Apr 092019
 

The stats and the label speak to a rum that can almost be seen as extraordinary, which usually fills me with dread as a reviewer: for, how could any rum live up to that? I meanfrom Jamaica in the 1980s, 33 years old, a cousin to another really good rum from there, bottled by an old and proud indie housethat’s pretty impressive, right? Yet somehow, against my fears, Berry Bros. & Rudd have indeed released something special. The initial tasting notes could come from any one of a dozen rums, but as it develops and moves along, it gains force, and we see a great original product coming into focus, something we have perhaps tried beforejust not often done this well.

BBR, you will recall, issued the 1977 36 Year Old Jamaica rum which was one of my more expensive purchases many moons back, and it was a great dram. Fast forward a few more years and when this 1982 33 year old “Exceptional Casks” old rumalso from an unnamed distillerycame on the market, I hesitated, hauled out my cringing wallet and then took the plunge. Because I believe that the days of easily and affordably sourcing rums more than twenty years old (let alone more than thirty) are pretty much over, and therefore if one wants to own and try rums that are almost hoary with age, one has to snap ‘em up when one can….as long as the purse holds out.

So, what do we have here? A dark amber rum, 57% ABV, one of 225 issued bottles, in a handsome enclosure that tells you much less than you might wish. Pouring it into a glass, it billows out and presents aromas of dark fruits, well polished leather, pencil shavings, prunes, pineapples, and a whiff of fresh, damp sawdust. This is followed by a delectable melange of honey, nougat, chocolate, molasses, dates, figs and light red olives, and as if that wasn’t enough, it burped, and coughed up some very ripe apples, raisins and the musky tartness of sour cream….an hour later. Really complex and very very aromatic.

The real party starts upon tasting it. It’s smoothly and darkly hot, begins quite sharply, revving its engine like a boss, then apologizes and backs off from that dry and heated beginning (so sip with care at the inception). You can taste leather, aromatic pipe tobacco (like a port-infused cigarillo), combined with softer hints of brine, olives, and dark unripe fruits. Not so much funk or rancid hogo here, quite tamed in fact, which makes it a phenomenal sipping drink, but in that very subdued nature of it, it somehow feels slightly less than those feral Jamaicans we’ve started to become used to. It’s got really good depth, lots of flavour and to mix a rum this old and this good is probably an excommunicable sin someplace.

Lastly, the finish does not let down, though it is somewhat subdued compared to everything it showed off beforeit was initially hot and then calmed down and faded away, leaving behind the memory of pineapples, ripe cherries, brine, sweet olives, raisins, with a last touch of molasses and caramel lurking in the background like a lower case exclamation point.

To my mind, it is very likely from the same stock as the other 1977s that exist (the other BBR and for sure Juuls’s Ping 1977) because much of the profile is the same (and I know that because I went downstairs and fetched them out of mothballs just to cross-check). Facts say the Ping is from Long Pond and scuttlebutt says the BBR is as well, which may be true since the hard-edged profiles of the high-ester Hampden and Worthy Park rums don’t quite fit what I was sampling (however, the question remains open, and BBR aren’t saying anything, so take my opinion here with a grain of salt).

Both rums were aged in Europe and while I know and respect that there’s a gathering movement about favouring tropical ageing over continental, I can only remark that when a rum aged in Europe comes out the other end 33 years later tasting this good, how can one say the process is somehow less? It stands right next to its own older sibling, bursting with full flavours, backing off not one inch, leaving everything it’s got on the table. What a lovely rum.

(#615)(88/100)

Oct 182018
 

As noted in the Mount Gay XO revisit, that company ceded much of the intellectual and forward-looking territory of the Bajan rum landscape to Foursquarein the last ten years, correctly sensing the shifting trends and tides of the rumworld, Richard Seale bet the company’s future on aspects of rum making that had heretofore been seen as artistic, even bohemian touches best left for the snooty elite crowd of the Maltsters with their soft tweed caps, pipes, hounds, and benevolent fireside sips of some obscure Scottish tipple. He went for a more limited and experimental approach, assisted in his thinking by collaboration with one of the Names of Rum. This has paid off handsomely, and Foursquare is now the behemoth of Barbados, punching way above its weight in terms of influence, leaving brands such as Cockspur, St. Nicholas Abbey and Mount Gay as big sellers, true, but not as true innovators with real street cred (WIRD is somewhat different, for other reasons).

