972, which were too small and individualistic).  The Age’s rums did not create all the trends noted above single-handedly. But certainly they had a great influence, and this is why we can correctly refer to an Age, even if it is just to mark the time when a series of exceptional bottlings were made.

It is my belief that what the Demerara series of rums did was to point the way to possibilities that were, back then, merely small-scale, limited or imperfectly executed ideas, waiting to be taken to the next level, like Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane did for movies in 1915 and 1941. Velier came in, took a look around and re-imagined the map, then went ahead and showed what could be done. Certainly, like most innovators, Luca built on what came before while amending and modifying it to suit his own personal ideas; others contributed, and Velier did not work outside the great social and spirituous trends of its time. But somehow, Luca more than most gathered the strands of his imagination and used them to tie together all the concepts of rum making in which he believed.  In doing so he produced rums which remain highly sought-after, and used the credibility they engendered to put his stamp firmly on the industry. We live in the world that he and his rums helped to bring about. Whatever your opinions on the influence of the Age, we had what we had before they appeared, and now we have what we have which is better. The work is worth acknowledging, and respecting. It is to our regret that the Age was over before we even properly acknowledged its existence.

In closing, I should mention that the Age of Velier’s Demeraras was only called that when it was over (and for the record, it was by the Danish blogger Henrik Kristoffersen who first used the term in a Facebook post in early 2016). And even if you don’t believe the Age was so central, or had the sort of rum-cultural impact as I think they do, I believe there’s no gainsaying that the sheer quality of rums that were issued for those nine years supports the idea that there was once an Age, that it really did exist…and the current crop of rums from this company remain at a similar level of quality as those first old and bold ones which were once considered too expensive.  It’s great that even now with all their rarity, we can sometimes, just sometimes, still manage to drink from the well of those amazing Demeraras, and consider ourselves fortunate to have done so.

***


This series elicited an interesting discussion on Reddit regarding topical ageing vs continental, here.

Jul 292017
 

In July 2017 the French rum wesbsite Coeur de Chauffe, as part of the Agricole 2017 world tour, issued a two part post where members of the rum and blogging community were invited to submit some brief words regarding their experiences with the French Island agricoles.  Well, most people wrote a couple of generally positive sentences, waved goodbye and moved on, but I felt that perhaps more could be said — and wrote, as is my wont, a complete essay where I tried to summarize my feelings about and experiences with this fascinating subset of the rumworld.

The French language Agricole Tour 2017 Part 1 can be found here, and the essays by myself and Sascha Junkert in Part 2, is here.  The paragraphs below represent the original English language version of my section.


Sooner or later, every rum lover comes to agricoles the way every film fan eventually arrives at Ozu. Although better known and always appreciated by the French due to their originating on the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, these quietly amazing rums have only started to become more widely available, and more praised, in the last ten years or so.

Partly this situation arose because of the domination of molasses based rums over the centuries.  Those rums were and are made more easily and more cheaply, have a quality of their own, and have commanded the attention of the rumiverse up until now.  Agricoles are made different, taste different and are priced different…but are also among the best rums currently being made, and can take their place at the forefront of any top-end lineup, not just because of their intriguing and tasty flavours, but because they have escaped the opprobrium of misleading labels, convenient number statements and adulteration which is the stain on far too many traditional rums.  They have always been pure, unmessed-with, traditionally-made rums and are appreciated for precisely that reason.

Others have written in greater depth about these unique rums – the Cocktail Wonk’s deep dive is a case in  point – so I won’t go into the details here beyond some basic facts.  Agricole rums – or rhums, as they are termed – are made from freshly pressed cane juice which goes to the still within 48 hours of harvesting the cane.  They are made in column stills and have a light, herbal, almost grassy flavour that often comes as a shock to those more used to, and comfortable with, the relatively darker, fruitier profiles of the Jamaicans, Bajans, Guyanese and other English-speaking islands; and they are clearer and crisper than the light and floral Spanish rons like those from Cuba or Latin America. 

Agricoles are commonly associated with the French islands in the Caribbean, but what the name describes is more a method of production than a geographical point of origin, and by that standard, no discussion of the type can be complete without noting the Brazilian cachacas, which are a subset of the genre, distinguished by their being aged in local woods (e.g. Balsamo, Jequitiba or Umburana), which give them a distinct (and occasionally off-putting) taste profile that many non-Brazilians have difficulty coming to grips with. One should also note that makers from around the world are increasingly making rums from freshly pressed cane juice – Laodi from Vietnam is a case in point, Madeira is another, and there is also Ron Aldea from the Canary islands, and several US micro distillers, among others.

Like traditional rums made from molasses, agricoles are aged, in various kinds of barrels – white oak, ex-bourbon, Limousin oak, cognac casks, the Brazilians as noted and so on – but unlike most of the molasses brigade, they have a very high quality even when made as “white”.  Such colourless rhums are, however, not usually filtered – as is the case with various bland mixing agents like the Bacardi Superior or the Prichard’s Crystal – and mostly unaged and issued directly off the still.  Haiti is the poster boy for such rhums, which are called clairins there and they are pungent, fierce and joyously off the reservation.  Lovers of softer fare shy away from such rhums, but connoisseurs have been snapping them up in increasing volumes for years now, ever since Velier came out with the three clairins from Sajous, Vaval and Casimir back in 2014.

My own experience with agricoles began in 2010 when one of the first rums I bought was the Clement Tres Vieux from Martinique, just about the top of their line;  I wasn’t entirely sold on it, yet it had an aroma and taste that was surprisingly evocative, even if I did not feel it dethroned the other rums I liked more to that point in my education. Over time I managed to try two Barbancourts from Haiti, a couple of Karukeras from Guadeloupe, and a Rum Nation and Renegade independent production.  My opinion began to change.  I appreciated their flavours more, enjoyed the lightness and complexity of the assembly, saw that they pointed to a different style of rhum to what I had been used to, one that was off the main road, yes, but with treasures heretofore unimagined.

I became a true agricolista in 2012, when an amazing 37 year old rhum from Guadeloupe was presented to me for a sampling in Berlin’s famed Rum Depot.  The Courcelles 1972 was a rhum simply off the scale (and even if there were reasons to believe it was not a true agricole, I persist in thinking of it as one), and it led to other discoveries in the years that followed – the clairins from Haiti, the Liberation series from Capovilla (the 2012 Integrale might be among the very best five year old rums ever made, by anyone, anywhere). Getting more impressed – or should that be obsessed? — with each new rhum I tried, I began actively seeking rhums from those distilleries from Martinique and Guadeloupe which have become more widely known and appreciated in the last years – J.M., HSE, Trois Rivieres, St. James, Depaz, Dillon, Bellevue, Damoiseau, J. Bally, Longueteau, Neisson are a few, the independent bottlers are gearing up big time, and I’m just getting started.

In short, from a sort of passing interest, agricoles have now taken their place — and not just in my estimation — among the best rums in the world.  There is variety and failure here, sure, just as they are in traditional (or industrial) rums, and perhaps it is not surprising that my journey mirrored that of the fans worldwide as well.  Nothing shows this more clearly than the popularity of the agricoles in the various European and other rum festivals, where they are commanding increasing attention and appreciation by the public.  It is no accident that the agricole world tour organized by Jerry Gitany and Benoit Bail – a sort of combination of masterclasses and grand exposition of many agricoles which toured the festival circuit in 2016 and now in 2017 – drew large crowds and many positive comments from the online community.

Agricoles are not a fashionable current trend, nor are they only now emerging from the shadows of obscurity: they have always been there, quietly and exactingly made.  What has changed is that over the last decade the explosion of social media and committed bloggers have brought them to a new, wider audience.  For the foreseeable future traditional molasses-based rums will continue to command the heights (and the wallets of the global purchasing public) – based on price and availability and all-round quality that’s unavoidable.  But just as any list of the classics of the film world would never be complete without Besson, Ozu, or Bergman (to name just three), no serious connoisseur or simple lover of rum would ever consider their journey to be complete without, at some point, sampling, appreciating and understanding the variety which agricoles add to the sum total of the universe of rum.

***

Feb 052015
 

200

 

***

Who would have thought, that when Liquorature first started as a small club in 2009, that the rum reviews portion of its website would split off into its own, let alone ever surpass a hundred reviews? With the review of Rivière du Mât Rhum Vieux Traditionnel Millésime 2004, some three years after passing the 100th write-up and more than five years into it, I have reached the next milestone, the 200th, and I have to admit, it would have been faster if I had not stopped writing for a year when I moved to the Middle East.  It’s not the best in the world by volume (and never will be), yet it still gives me a small sense of accomplishment to have even done this much.