Now, I make no apologies for my indifference to Foursquare’s current line of Doorly’s rumthat’s a personal preference of mine and a revisit to the 10 and 12 year olds in 2017 and again in 2018 (twice!) didn’t change it one iota, though the 14 YO issued at somewhat higher strength in 2018 looks really interesting. I remain of the opinion that they’re rums from yesteryear that rank higher in memory than actuality; which won’t disqualify them from maybe being key rums in their own right, mind you….just not yet. But as I tried more and more Bajans in an effort to come to grips with the peculiarity of the island’s softer, more easygoing rum, so different from the fierce pungency of Jamaica, the woodsy warmth of Guyana, the clear quality of St Lucia, the lighter Cuban-style rums or the herbal grassiness of any French West Indian agricole, it seemed that there was another key rum of the world lurking in Little England, and I’d simply been looking with too narrow a focus at single candidates.

I don’t believe it’s too soon after their introduction to make such a claim, and argue that leaving aside Habitation Velier collaborations like the Triptych, Principia or the 2006 ten year old, the real new Key Rums from the island are the Exceptional Cask Series made by Foursquare. They are quietly high-quality, issued in quantity, still widely availableevery week I see four or five posts on FB that someone has picked up the Criterion or the Zinfadel or the Port Caskreasonably affordable (Richard Seale has made a point of keeping costs down to the level consumers can actually afford) and best of all, they are consistently really good.

Richard Sealefor to speak of him is to speak of Foursquarehas made a virtue out of what, in the previous decade of light-rum preferences, could have been a fatal regulatory blockthe inability of Bajan rum makers to adulterate their rums (the Jamaicans operate under similar restrictions). This meant that while other places could sneak some caramel or sugar or vanilla or glycerol into their rums (all in the name of smoothening out batch variation and enhancing quality, when it wasn’t “our centuries old secret family recipe” or a “traditional method”), and deny for decades that this was happening, Barbados was forced to issue purer, drier rums that did not always appeal to sweet-toothed, smooth-rum-loving general public, especially in North America. It was at the stage where importers were actually demanding that island rum producers make smooth, sweet and light rums if they wanted to export any.

What Foursquare did was to use all the rum-making options available to themexperimenting with the pot still and column still blends, barrel strategy, multiple maturations, various finishes, in situ ageingand market the hell out of the result. None of this would have mattered one whit except for the intersection of several major new forces in the rumiverse: the drive and desire for pure rums (i.e., unadulterated by additives); social media forcing disclosure of such additives and educating consumers into the benefits of having none; the rise and visibility of independents and their more limited-release approach; and the market slowly shifting to at least considering rums that were issued at full proof, and hell, you can add the emergent trend of tropical ageing to the mix. Foursquare rode that wave and are reaping the benefits therefrom. And let’s not gild the lily eitherthe rums they make in the Exceptional Series are quite goodit’s like they were making plain old Toyotas all the while, then created a low-cost Lexus for the budget-minded cognoscenti.

Now let’s be clearif one considers a really pure rum made as being entirely from one country (or island), from a specific pot or column still, deriving from a single plantation or estate’s own sugar cane, molasses/juice, fermented on site, distilled on site, aged on site, then the Exceptional Series aren’t quite it, being very good blends of pot and column distillate, and made from molasses procured elsewhere. And while sugar and caramel are not added, the influence of wine or port or cognac barrels is not inconsiderable after so many yearswhich of course adds much to the allure. But I’m not a raging, hot-eyed zealot who wants rums to be stuck in some mythical past where only a very narrow definition of spirits qualifies as a rumthat stifles innovation and out of the box thinking and eventually quality such as is demonstrated here inevitably suffers. I’m merely pointing out this matter to comment that the Exceptionals aren’t meant to represent Barbados as a whole (though I imagine Richard wouldn’t mind it if they did) – they’re meant to define Foursquare, to snatch back the glory and the street cred and the sales from other Bajan makers, and from the European re-bottlers and independents who made profits over the decades with such releases, and which many believe should remain in the land of origin.

But all that aside, there’s another aspect to this which must be mentioned: perhaps my focus still remains to narrow when I speak of the ECS and the company and the island. In point of fact, given the incredible popularity and rabid fan appreciation for the seriesoutdone, perhaps, only by the mania for collaborations like the 2006, Triptych and its successorsit is entirely likely that the Exceptional Cask series is a Key Rum because the rums have to some extent had a global impact and strengthened trends which were started by The Age of Velier’s Demeraras, developed by Foursquare and now coming on strong in Jamaicatropical ageing, no additives, cask strength. So forget Barbadosthese rums have had an enormous influence far beyond the island. They are part of the emergent trend to produce rums that are aimed between the newbies and the ur-geek connoisseurs and won’t break the bank of either.

Perhaps this is why they have captured the attention of the global rum crowd so effectivelyfor the Exceptional Series rums to ascend in the estimation of the rum public so quickly and so completely as to eclipse (no pun intended) almost everything else from Barbados, says a lot. And although this is just my opinion, I think they will stand the test of time and take their place as rums that set a new standard for the distillery and the island. For that reason I decided not to take any one individual rum as a candidate for this series, but to include the entire set to date as “one” of the Key Rums of the World.


The Rums Supporting this Article, in 2018

NoteI have not reviewed them all formally (though I have tasting notes for most). All notes here are mine, whether published or unpublished.


Picture (c) Henrik Larsen, from FB

Mark I“1998” 1998-2008 10 Year Old, Bourbon Cask, 40%, 15,000 bottles

This rum remains unacquired and untasted by me. Frankly I think that’s the case for most people, and even though the outturn was immense at 15k bottles worldwide, that was ten years ago, so it’s likely to only be found on the secondary market. That said, I suspect this was a toe in the water for Foursquare, it tested the market and sought to move in a new direction, perhaps copying the independents’ success without damaging the rep or sales of the RL Seale’s 10 YO, Rum 66 or Doorly’s lineup. The wide gap between 2008 and 2014 when the Port Cask came out suggests that some more twiddling with the gears and levers was required before Mark II came out the door, and Richard himself rather sourly grumbled that the importers forced him to make it 40% when in point of fact he wanted to go higherbut lacked the leverage at the time.

Mark II Port Cask Finish” 2005-2014 9YO, 3yr-Bourbon, 6yr-Port, Pot/Column Blend 40%, 30,000 bottles

Six years passed between Mark I and Mark II, and a lot changed in that time. New bloggers, social media explosion, wide acknowledgement of the additives issue. With the Premise, the PCF Mark II remains the largest issue to date at 30,000 bottles worldwide. Not really a finished rum in the classic sense, but more a double aged rum, with the majority of the time spent in Port Casks.

NRubber and acetone notes, fading, then replaced by a smorgasbord of fruitiness: soft citrus of oranges, grapes, raisins, yellow mangoes, plums, vanilla, toffee; also some spices, cinnamon for the most part, and some cardamom.

PSoft and relatively wispy. Prunes, vanilla, black cherries, caramel. Some coconut milk and bananas, sweetened yoghurt.

FShort, smooth, breathy, quiet, unassuming. Some fruits and orange peel with salted caramel and bananas

TStill lacked courage (again, the strength was an importers’ demand), but pointed the way to all the (better) Exceptional Cask Series rums that turned up in the subsequent years.

Mark III“2004” 2004-2015 11 YO, Bourbon Cask, Pot/Column Blend, 59%, 24,000 bottles

In 2015 two rums were issued at the same time, both 11 years old. This was the stronger one and its quality showed in no uncertain terms that Foursquare was changing the game for Barbados.