The opening of this site in 2013 was a major shift in the shared review philosophy we had followed on Liquorature.  It was inevitable: like anyone who produces a fair amount of mental product on his own time and with his own dime, I wanted a display case for that and that alone (I’m not much of a community person and don’t do things by committee — the “Lone” in my title is not an accident, and exists on several levels of meaning). The reactions and feedback from our small subculture and miscellaneous passers-by have been generally positive and gratifying, in some cases surprisingly so.  Even when I was on an extended absence in 2013/2014, the hits kept ticking over fairly constantly (if minimally), suggesting that there was a small audience for my eclectic and eccentric writing. I have made no major changes to the site design-wise, except for allowing people to find a rum by name, by maker and by country — I deemed ages, colour categories and styles to be too limiting, if not actually vague, and so stuck with simplicity.

Two developments on the 1st One Hundred which I noted at the time and which continue were the adding of scores and the cessation of accepting, let alone soliciting, industry samples, a policy which I have followed with exactly two exceptions ever since.  I don’t pretend this makes me better than anyone, it simply speaks to my fear of undue influence in the latter case, and (in the former) my desire for calibration and rankings in a collection that is now quite extensive.  Much to my chagrin, I found that descriptions alone didn’t tell the tale of any given rum, and developed a scoring system that worked for me, and which I use to this day. In the coming year, I know I will discard the 0-100 rating with 50 as a median, and move towards a relatively more standardized system whereby 90+ is top end, and an average score will fall around 70-80…I just have to recalculate and recalibrate two hundred reviews to do it, and that’s no small task. (Update March 2015 – I have now rescored and recalibrated all reviews to fall in line with the more accepted 50-100 system)

Also: I still write the same way, still put as much as I feel like into a review, and provide as much information as possible in a one-stop-shopping approach for the reader.  I am in awe of others’ pithy one-liners, and think Serge’s haikus of tasting notes on WhiskyFun are brilliant, but I lack their abilities in this area and must play to my own predispositions and abilities.

As time went on, my palate changed and moved more towards stronger rums.  At the very beginning I decried rums with too much burn and whisky-like profiles.  This approach had to be modified as I tasted more and more and built up a collection I was able to use to cross-taste.  I was already thinking that 40% was too limiting back in 2011, but in 2012 I went to Berlin and bought and tasted the rums of a spectacular company called Velier for the first time, and they convinced me that full-proof, cask strength rums in the 50-65% range, when made right, deserved their own place in the sun.  In 2014 that opinion was solidified at the Berlin RumFest, where so many rums were full proofed that finding a forty percenter was actually not that easy. These days, given my proximity to Europe, that’s most of what I can get anyway, and I’m not unhappy with it.

I also gained a fondness for agricoles and their lighter, cleaner profiles, though they will be unlikely to ever surpass my love for Mudland products, good as they are.  The really good agricoles from the pre-1990s are, alas, very rare and quite pricey. Still, I persevere – aside from Dave Russell’s Rum Gallery, too few reviewers outside France and Italy (L’homme a la Poucette and DuRhum come to mind) really push out or have serious quantities of agricole reviews. So there’s definitely some opportunity to champion them, I think, and who can call themselves rum reviewers and ignore such a wide swathe of product?  Availability might be the problem: Josh Miller from Inu a Kena bemoans his selection in the USA, for example and I know Chip in Edmonton has the same issue.

I started a new and very occasional series called “The Makers” inspired by a conversation the Hippie and I had many years ago, and which I felt had real potential to provide more information to the reader. With whatever information I can glean online and from my books and conversations, I try to put together a biography of the companies that make rums, and (if at all possible) a list of all their products.  To that I added another section called “Opinions” because there are many issues confronting the rum industry and general and bloggers in particular, upon which I at least want to comment.  Still a work in progress.

The one other aspect of the experience of reviewing rum and rhum that has taken off in the last couple of years is the friends I’ve made, the contacts.  To say I have been startled by this development is an understatement because in the first years I worked almost in isolation…but pleased and touched as well. Henrik, Cyril, Marco, Francesco, Luca, Fabio, Curt, Maltmonster, Gregers, Steve, Josh, Chip and all the others… muchas gracias to you all. I get helpful comments, offers to share samples, clarifications, info and all kinds of assist when stuck for a detail or a path forward.  Rum Folks…they’re great guys, honestly.

So here’s looking forward to my next hundred, then.  I know I’m playing a catch-up game with the guys like Serge, Dave and Chip, and it’s not always and only about the numbers.  The important thing is that it remains interesting to me, I like the writing and the research and the back-and-forth…and I still revel the pleasure at discovering a really great rum, previously unknown, about which I can craft an essay that hopefully makes people think about it, appreciate it and maybe laugh a little.

Cheers to all of you who’ve read this far and this long..

Jan 292015
 
Photo copyright morealtitude.wordpress.com

Photo copyright morealtitude.wordpress.com

In December 2014, Ian Burrell put a survey up on FB’s The Global Rum Club Page.  It read: “If you had to pick 5 people who have been a major influence for the rum category, who would you pick ? It can be brand founder, distiller, blender, brand ambassador, bartender, promoter, blogger, marketer, etc. Vote for your pick or add your own major influence. I’ll throw 5 (pre 1950’s) into the mix (in no order) Don Facundo Bacardi Massó ; Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt AKA Don the Beachcomer; Admiral Edward Vernon aka Old Grog; Constantino Ribalaigua Vert and James Man (ED & F Man)”

I both love and hate lists.  Perhaps because I’m into the numbers game as part of my day job, I love the exactitude of things nailed down and screwed shut, copper-bottomed and airtight.  And so I devour top ten lists, readers favourites, drinker’s grails and all the various classifiers we humans enjoy creating so as to rank the objects of our passion.  As a reviewer of rum, I dislike them intensely.  Because in any subjective endeavour – be it art, literature, film, food, drink, the perfect significant other – taste and experience and quirks of personality dictate everything, and what one person might enjoy and declaim from the rooftops, another vocally despises (both with flashing eyes and elevated blood pressure).  So for me to create a list of any kind is problematic, and I try not to.

Still, this one piqued my interest.  Until I saw it, I sort of thought I was reasonably knowledgeable about matters of the cane (even if it’s possible I’m the only one, in the country currently called “home”).  But as I went down the list, I could tell that I  was as green as a shavetail louie, and my own knowledge, while extensive, couldn’t come near to figuring out who all these people were, or how they could rank in terms of influence.  And of course, loving a challenge, I decided to create a small glossary for that one person who might have a question.  Indulge my sense of humour as I go along…I’m kinda stoked up on hooch-infused coffee right now.

***

Don Facundo Bacardi Masso – you’re kidding right?  Who doesn’t know the Catalan-born founder of Bacardi, the bête noir of those who prefer premium rums, that guy who founded the company which whips up a gajillion barrels of dronish tipple a year, and has a market cap that eclipses the GDP of small nations.

Don the Beachcomber – actually named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, hailing from Texas, he was the founding father of tiki restaurants, bars and nightclubs, often with a Polynesian flavour.  A bootlegger and bar-owner (he opened Don’s Beachcomber Café in 1933 in Hollywood), he was increasingly referred to by the name of that bar.  He actually changed his name several times to variations of this, until finally settling on Donn Beach.  He was a lover and ardent mixer of potent rum cocktails, God love him. Supposedly created the Zombie cocktail, Navy Grog, Tahitian Rum Punch, Mai Tai and others. Trader Vic was a competitor of his (the rivalry was reputedly amicable). Died in 1989

Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron – much like Don the Beachcomber, Victor Jules Bergeron Jr., a California native, founded a chain of Polynesian themed restaurants, which he named after his nom de guerre, “Trader Vic,” the first one way back in 1932 as a pub, which moved into alcohol in a big way as a as soon as Prohibition ended (that one was called Hinky Dink’s, renamed Trader Vic’s in 1936  and it did not have the tropical décor and flavour it later acquired). The first franchised “Trader Vic’s” restaurant/bar opened in 1940 in Seattle.  It supposedly created the franchise model which many other restaurants – not the least MacDonald’s – subsequently emulated.  It hit its high point in the 50s and 60s when the Tiki culture fad was at its height. Both The Trader and the Beachcomber claim to have invented the Mai Tai.  There are a line of rums of the same name that are readily available in the US.

Ian Burrell – London based drinks enthusiast with his own bar not too far from Camden Town.  Instrumental in organizing the annual UK Rumfest, and holds the Guinness Record for largest single tasting event (in 2014).  And he started this list going.  I meant to go visit his rum bar in December that year and hoist a few rarities with him, but got drunk on Woods 100 and ended up in Greenwich.

Ernest Hemmingway – Also known as “Papa” Hemmingway; journalist, war correspondent, writer, deep-sea fisherman, Nobel Prize winning author of superbly spare, masculine tales.  Popularized rum and rum cocktails during his later life when he resided in Cuba, with the amusing side-effect of having every Cuban rum – and quite a few others – claiming to be his favourite and the one he liked best.  Alas, he killed himself in 1960, but one hopes he had a good rum or three before deciding there was no better rum to be had and he’d better go out on a high note.