And the Velier connection was surely a part of the underlying production philosophywe had been hearing for a year prior to the formal release that Richard Seale and Luca Gargano were turning up at exhibitions and fests to promote their new collaboration. Various favoured and fortunate tasters posted glowing comments on social media about the 2004 which showed that one didn’t need a massive and expensive marketing campaign to create buzz and hype

NClean and forceful, love that strength; wine, grapes, red grapefruit, fresh bread, laban, and bananas, coconut shavings, vanilla, cumin and cardamom. Retasting it confirmed my own comment “invite(s) further nosing just to wring the last oodles of scent from the glass.”

PBrine and red olives. Tastes smoothly of vanilla and coconut milk and yoghurt drizzled over with caramel and melted salt butter. Fruits, quite strong and intense – red grapes, red currants, cranberry juice – with further oak and kitchen spices (cumin and coriander).

FClear and crisp finish of oak, vanilla, olives, brine, toffee, and nougat.

Mark IV“Zinfadel” 2004-2015 11 YO Bourbon & Zinfadel casks, Pot/Column Blend 43%, 24,000 bottles

Not one of my favourites, really. Nice, but uncomplicated in spite of the Zinfadel secondary maturation. What makes it a standout is how much it packs into that low strength, which Richard remarked was a deliberate decision, not forced upon him by distributorsand that, if nothing else, showed that the worm was turning and he could call his own shots when it came to saying “I will issue my rum in this way.”

NLight, with delicate wine notes, vanilla and white toblerone. A whiff of rotting bananas and fruits just starting to go. Tart yoghurt and sour cream and a white mocha, with fruits and other notes in the background – green grapes, raisins, dark bread, ginger and something sharp.

POpens with watery fruits (papaya, pears, watermelon, white gavas), then steadies out with cereals, coconut shavings. Also wine, tart red fruits – red currants, cranberries, grapes. Light and easy.

FQuite pleasant, if short and relatively faint. fruits, coconut shavings, vanilla, milk chocolate, salted caramel, french bread (!!) and touch of thyme.

TA marriage of two batches of rums: Batch 1 aged full 11 years in bourbon barrels; Batch 2 five years bourbon barrels then another six in ex-Zinfadel. The relative quantities of each are unknown.

Mark V “Criterion” 2007-2017 10 YO, 3yr-Bourbon, 7yr-Madeira, Pot Column Blend 56%, 4,000 bottles

My feeling is that while the “2004” marked the true beginning of the really good Exceptionals, this is the first great ECS rumall the ones before were merely essays in the craft before the mastery of Mark V kicked in the doors and blew off the roof, and all the others that came after built on the reputation this one garnered for itself. It was, to me, also the most individualistic of the various Marks, the one I have no trouble identifying from a complete lineup of Mark II to Mark VIII

NRed wine, fruits, caramel in sumptuous abandon. Oak is there, fortunately held back; breakfast spices, burnt sugar, nutmeg, cloves. Also apples, grapes, pears, lemon peel, bitter chocolate and truffles.

PFlambeed bananas, creme brulee, coffee, chocolate, it tastes like the best kind of late-night after-dinner bar-closer. Fruit jam, dates, prunes, crushed nuts (almonds) and the soft glide of honey in the background. Delectable

FLong. Deep, dark, salt and sweet together. Prunes and very ripe cherries and caramel and coffee grounds..

Mark VI“2005” 2005-2017 12 YO, ex-bourbon, Pot/Column Blend, 59%, 24,000 bottles

The 2005 was an alternative to the double maturation of the Criterion, being a “simple” single aged rum from bourbon casks, and was also a very good rum in its own way. A solid rum, if lacking something of what made its brother so special (to me, at any rateyour own mileage might vary).

NDeep fruity notes of pears, plums, peaches in syrup (though without the sugar, ha ha). Just thick and juicy. Cream cheese, rye bread, cereals and osme cumin to give it a filip of lighter edge

PVery nice but unspectacular: tart acidic and fleshy fruit tastes, mostly yellow mangoes, unripe peaches, red guavas, grapes raisins and a bit of red grapefruit. Also a delicate touch of thyme and rosemary, with vanilla and some light molasses to wind things up.

FLong and aromatic, fruits again, rosemary, caramel and toffee.