Christopher Columbus – nope, not my Italian neighbour across the way, nor a film director of fluff puff pieces. A Genoese mapmaker from the 15th century who legend has it, was looking for India when he accidentally bumped into the Caribbean islands in 1492, and promptly named the natives “Indians.”  Sure glad he wasn’t looking for Turkey.

Admiral Edward Vernon (“Old Grog”, died 1757) – popularized the sadly discontinued practice of issuing rum diluted with lemon juice on board Royal Navy ships partly to ward off vitamin C deficiency (scurvy), to make shipboard drinking water more palatable, and – we can hope – to boost morale.  You could argue he therefore created the first cocktail. We still, call rum “grog” because of his being affectionately named after his frock coat, called a Grogram.  As a nice bit of trivia, George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, was named after him.

Aeneas Coffey – inventor (or perfecter) of the single column still in 1830 — he enhanced a previous 1828 design of Robert Stein’s , and this led directly to the industrial mass-production of rum; previously, pot stills were the main source of rum production, but suffered from higher costs, wide batch variation and small batch sizes of lower alcoholic content.  The Coffey still addressed all these issues and kicked off the explosion of rum production (and, one can argue, the 20th century resurgence in craft pot still products).  I suspect he was more interested in whisky than in rum, but nobody’s perfect.

Constantino Ribalaigua Vert – Catalan immigrant who began working in the famous Floridita fish restaurant and cocktail bar in old Havana, back in 1914…four years later he became the owner.  Constantine is on this list because he invented what is one of the most famous rum cocktails ever made, the Daiquiri, somewhere in the 1930s, and it became inextricably linked with Floridita’s, which even today is known as La Cuna del Daiquiri. The bar became known for producing highly skilled cantineros whose expertise lay in crafting cocktails made with fresh fruit juices and rum, which he may have been instrumental in promoting.  Hemmingway supposedly frequented the joint.

Homère Clément – founder of one of Martinique’s better known distilleries and rum houses, Clemente, which makes superlative agricoles to this day. Clemente was mayor of La Francois and purchased a prestigious sugar plantation Domaine de l’Acajou in the 1880s, just when the introduction of sugar beets was decimating the Caribbean sugar industry.  He instigated the practice of using sugar cane juice to create rhum agricole, and modeled his rhums after the brandy makers and distillers of Armagnac in southwest France.  I haven’t done enough research to test the theory, but Old Homere might have saved the French sugar islands from utter ruin with his rhum.

Jeff “Beachbum” Berry – Jeff is a bartender, author, contributor and cocktail personality who specializes in cocktails and Tiki culture; thus far he’s written six books on vintage Tiki drinks and cuisine, and he is referred to by the Los Angeles Times as “A hybrid of street smart gumshow, anthropologist and mixologist.”  He’s created original cocktail recipes and been published in many trade, liquor, bartending and cocktail magazines.  He doesn’t exclusively focus on rum, but it’s certainly a part of his overall interest, and he has raised the profile of rums in the published world like few others have.

Richard Seale – 3rd generation rum-maker; owner and manager of 4-Square distillery in Barbados, and therefore the maker of rums like Doorly’s and 4-Square brands, as well as providing barrels for many craft makers in Europe.  He provided the initial distillate for St Nicholas Abbey, as they waited for their own stocks to mature. Has become a global rum icon both as a result of championing pure rums and decrying adulteration, and his collaborations with Velier.

Hunter S. Thompson – No idea why he would be on this list, except insofar as he is the author of “The Rum Diary” which is less about rum than it is about a lustful, jealous men stumbling through life in an alcoholic daze, indulging in violence and treachery at every turn (much like my Aunt Clothilde after a pub crawl). Of course, Thompson was known for imbibing colossal amounts of coke and alcohol (he was, like many young authors of the time, trying to copy the uber-mensch lifestyle of Hemmingway), so maybe this is where the connection arises.  As a man with influence on rum as a whole, I’d say he’s more road kill than idol.

Rumporter – publisher of a French language magazine “Rumporter” which is dedicated like few others to the culture of rum.  Too bad there isn’t an English version around, but then, I grumbled the same thing about Luca’s book.  Maybe I should learn a seventh language.

The average British Navy man – also known as a Jolly Jack Tar; he needs no further intro.  Lovers of Navy rums, these boys, and retired or not, keep the names of Watson’s and Woods 100 alive and well in their memories. And mine.

Don Pancho Fernandez – well known Cuban maestro ronero who worked initially for Havana Club.  Developed the Zafra line of rums that are a perpetual staple in many liquor cabinets. Additionally acclaimed for the work he has done in raising the quality and profile of Panamanian rums like Varela Hermanos’s Abuelo line, Panamonte, Rum Nation and his own line of Don Pancho.  Also the man behind the irritatingly named, but better-than-you-think rum Ron De Jeremy. I met him briefly in 2014.  Nice guy, very courtly.

Edward Hamilton and the Ministry of Rum webpage (combined entry) – founder of the Ministry of Rum website where many rum noobs (myself among them) got their start in networking with other rum lovers. Still a very good resource to start researching producers and distillers and rums in general. Ed is also the author of “Rums of the Eastern Caribbean,” and has recently issued the Hamilton line of rums.  Holds tastings and seminars all over the place and began his own line of rums in 2014. As a guy who started to pull Rummies together into an online whole, his influence cannot be underestimated – almost all rum bloggers in some way derive from what he started. These days his website is moribund, as the FB page eclipsed it.

All The Poor Slaves – and damn right too.  We should never forget the backbreaking labour under inhuman conditions that slaves had to undergo to work in the fields that allowed our ancestors to sweeten their tea and create rumbullion. It is the original sin of rum.

Bartender – a good bartender is the aristocrat of the working class, knows his stuff backwards and forwards, and can whip up any cocktail you want.  A great one not only knows your first name, but that of all the rums on his shelf.

Dupré Barbancourt – Founder of the eponymous distillery and rum maker on Haiti.  He was a Frenchman from the cognac producing region of Charente, immigrated to Haiti and founded the company in 1862.  To this day, they make some phenomenal agricoles.

Don Jose Navarro – A former Professor of Thermodynamics (ask him, not me), Don Navarro is maestro ronero for Havana Club (the Cuban one, or the “real” one).  We should all  be lucky enough to be able to take a right turn from our day jobs like he did in 1971.

Peter Holland – Curator, writer and owner of the website “The Floating Rum Shack.”  The gentleman attends tastings around the worlds, acts as a judge of rum festivals, and is a consultant to various companies in the field.  His site deals with primarily rums and cocktails.  Apparently he was in Berlin in 2014, just as Don Pancho, Rob Burr and some of my other correspondents were, but we passed like ships in the night and never met each other.

Martin Cate – A San Francisco-based rum and exotic cocktail expert who collects rum like a bandit, conducts seminars and judges rum and cocktail competitions around the world; aside from that, he’s the owner of Smuggler’s Cove San Francisco, which specializes in rum cocktails, and was named by the Sunday Times of London some time back, as one of the 50 greatest bars on earth; Drinks International Magazine thought so too…three years in a row, and several other magazines think the same.  I’m beginning to think I should move and crash over at Josh Miller’s place. Or just across the road from the bar.

Robert Burr –A promoter and lover of rum (and Hawaiian shirts), he is the organizer of the premier North American rum expo, the Rum Renaissance in Miami. He and his wife and son publish “Rob’s Rum Guide”, as well as hosting the Rum Renaissance Caribbean Cruise. He created the collective of judges from around the world called the RumXPs and he travels around the world judging and consulting. I met him briefly in Berlin in 2014, but he didn’t recognize my hat, which is something I really have to work on.

Father Pierre Lebat – This should probably be spelled Pere Labat; I’ll assume we’re talking about the man, because there is a rhum by that name still made on Marie Galante (Guadeloupe), where a French missionary polymath called Jean-Baptiste Labat was stationed.  He was a clergyman, mathematician, botanist, writer, explorer, soldier, engineer, landowner – and slaveholder (lest we get carried away with admiration).  A Dominican friar, he became a missionary and arrived in Guadeloupe in 1696 at the age of 33.  While he was the procurator-general of the Dominican convents in the Antilles, he was also an engineer working for the French government; in this capacity and as proprietor of his own estate on Martinique, Labat modernized and developed the sugar industry, building on the pot still of Jean-Baptiste Du Tetre (see below).  His methods for manufacture of sugar remained in use for a long time. The white agricole produced on Marie-Galante is named after him.

Luca Gargano – an exploding comet in the skies of rum, Luca made his bones by sourcing what is arguably the best collection of Guyanese still-specific rums in existence, the largest surviving Trinidad Caroni hoard any one company possesses, and in between that, issuing rums at anything between 50-65% ABV. I speak only for myself when I say that he is upping everyone else’s game, and showing that there is a market for full proof rums, just as there is for that obscure Scottish drink.  And he’s a great guy.

Pirates – These guys sang shanties, shivered their timbers, pillaged, raped and plundered (and were knighted in at least one case), and drank rum.  Lots of it. They may be long gone, them and all their cutlasses and pistols and sailing ships (maybe they migrated to Somalia and the South China Sea), but their shades hang around and inform the culture of rum like nothing else.

Joy Spence – The Nefertiti of the Noble spirit, Joy is the creative force behind J. Wray & Nephew, who make Appleton Estate rums in Jamaica.  Since we’ve all swigged Appleton rums for decades, I’m not sure there’s much I can add here, except to note she was the first female master blender ever, and that’s quite an accomplishment in a rather male-dominated industry. With degrees in Chemistry, she took a job as a developmental chemist with Estate Industries (they produced Tia Maria) but got bored and moved on to J. Wray and Newphew, which was right next door..and there she stayed ever since.  Owen Tulloch, the master blender for JW&N at the time, took her under his wing and when he retired in 1997, she became the master blender herself.  So her hand is behind many of the Appletons we know and admire today.  You could argue that the Appleton 50 is her and Mr. Tulloch’s love child.

Captain Morgan – The rum or the pirate?  The rum is a world famous spiced baby which in some cases is not too shabby at all, and to some extent sets the bar for decent (read “non-lethal spiced overkill”) flavoured rums.  The pirate did himself well.  Henry Morgan, who lived and freebooted across the Caribbean in the 17th century was a privateer, not a pirate (meaning he sailed and pillaged under letters of marque issued by the English crown).  He acted as an agent to harass Spanish territories and shipping, taking a cut of all plunder and ransoms. Knighted in 1674 and made Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica in 1675.  He was replaced in 1681 and then gained a rep for being extremely fat and extremely drunk and extremely rowdy, like many friends of mine (and they’re all fun to hang with). Died 1688. His connection with rum is tenuous at best – about all you can say is he was a licensed pirate and a drunk.  Come to think of it, so is my lawyer.

Alexandre Gabriel – the force behind Cognac-Ferrand’s magnificent Plantation double-aged line of rums.  Not all of them are top end, but many are, and they have been instrumental, along with other European craft bottlers, in raising the bar for rums in general. Mr. Gabriel defends his process of dosing Plantation rums with small amounts of sugar or additives to attain the desired taste profile, which has caused some flak in the current climate regarding sugar, of “disclose or dispose.” Bought WIRD in Barbados in 2017 and in doing so gained a stake in Longpond Distillery in Jamaica.

Christian Vergier – Cellar master of New Grove rums, which is based in Mauritius.  And there was me thinking the gentleman dabbled only in wines.  Not much I can say about man or rum, since I’ve never met either of them.  I’m sure that will change.

Oliver Rums – Created by Juanillo Oliver a Catalan-Mallorcan immigrant to Cuba in the mid nineteenth century. After the revolution in 1959 the family departed, but later re-established a sugar plantation and rum making concern in the Dominican Republic in the 1990s. They make Opthimus, Cubaney and Quohrum rums with what is supposedly the original rum recipe of the founder.

Tito Cordero – who doesn’t love the Venezuelan rum range of Diplomatico?  The Reserva Exclusiva in particular receives rave reviews across the board (although I can’t speak to the ultra premium Ambassador…yet).  And it’s all due to this maestro ronero, who, like Joy Spence, has a background in Chemistry (chemical engineering to be exact). And, oh yeah, he received the 2011 Golden Rum Barrel award for Best Rum Master in the world.  Not too shabby at all.

Andres Brugal – the founder of Brugal and Co from the Dominican Republic.  Also a Catalan (what’s with all these roneros coming from Catalonia?), he migrated from Spain to Cuba and then to the Dominican Republic in the mid 1800s…but not before soaking up equal quantities of rum and expertise.  He introduced the first dark rum from his company in 1888, and over a century later, his descendants repaid the favour by naming one of their top end rums the 1888 (I liked it a lot, as a totally irrelevant aside).

James Man – Ever since I bought my Black Tot bottle, I see references to Navy rums wherever I go.  And so it is here: James Man was a sugar broker and barrel maker who in 1784 secured the exclusive contract to supply rum to the British Navy.  And now, more than two centuries later, his descendants, running a company called ED&F Man still trade in sugar and molasses (they are a general merchant of agricultural commodities).  By the way, Man held the rum contract for 186 years – although not exclusively so for that whole time – which ended on…yup, Black Tot Day.

Silvano Samaroli – Silvano, an Italian craft bottler who started with whisky in 1968, makes this list because he may have been the first bottler to source rum, age it and issue it under his on label as a craft product in its own right.  To this day I have tasted few Samaroli rums (many of my correspondents wonder what my malfunction is), but what little I’ve tried says the man’s work is superb.  He died in 2017, and Fabio Rossi and Luca Gargano are his intellectual heirs.

John Gibbons – a RumXP member, rum judge, bar-trawler, independent spirit ambassador, cocktail enthusiast and rum lover.  Moved to UK in 2010.  Started the website Cocktail Cloister (no updates since 2011) and the Glasgow Rum Club.  Does not appear to have been very active since 2013, but maybe the XP page has simply not been updated.  I’ve met him a few times in Berlin, a really cool dude.

Leonardo Isla De Rum – another XP member, Leonardo Pinto has been a rum enthusiast since 2008, and curates his rum-themed website Isladerum.  Nothing unusual with all this; but Leonardo has gone a step further, developing the Italian Rum Festival (ShowRum) as well as acting as a consultant for brands that wish to enter the Italian market.  Honestly, I feel like a rank amateur next to people with such commitment and drive.

Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzī – this guys gets my vote for sure.  A Persian polymath, doctor, chemist (or alchemist, if you prefer) and philosopher, who lived around 854-925 AD.  Why is he influential, and why should he be in the list?  Well, leave aside his contribution to experimental medicine (he wrote a pioneering books on smallpox and measles as well as treatises on surgery that became de rigeur for western universities in the middle ages); ignore his many philosophical books, his work in chemistry and his desire for factual information not tied to traditional dogma; but just consider that he created (or at least popularized) the forerunner of all modern distillation apparatus – (drum roll) the alembic.  We may now know it as a pot still and he’s the guy who is credited with spreading its usage. I’ll drink to him.

Ron Matuselam – one of the best brands of rum coming out of the Dominican Republic, and, like others, an exile from Cuba after the revolution.

Pepin Bosch – The man who could be argued to have saved Bacardi…twice. Jose M. Bosch, who died in 1994, was born in Cuba, and married into the Bacardi family.  He was instrumental in rescuing Bacardi from bankruptcy during the Depression, and again in the 1960s when Castro seized all the company’s assets.  Mr. Bosch ran the company from 1944 to 1976, when he retired.

E&A Scheer – A Netherlands-based ship owning company formed in the 18th century, heavily involved in the triangular trade between Europe, the West Indies and Africa – they therefore were instrumental in shipping bulk rum to Europe, at a time when (pause for loud cheers) rum was the primary tipple, and whisky wasn’t.  They were also involved in shipping Batavia Arrack from the Dutch East indies at that time.  By the 19th century, the company specialized in just shipping rums and then started their own blending and bulk distillation processes.  To this day, they still concentrate on this aspect of the business (dealing in distillates), though they have expanded into other shipping areas as well.

Retailer –where would we be without the retailers?  Too bad most corner store Mom-and-Pops don’t know half of what they sell, or speak knowledgeably about it.  But then there are more specialty shops like Berry Bros & Rudd, Willow Park, Kensington Wine Market, or Rum Depot, and these guys keep the flame of expertise burning.  Online retailers are going great guns too (this is where I buy 90% of what I taste these days), and if Canada were ever to get its act together regarding postage, I know a lot of guys who would be buying a helluva a lot more.

Pat O’Brien – creator of the Hurricane cocktail in the 1940s (it’s a daiquiri relative), which he made in order to rid himself of low quality rum his distributors were forcing him to accept before they would sell him more popular whiskies.  At the time O’Brien was running a tavern in New Orleans (it was known as “Mr. O’Brien’s Club Tipperary” and required a password to get in during Prohibition). It is still served in plastic cups (New Orleans allows drinking in public…but not from glass containers or glasses).  The name of the cocktail derives from the shape of the glass it was originally served in which resembled a hurricane lamp. O’Brien’s still exists.

Bertrand-Francois Mahe de La Bourdonnais – (1699–1753) French Naval officer and administrator, who worked in the service of the French East India company, primarily in Mauritius and Reunion.  His inclusion on this list stems from his introduction of a free enterprise system on the islands, and the concomitant launch of commercial sugar (and therefore rum) production.  This generated great wealth for Mauritius and Reunion, and sugar and rum have remained pillars of their economies ever since.

Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre – (1610-1687) A French blackfriar and botanist, he spent eighteen years in the Antilles and wrote many books about indigenous people, flora and fauna.  His written work created the concept of the “Noble Savage”.  Why is he on this list? Because he designed a rudimentary pot still (an alembic variation) to process the byproducts of sugar mills on the French islands, and thereby indirectly spurred the development of agricole rhum production upon which Pere Labat built.

Lehman “Lemon” Hart – Like Alfred Lamb and James Man, a purveyor of Navy Rums in the 1800s and liked to boast that he was the first to get such a contract but I think his license, issued in 1804, is eclipsed by Man’s (above).

George Robinson – Another master blender/distiller makes the cut, deservedly so.  George Robinson was the Big Kahuna at DDL in Guyana and was in the company for over forty years (he passed away in 2011 but DDL hasn’t gotten the message yet, because their El Dorado website still has him alive and kicking.  Maybe they think he’s faking it).  The man was a cricketer in his youth, always a path to glory in the West Indies; however, it was his ability to harness the lunacy of the various stills DDL possesses that made his reputation and places him here. RIP, squaddie.

Capt William McCoy – I’m hoping I have the real McCoy here because no glossary of rum could be complete without at least one or five pirates, in this case a bootlegger who paradoxically never touched alcohol. The guy was unique, that’s for sure: he called himself an honest outlaw, never paid money to organized crime, politicians or the law for protection.  He thought the Prohibition was daft (as do I) and made it his mission to smuggle likker from the Caribbean.  He finally got collared in international waters in 1923, spent less than a year in clink, and ended his smuggling activities.  He died in 1948.

Helena Tiare Olsen – Ah, Tiare. Runs one of the most comprehensive, long running and detailed cocktail blogs out there.  She does rum reviews (always with the angle of what it would do for a cocktail), and until Marco of Barrel Aged Thoughts took the crown, had one of the best online articles on the stills of Guyana.  Her site is an invitation to browse, there’s so much stuff there.  She attends various rumfests around the world as and when she finds the time.

Daniel Nunez Bascunan – Danish blogger, rum enthusiast, owner of RumClub bar in Copenhagen and micro-brewer. Don’t know the gentlemen personally, but that bar looks awesome.

Joe Desmond – Rum XP member and mixologist.  Lives in New York, acts as a judge to various festivals, collects rums and is reputed to have one of the most extensive collections in New York.

José León Boutellier – You’d think Bacardi ran out of entrants, but no, here’s another one from the House of the Bat.  Sometime after Facundo Bacardí Massó came to Cuba in 1830, he inherited (through his wife) an estate of Clara Astie; this included a house, and a tenant, the French Cuban Mr. Boutellier, who ran a small distillery there which produced cognac and sweets.  After hammering out the rental agreement, the two joined forces and Facundo was granted use of the pot still, creating the Bacardi, Boutellier y Co. in 1862.  By 1874 Don Facundo and his sons bought out Boutellier’s stake as he declined in health.  But it is clear that without Boutellier’s pot still and the happenstance of him being in that house, Bacardi would not be the same company.  Small beginnings, big endings.

Jennings Stockton Cox – American mining engineer who is said to have invented the Daiquiri, perhaps because at the time when he made it, he had been working in Cuba, close to the village of Daiquiri.  Supposedly running out of gin and not trusting local rum served neat, he added lime juice and sugar.  Some say that Cox just popularized an already existent drink, but whatever the case, he’s now associated with it.

Rafael Aroyo – Author of an ur-text of rum-making in the 1940s – “The Production of Heavy Rum.”  It is used by many home brewers as a veritable bible on how to make home-hooch.  I wish I’d had it when I was a young man working in the bush.  The white lightning we made could have used some expertise, and I could have saved some IQ points.

José Abel y Otero – founder of Sloppy Joe’s in Cuba just after the First World War. Immigrated from Spain to Cuba in 1904, then moved to New Orleans in 1907, then again to Miami, and returned to Cuba in 1918, where he worked in a bar called The Greasy Spoon before founding his own bodega called Sloppy Joe’s.  In 1933 another bar with the same name opened in Florida (and Hemmingway was a patron…the guy sure did get around) which specifically referenced the original from Old Havana.

Alvarez & Camp – the two families who united to form Matusalem.

José Arechabala y Aldama – Founder of the Havana Club rum and the company that made it, before being expropriated following the 1959 Cuban Revolution

Robert Stein – inventor of a columnar still subsequently refined by Aeneas Coffey (see above).  Stein’s 1828 still was itself inspired by the continuous whiskey still patented by Sir Anthony Perrier in 1822

George Washington – Possibly one reason the first president of the USA is on this list is because he liked rum – so much so that he demanded a barrel or two to be on hand for his inauguration.  On the other hand he did operate a distillery himself on Mount Vernon, and it was the largest in the country at that time.  Alas, it mostly produced whiskey.

Owen Tulloch – Joy Spence’s mentor in Appleton, he was the master Blender until 1997. I hope he and Mr. Robinson are having a good gaff somewhere up there, smoking a good Cuban, playing dominos on a plywood table, and arguing about the relative merits of El Dorado versus Appleton.

Alfred Lamb – creator of Lamb’s Navy Rum and London Dock rum in the 1800s.  Another pretender to the crown, if either Lemon Hart of James Man are to be believed.

John Barrett – Managing Director of Bristol Spirits.  They may not be THE name in craft spirits, but that doesn’t stop ’em from trying to grab the brass ring.  Their excellent series of classic and limited edition rums are characterized by bright, eye-catching labels, great enclosures, and a quality not to be sneezed at. Their PM 1980 remains one of my favourites.

Charles Tobias – Founder of Pusser’s  in the BVI in 1979 after he bought the rights and blending information for Navy Rum from the Admiralty, with the first sales beginning in 1980. They have trademarked the “Painkiller” cocktail to be made with only their rum. Mr. Tobias has always ensured that a portion of the sale of every bottle goes to charity.

Cadenhead’s – Possibly Scotland’s oldest independent bottler, founded in 1842 and a family owned and managed concern until 1972, when they were taken over by J.A.Mitchell, proprietors of Springbank distillery.  While they are more staid whisky boys than rabid rummies, their unadulterated, unfiltered rums are excellent and date back to the successor of founder W.Cadenhead (Mr. Robert Duthie) who took over in 1904, and added Demerara rums to the stable. Because of bad business decisions made in the years following the death of Mr. Duthie in 1931, Christie’s auctioned off the entire stock of whisky and rum in 1972 (the same year the fixed assets and goodwill went to Springbank)…so any Cadenhead rums from this era may well be priceless.

Tony Hart – Brit rum enthusiast, rum expert, trainer of barmen, lecturer, taster, who has worked for Tia Maria and Lemon Hart, and all over the globe.  Conducts tastings, workshops and seminars and spreads the gospel

4finespirits – online German rumshop which also has a pretty interesting blog. Not sure what it’s doing in this list since it’s a recently established site (2015).  Somebody must sure like them. Recently started a video blog on YouTube.

Andres Brugal – full name Andrés Brugal Montaner, a Spaniard who migrated from Catalonia in Spain to Cuba (where he learned the fundamentals of how to make rum), and thence to the Dominican Republic, where he established Brugal and produced his first dark rum in 1888.  The first warehouses for ageing there were built in 1920, and the company exists, making good rums, to this day.  However, it is no longer owned by the Brugals, but the Edrington Group out of Scotland, who bought a majority shareholding in 2008.

Bryan Davis – This man may change the rum world, or be conning it.  Opinions are fiercely divided on what the man behind Lost Spirits Distillery has accomplished.  Short form is that by using chemistry and molecular analysis to build a molecular reactor, he can supposedly churn out rum which shows the profile of a 20 year old spirit…in six days.  I’ve heard his rums are pretty good, but never tried any. A good article on Wired is here.

Got Rum? – online rum magazine run by Luis and Margaret Ayala

Samuel Morewood – British etymologist who wrote an essay in 1824 on the origins of the word “rum” in  An essay on the Inventions and Customs of both Ancients and Moderns in the use of Inebriating Liquors.  It’s actually quite a fascinating read, even now.

Cédric Brément – French maker of flavoured rums, and owner of the company Les Rhums de Ced.

Frank Ward – Chairman of the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers Association and Managing Director of Mount Gay in Barbados.  This gentleman has his work cut out for him. First to try to save the smaller Caribbean producers from the massive subsidies the big guns get, and secondly to impose some order on the crazy patchwork of rum via trying to get agreement on standards.  Part of the solution is to create the Authentic Caribbean Rum Marque.  An interview with Got Rum? magazine is here.

Enrique Shueg – Brother in law of Emilio, Facundo and Jose Bacardi, the three sons of the founder. Born the same year as the company was founded (1862), he steered the company almost single-handedly into the modern area, and was the key link between the small family firm and the global behemoth it eventually became. He played a leading role in the company for fifty years, expanding the reach of Bacardi to jet set visitors, tourists and even gangsters, and making Cuba the home of rum before moving operations to Puerto Rico.

Dean Martin – drinker of rum, singer and film star and member of the 1950s era Rat Pack.

Reviewers – there are so very few reviewers out there for rum (versus the hundreds who blog about whiskies).  Those that enter the field have their work cut out for them, not least because of the paucity of selections which they can review on the budget they have. They serve a useful purpose in that they raise rum awareness as much as any brand ambassador or festival/competition organizer and provide useful (if free) advertising for many small outfits who might otherwise never be heard about outside their state, province, canton or country.

And there you have it.  All the reference points people have made on the list.  This took me the better part of a day to hammer together under the influence of both coffee and some homemade hooch, so please forgive any errors I’ve made in the spelling.  It was fun to do, and I hope you who have had the stomach to read this much and have reached this point (drunk or sober), walk away with an enriched body of knowledge on rum’s past and present Big Guns.

Oh, and one other influence on rums…

All we drinkers: it is we as drinkers, writers and exponents, who make the industry. Cheers to us all!

Apr 012013
 

First published in 2011 on Liqorature

I complain and moan a lot about the lack of choice in Alberta’s shelves when it comes to rum, but truth to tell, we get quite a bit more than other provinces around this country, except maybe BC.

Most provinces’ liquor sales in Canada are still under Government control. This is the legacy of the well-meaning, though utterly unrealistic, efforts of elected officials to implement Prohibition – yes, Canada had Prohibition – in 1918 and even before. Unlike the US, Canada came to its senses faster (you migh say they sobered up, ha ha), and most of the legislation across the country was repealed within six years.  However, in the ’20s and ’30’s very powerful provincial liquor control boards were set up across the country, and liquor sales were, and remain for the most part, tightly regulated. This developed over time into a crazy situation whereby the provincial governments ran most of the liquor shops, and the irony of a body responsible for regulation and enforcement running a for-profit business it is supposed to monitor requires no further elaboration.

Alberta, under its powerful premier Ralph Klein, did away with this in 1993, and privatized liquor sales. In practice, there is still some Government control: the Federal Excise tax and sales taxes add to prices, the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission approves all wholesale imports of liquors (into privately held warehouses) and then collects on subsequent sales to retailers: taxes, bottle fees plus a flat markup (thereby getting revenue from all points of the value chain).  But in the main, the objective of introducing competition (however imperfect) to the Alberta market has worked.

But how well?

Before we go there, spare a moment to consider what the act of privatization actually meant in practical terms in 1993. To research this, I spoke to a number of native Calgarians (yes, there are still a few around, but they are on the endangered species list), and they all concur on the basics: there was always and only a limited selection of spirits, and particularly wines; opening hours were limited, and God forbid that any opened on a Sunday; prices were the same province-wide, no matter where one went.  There were 208 ALCB stores in the entire province, with another 65 private retailers; and the purchasing process for any kind of bulk (say, for a wedding), was a torturous process requiring the usual forms in multiplicate. Simply stated, it was all limited and a pain, and Hobson’s choice from start to finish.

Fast forward 17 years.  According to the AGLC (the successor agency to the ALCB), there are now 1220 retail liquor stores in the province (up from the 208+65 noted earlier); another 488 off-sales establishments, like hotels, manufacturers or others, down from 530 hotel-only off sales places before, and 94 general merchandise liquor stores now where none had previously existed. Sales of spirits are up 48%, Beer by 52%, Wines by 109% coolers and ciders by 319%.  Revenue to the Government (unspecified but presumed by me to be on direct taxes and levies plus the revenue from the flat markup) climbed from $404.8 million to $716 million.  In 1993 there were 2,200 varying products available…there are 16,328 in 2010.

[prohibitioncanada.jpg]
___

I wouldn’t sound the hosannahs and encomiums too loudly, however.  The figures sound rosy, but they really aren’t that great from a Government perspective.Consider: the revenue numbers climbed 76.8%, but this disregards inflation; if inflation adjusted numbers are considered, the revenue increase has actually climbed a much more modest 29.9%  And this, while the population of Alberta increased from 2,574,890 to 3,786,398…a jump of nearly 50%.  So direct revenue per unit of population has actually decreased. On the other hand, all those newly established liquor stores pay taxes (sales and corporate), and this in all likelihood makes up for the difference, if not actually a bit more: and they provide employment (a climb from 1300 to 4000), and so fuelled an additional purchasing pool.  The flip side is that wages have decreased as jobs went non-union and capitalism went to work. It sounds a bit like the Red Queen’s Race, doesn’t it?

It’s been suggested that increased availability of alcohol in the province would fuel more alcohol related crimes and societal costs, but I came across an examination of this issue (it was done in the late ’90s when a white paper examined the possibility of privatizing Ontario’s system) that implies a rather smaller impact: in the years after privatization, Edmonton experienced a 24% rise in liquor offenses (many having to do with minors possessing alcohol) but a 42% decrease in traffic offenses (you can’t be more surprised than I). And the Calgary police noted that the increase in liquor store related crimes between 1993 and 1995 was offset by the larger number of retail stores opening, so that the risk per store actually decreased, especially when population growth in those years was factored in.  As for increased availability leading to increased consumption, some stats imply the reverse, and there are too few studies linking such availability with increased health burdens on the province. That said, a January 2011 article arguing against the matter in New Brunswick stated that based on a recent University of Victoria study,  there was a 27.5% increase in alcohol related deaths per 1000 population, for every new liquor store opened in BC. And another study comparing the Ontario LCBO and the prices in BC said flat out that not only were the prices comparable, but private stores had a larger price bump over the last five years than the (cheek-by-jowl) Government operated retail stores.

Speaking for Alberta, it seems that the increase in the amount of retail stores roughly parallels the population jump, as do the sales of spirits and beer; I could make a case that the relative affluence of the province has fueled the rise in purchases of wine which greater choice and stocks, as well as better marketing by the stores, have assisted.  I am curious how ciders and coolers have gone up by 319%, though, given that no other category went down in compensation, which suggests it’s carved out a niche all its own…maybe among the young who lack the palates for wine or the cash for good spirits. Looking at the above numbers, on balance I’d have to say that the effects have been largely positive: overall, I have not been able to locate any studies or statistics that say categorically that there have been increased societal costs or social burdens in Alberta (I apologize in advance to families or individuals who have been deleteriously affected by the impacts of alcohol, who of course would not share this sentiment) and alcohol-related crime seems to be on par with the levels before privatization on a per capita basis.  The amount of problem drinkers as a proportion of the population is about the same. The increased taxes and employment and knock on effects of people with jobs spending money and paying taxes is positive.

But statistics can be made to say many things, and at end the debate won’t be solved in this essay.  As the New Brunswick discussion makes clear, it’s a societal issue, dominated by high passions on both sides, and it is as much a philosophical matter as social one. I’m not entirely convinced, but it may be a zero sum game when all factors are taken into account.

I’ll close with this comment.  In the last two years I’ve travelled through The Yukon, NWT, Alberta (hey, I live here), BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, by road (it’s a relaxation and photo-hobby thing for me).  In no other province have I seen the breadth and variety of products as I have in my home turf.  Alberta is the cheapest of them all in terms of pricing (Appleton 30 year old costs $300 and rubs shoulders with over seventy other rums in the various stores around here, while in Ontario it costs $550 and rather shamefacedly sits with three other “premium” rums – Zaya 12 was one – and another fifteen bottom tier standards like Lamb’s and Bacardo and Captain Morgan). The Yukon is a bit like Ontario, and the other prairie provinces are in between.

And, Alberta boasts liquor stores of nationwide reputation: it’s a running gag on Liquorature that I don’t like whisky, but even I must concede that Willow Park and Kensington Wine Market (Chip, jump in any time with your Edmonton nominations) are famous and maybe the best in Western Canada, stock unbelievably fine products and ranges of whiskies to make a maritimer and an occasional lonesome Scot weep with envy; and the wide selections have permitted myself and two others in this province to begin a labour of love in reviewing spirits.  In no other province has this been the case, to this extent.

Numbers, dollars, stats and revenue may be debated to the end of time, fierce battles will be fought with teetotallers, religious figures, liberals, conservatives and madmen, and maybe nothing will ever be resolved or proven one way or the other. But in terms of intangibles, I’d have to say that privatization with sufficient regulation is a pretty good thing and works for me in Calgary. Usually, it’s unbridled, unchecked, reckless capitalism and over-intrusive Government intervention that’s the problem. Here in Alberta, we may have found a happy median.

Update, November 2017

CTV News posted an article relating to a court case in Quebec which mentioned a poll that overwhelmingly favoured an abolition of provincial alcohol monopolies and briefly covered some of the concepts addressed here.  I disagreed fundamentally with the simplistic idea that Quebec would suddenly lose billions in revenue, because it ignored the ancillary businesses, employment, payroll and tax revenue that would be generated. I’ll be following this issue with interest in 2018

References:
Population stats
Prohibition
The statistics issued by AGLC
Consumer Price Index (alcohol)
Crime, the debate on privatization and other stats
http://telegraphjournal.canadaeast.com/rss/article/1371123 “The Alberta Experience” NB argument for
Some additional reading subsequent to the original article’s publishing in 2011, related to the debate on Quebec’s SAQ and its potential privatization:
Montreal Gazette – anti privatization opinion 2015
Montreal Gazette – pro-privatization opinion 2015
Apr 012013
 

(First posted on Liquorature, Feb 2012)

With the write up on the Barbancourt  15 Year Old I have reached a sort of personal milestone. I’ve written a hundred rum reviews and that’s not as easy as it may sound, since I put a lot of effort and energy into crafting each one, chosing the verbiage and doing the research, all the while juggling my photographic hobby, reading, as well as domestic and professional duties which permit me my alcoholic habit. At this rate, if there really are around fifteen hundred rums in production in the world, I’ll be a candidate for a gerontological institute somewhere before I get to finish.

Looking back, it seems quite amazing that two years have already passed since I began writing, three if you count the origins of Liquorature in 2009. In that time, Liquorature has grown from seven members to nine, the much more successful allthingswhisky site has gone up (and it passed a hundred reviews itself no more than a week or two back, so kudos are in order there as well), and a hundred-plus rums have crossed my path…more if you count those on my shelf I haven’t written about or those friends have trotted out. Through the writing of these reviews I have been in contact with makers and distributors, readers and reviewers, forged friendships and had a really good laugh from time to time (the Bacardi 151 review is a case in point)…and, I’m sure, pissed off a person or three.

There’s really no direction in my reviews: I’m not thinking of adding cocktails to my lineup; news from the rum world will never become part of the site; much as I’d like to, I lack the financial and temporal resources to do distillery tours and write ups; and no, I’m not trying to build any kind of collection or collate the ultimate rum list. The two major changes to my thinking in the last two years involved [1] adding a score to the reviews so I could do rankings and see if I preserved a bell curve (I do, and its median seems to be around fifty-ish, which satisfies me); and [2] a conscious decision to eschew deliberately solicited freebies – I found it influenced my reviews too much…others may be able to dissociate their personal feelings at getting a free sample from their reviews, but I can’t.

At end, two things stand out. I like to write, and write well, amuse, entertain and maybe make a point or two about my experience with a given liquor, what I felt and thought and tasted. Some say I overwrite, but come on, guys, there are all sorts of McNugget-sized capsule reviews out there…what on earth do you need another one for? I don’t need to do sound bites. I want to write something that’s more than just the bare bones, something that is part review, part joke, part serious, part history, part philosophical rumination. Surely that’s worth more than a sentence? (For the ADD among you, you’ll note the micro-opinion in italics at the top of each review for the last few months as a nod in your direction).

And secondly, I enjoy knowing that what is written becomes part of a corpus of knowledge people can use to find out more about a rum when they see one on the shelf. A hundred reviews is nowhere near enough to get a sense of what rums are out there – Africa and Asia remain as skimpily represented as a bikini at Cannes, and every time I turn around some European maker comes out with another artsy little offering – but those who bother to read each review as it gets posted will not only get a sense of my evolution in taste, but understand why I felt the way I did about each product I wrote about.

And, of course, perhaps laugh a little. That’s alone might be worth all 100 reviews put together

Here’s raising a glass to the next 100.

Apr 012013
 

May 5th 1992.  A release date that will live for…well, a heckuva long time.

Because, before Assassin’s Creed, before Metal Gear Solid, Socomm or Call of Duty, before Quake and Duke Nukem (long may he reign as King of Vaporware), there was the ur-game of them all, the ancient DNA of all first person shooters, and it was released that day.  Nope, not Doom, but its startlingly original, blood spattered, laughingly and irreverently pixellated daddy, Wolfenstein 3d.

While I fully acknowledge the origin of the game in Muse software’s 1984 incarnation, it was id Software’s 1992 revisit of the game that broke all barriers and ushered in the era of the true first person shooter, where the environment was realistic looking 3d and scrolling and perspective were from that of the player.  But what really made it a breakout success and runaway hit was the stroke of genius Id/Apogee had, of giving away the first episode for free, and then charging for the remaining five. Shareware was well on the way to changing business models for the entire software industry.

Wolfenstein 3d sold like a gazillion copies.  Office managers routinely cursed its name. Parents were constantly kicked off their own computers (when they had them) by their kids, who played all night sessions, and then got hooked themselves after watching it for a while. Until its even better successor Doom came along (with its equally original and innovative network deathmatch play), it was quoted as one of the greatest contributors to loss of office productivity between 1992 and 1994.

One of the reasons for its perennial attraction for just about anyone of any age, was its ease of use.  Left and right arrow keys, space to shoot, and maybe two other keys to throw a grenade or push a wall for secrets.  Compare that to today’s games, which use what seems like every key on my board, plus a few I never heard of.   My son kicks my ass at the Wii and playstation games, but I moider da bum on keys…so long as I can use just a few and I don’t have to think in 3d.  Wolfenstein’s game engine made all that possible.

Wolfenstein 3d ushered in the first glimpse of a true FPS, much as Jordan Mechener’s original Prince of Persia almost redefined how graphics should look in an adventure game (both have now merged into fully rendered 3d worlds, but at the time their innovations were stunning and revolutionary to people who had only ever seen side-scolling images that did not move like real objects)

Seen today, we smile at the archaic graphics and clumsy bitmaps and poorly rendered images.  Relative to today’s sleek gaming worlds, of course they are.  At the time though, we had never seen anything quite like it.  And me and my friends, we stayed late at our offices, played all the levels (plus more freebies), did speed runs and became masters and boasted of our achievements when we met for beers.

I’m sure today’s twelve-fingered, thick-thumbed and iron-wristed Xbox and PlayStation ur-swamis are as bad, as addicted and as dedicated as we once were. But I can almost guarantee that they never had quite as much fun as we did in those days when the technology was so new it had literally never been seen before.  That technologically-inspired sense of wonder and fun, plus ten beers and a pack of smokes would keep us going in our offices until long past midnight, surrounded by tinny speakers, glowing big-ass monitor and other crazies doing exactly the same thing.

Beat that, newbs

Apr 012013
 

Every now and then I get an idea and just run with it.  This is an adaptation of an essay I put together which briefly explored several themes I thought intriguing. And what the hell…I like the arts as well as rum, so why not?

***

As Mulder and Scully, “The Third Man”, “Babylon 5,” “Lucas,” and so many others have showed us so many times, unrequited love is probably the most heart-rending of them all. Done badly, features or shows which do not honour the underlying depth of such feelings are sentimental tripe. Done well, and one watches something luminous unfold.

If I had to chose a movie that stayed with me for long past the day I saw it first, then it would have to be the South Korean piece “3-Iron”. I’m not entirely sure why they called it that, since the club in question is not the central motif, except perhaps in an obscure sense. Critic James Berardinelli suggests that the main male character’s undervalued and overlooked persona make the analogy to golf’s possibly least-used club somewhat inevitable, but I think that may be overanalyzing.

In essence, this gentle film shows what pacing, mood and atmosphere can do to elevate the humdrum into something more special, perhaps even artistic. The journey and travails of the young man and the battered wife have a sense of timelessness about them – it is no stretch to imagine this as a silent movie. To western eyes it is also a very strange story, since the way the youth goes into houses and stays there (in spite of the things he does while in residence) strike a sense of discord in a society more used to people vandalizing and tearing up a home they enter without permission.

Be that as it may, at the very end, the woman, seemingly reconciled with her husband, says “I love you,’ and the way it is said, how it said, make the emotion of that perfect moment nothing short of magical.

And to me, I immediately saw that scene mirrored in another film abut outsiders: “Dirty Pretty Things”, which is not so much about a young Turkish immigrant and a West African one in the streets of London, trying not to get deeper into the quagmire of an organ theft operation, as about survival at the bottom rung, in a hostile, skewed world, where viciousness and cruelty are the order of the day. There again, in a scene of uncommon sadness and power, the two main characters say goodbye at the airport, moments away from parting forever, and then, almost unheard, she admits her feelings before turning away.

Which brings me to the third, and to my mind, one of the strongest animated films ever made (number four in line behind “Princess Mononoke”, “The Incredibles” and “Grave of the Fireflies”), “The Iron Giant,” where Hogarth Hughes delights in the strange mechanical object he befriends in the woods of Maine, at the height of the Communist scare in 1957. While the film makes a strong case for not jumping to conclusions about others and holding back an instinctive urge to destroy what we do not understand, the core of it all is the relationship between the kid and his robot (whose origins are never really spelled out, though the DVD gives some hints of the civilization from which he came). And as in the other two films noted here, at the end, when the giant leaves (for reasons I will leave you to discover), there is a swell of emotion, of sadness, of poignancy, and when Hogarth says “I love you,” there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

I agree that “E.T”. was wonderful, that moment in “The Empire Strikes Back” was great, and that there have been dramas out there which have pulled the heartstrings and misted the eye. It’s something about the backdrop, the fullness of the characters and the story, which make these three films stand out. Forget seeing the latest blockbuster. For three unsung, quiet and overlooked films about the nature of unrequited love, look no further than these

Mar 132013
 

This introduction was first posted on the Liquorature site in January 2010, the ported to the Lone Caner in 2013 and lightly edited for updates in 2022. But it remains a product of the time I wrote it, so if it feels and reads dated, that’s because it is.

Ahh, rum.  The wonderful distilled product of cane.  I feel the same way about it as the poor deluded souls from the Peat Clan feel about their Islays.  Partly, of course, that comes from my background – almost half my life was spent in the Caribbean – and while my first recorded drunk was done with local vodka (don’t ask), it is to the rums that my primary allegiance was given, and where it remains.

Most well-known and well-regarded rums come from the Caribbean, but there are others from as far afield as Canada, East Asia, India, Japan, UK, USA, Australia, Fiji, Brazil, Indonesia and Mauritius, among many many others.  The precursors to rum date back to antiquity. Development of fermented drinks produced from sugarcane juice is believed to have first occurred either in ancient India or China, and spread from there. An example of such an early drink is brum. Produced by the Malay people, brum dates back thousands of years. Marco Polo also recorded a 14th-century account of a “very good wine of sugar” that was offered to him in what is modern-day Iran.

Whatever the case for the ancients, the first distillation of rum took place on the sugar plantations of the Brazil and the West Indies in the 16th and 17th centuries. Lore has it that plantation slaves first discovered that molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process, can be fermented into alcohol. Later, distillation of these alcoholic by-products concentrated the alcohol and removed impurities, producing the first true rums. Tradition suggests that West Indian rum first originated on the island of Barbados; and although my experience is that the Bajans like to take credit for doing everything first (these are, after all, the modest folk who sent a telgram to King George saying “Your Majesty, you may join the war: Barbados is on your side,” at the onset of WW2), it’s likely that in this case their claim is probably true. A 1651 document from Barbados stated, “The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor”. Sounds like many a rum I’ve had when not having a pot to piss in in my youth.

Rum has gone through many evolutions since then. The refinement of pot stills from simple alembics, fermentation processes, invention of the coffey still, the rise of sugar plantations, development of agricoles, the rise of Bacardi and the light rum styles that dominated the 20th century, the move away from commodity bulk rum to premiumization that gathered apace in the 21st…all these are aspects that have moved rums to a greater role in the spirits world.  This site has, over many years, chartered some of that in the various articles, opinions and reviews that populate it.


Back in 2009 when I started writing, the only non-West Indian rum I have sampled is the Bundaberg from Australia: being in Calgary, even with a stellar shops like Willow Park around the corner and KWM downtown, did little to improve the level of selection, since the demographics of Western Canada clearly favour the single malts (much to the Last Hippie’s satisfaction). It always frustrates me to see the shelves groaning under the weight of the multitudinous peats, and closed, securely fastened glass cabinets with the >$500 whiskeys reposing snugly within, while, in some raggedy-ass, dusty, out-of-the-way corner, the rums languish, sadly unrepresented by any truly wide-ranging (or premium) choice – and this, as late as 2022, has not changed much.

It was for this reason that I pounced on the English Harbour 25 back then, because, as I explained to Keenan, it’s so rare to see any rum of real aged quality in Calgary that one must risk the wife’s wrath when one does see an above-average sample come on sale. (In passing I’ll note that my wife accepted that expensive purchase with no more than a raised eyebrow and a sigh, though I believe she laughed herself silly to listen to the Bear and I sip it with such delicate lip-smacking, fastiduous sniffing, and ecstatic cluckings and gurglings and murmurs of delight, all the while dabbing tears from the corners of our eyes.)

The selections I see in the various stores I now frequent (in 2010), have been limited to the staples of single-digit Bacardi, Appleton, Captain Morgan, Mount Gay, Flor de Cana, Havana Club and Lambs with a few others thrown in from time to time.  Occasionally I see the English Harbour, Pyrat’s or Screech, but it’s the big guns, the older vintages, that are so sadly lacking here (as well as the experts who can discourse for hours on the nose, mouthfeel and finish, and identify every fruit within by its first name). I won’t go so far as to say we never see the good stuff here in the sticks: we just never see the good stuff all the time.  One can always find a Glenfiddich 21 year old or a Johnny Walker Blue Label in a glass case somewhere, but good luck finding Appleton 30 year old, the DDL 21, the English Harbour 25 or that mythical XM 50 (which, for the life of me I cannot recall where I heard about, but for some reason I’m absolutely certain exists in spite of two decades fruitless search for either a bottle or a mention on Google).

Be that as it may, Liquorature – and its successor, the Lone Caner site –  has made the whole business of acquiring and tasting rum a lot more systematic than was previously the case. Being the only banana-man in the joint helps in that I really do like rums more than that obscure Scottish drink…maybe it’s the sweetness, or maybe it’s just the obstinate desire to be different. Whatever the case, it’s a diverting and harmless pastime, allows me to score points of the Last Hippie (or him off me), brings enjoyment and fun to the party, and permits me to indulge my writing.  The fact that I also taste some of the best rums in the world while attacking some poor sod’s choice of book (and then get to pen an essay on the subject) is merely a bonus.

Hope you like the reviews. I enjoyed writing them as much as I did researching them.


 

Mar 132013
 

(First posted on Liquorature, February 2010)

Are we all a bunch of elitist wannabe snobs?

I occasionally think we are. We can be as snooty as a veteran somelier at the Ritz watching a Hawaiian-shirted redneck walk in, and I say that because it ocurred to me the other day that while we — I!! — pay lip service to the “lesser rums” whose age is measured in single digits (or none at all, as if the maker were too ashamed to say how young the product is), the truth is that we all have a predilection for the older stuff.  I confess that sometimes merely the price will get me to take a second look. Just look at the reviews that are up: 12 year, 18 year, 21 year, 25 year. Of the eleven rum reviews that are up right now, only three are of rums less than ten years old, and the Bruichladdich is a marginal call, since it is a limited edition of a very good rum indeed (and its price reflected that).

And yet, that’s unfair.  The masses of the unwashed riff-raff and the hordes of the illiterate peasantry such as I, for many years drank nothing but the low-end stuff (and if you doubt me, just look at my nostalgic review of the XM5). We probably know the older stuff is so good precisely because we drank so much backwoods moonshine and low-class hooch in our disreputable and best-forgotten pasts, and therefore appreciate the good rums more by way of simple comparison.

But I don’t mind admitting this: in my pantry reposes, unashamed, a bottle — actually, a massive friggin’ jug — of the regular Appleton 5 year old (at least, I assume it’s a five…I’m not precisely sure) and when I drink on my own or with The Bear, I don’t bring out the velvet smoking jacket, light the candles and call for my hound while the faithful wife lights the fire and brings the slippers; neither do I trot out the expensive vintage, the cigars, mineral water and fancy glasses to taste the good stuff. I just sit my tail down in a pair of mouldy shorts that have seen better days, have a bowl of ice nearby (a bowl’ice in the vernacular) to take a handful from now and then, scratch my behind,  and have a damned drink.  If the Bear is boozing along, then we simply have a drink together, and not having the pressure to review something top of the line frees us up to actually talk.

My point being that these rums of unstellar vintage and uncertain provenance, are often the ones we turn to when we’re not being overly snooty and revert back to our more proletarian roots, or when we have forty people descending on our houses to imbibe (and we lock up the silverware next to the rarer vintages to prevent pilferage).  And more, on occasion these unprepossessing rums surprise, delight and wow us with their quality – the English Harbour 5-year immediately springs to mind.

I think I’ll therefore make it a point to go lowball and make a concerted effort to write reviews of the rums that crowd the shelves of Sobey’s and the backgrounds of us cheapos — and indeed, may even be better known than the high-falutin’ exclusive multi-decade and multi-dollar ambrosias which fill so many of the rum pages on the web. This has nothing to do with economics – this post is being written, after all, by a moron who blew two hundred bucks on a single bottle of rum once – but because I truly believe that not only is it interesting to see how the various blends and ages get more rarefied up the scale, but we develop a better palate for the good stuff when we drink more crap.

Being who I am, I must also confess that it’s a hell of a lot more fun to write about something bad than it is to be effusive about something good. To write about a superlative piece of craft requires no particular talent – everyone knows it’s good and you can’t add much to that.  But to vent one’s spleen on a liquid turd that you swear you’ll never touch again, and explain it in flowery prose…well now, that takes skill.