TNot crisp so much as solid and sleek, without bite or edge. It lacks individuality while being a complete rum package for anyone who simply wants a strong, well-assembled and tasty rum

Mark VII“Dominus” 2008-2018 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-cognac, Pot/Column Blend, 56%, 12,000 bottles

NDusty, herbal, leather, with smoke, vanilla, prunes and some ashy hints that were quite unexpected (and not unpleasant). Turns lighter and more flowery after an hour in the glass, a tad sharp, at all times crisp and clear. It’s stern and uncompromising, a sharply cold winter’s day, precise and dry and singular.

PSolid, sweetish and thick, very much into the fruity side of thingsraisins, grapes, apples, fleshy stoned stuff, you know the ones. Also dates and some background brine, nicely done. A little dusty, dry, with aromatic tobacco notes, sour cream, cardboard, cereal and … what was this? … strawberries.

FQuietly dry and a nice mix of musky and clear. Mostly cereals, cardboard, sawdust, together with apples, prunes, peaches and a sly flirt of vanilla, salty caramel and lemon zest.

TQuite distinct and individualistic, one of the ECS that can perhaps be singled out blind.

Mark VIII“Premise” 2008-2018 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Sherry, Pot/Column Blend, 46%, 30,000 bottles

NIf the Dominus was a clear winter’s day, then the Premise is a bright and warm spring morning, redolent of flowers and a basket of freshly picked fruit. Cumin, lime and massala, mixed up with apricot and green apples (somehow this works) plus grapes, olives and a nice brie. A bit salty with a touch of the sour bite of gooseberries, even pimentos (seriously!).

PVery nice, quite warm and spicy, with a clear fruity backbone upon which are hung a smorgasbord of cooking spices like rosemary, dill and cumin. Faintly lemony and wine notes, merging well into vanilla, caramel and white nutty chocolate.

FDelicately dry, with closing notes of caramel, vanilla, apricots and spices.

TToo good to be labelled as mundane, yet there’s an aspect of “we’ve done this before” too. Not a rum you could pick out of a Foursquare lineup easily.

Summary

These tasting notes are just illustrative and for the purposes of this essay are not meant to express a clear preference of mine for one over any other (though I believe that some drop off is observable in the last couple of years). It is in aggregate that they shine, and the way they represent a higher quality than normal, issued over a period of many years. You hear lots of people praising the Real McCoy and Doorly’s lines of rums as the best of Barbados, but those are standard blends that remain the same for long periods. The Exceptionals are a different keg of wash entirelyeach one is of large-but-limited release quantity, each is different, each shows Foursquare trying to go in yet another direction. Crowdsourced opinions rarely carry much weight with me, but when the greater drinking public and the social-media opinion-geeks and the reviewing community all have nothing but good to say about any rum, then you know you really have something that deserves closer scrutiny. And maybe it’s worth running over to the local store to buy one or more, just to see what the fuss is all about, or to confirm your own opinion of this series of Key Rums. Because they really are that interesting, that good, and that important.


Other Notes

  • I am indebted to Jonathan Jacoby’s informative graphic of the Fousquare releases and their quantities which he posted up on Facebook when the question of how many bottles were issued to the market came up in September of 2018. It is the basis of the numbers quoted above. Big hat tip to the man for adding to the store of our knowledge here.
  • In December 2020, the NW Rum Club did an 8-minute video summary of the high points of the 14-bottle range to that point (Detente). No tasting notes, just a quick series of highlights for the curious. Worth watching.
  • Big thank you and deep appreciation also go out to Gregers, Henrik and Nicolai from Denmark, who, on 24 hours notice, managed to get me samples of the last three rums so I could flesh out the tasting notes section of this essay on the Marks VI, VII and VIII. You guys are the best.

The Complete ECS List, Updated

(Excludes Velier Collaborations, Habitation Velier and Private Cask Bottlings)

  • Mark I“1998” 1998-2008 10 YO, Bourbon Cask, 40%, 15,000 bottles
  • Mark II Port Cask Finish” 2005-2014 9YO, 3yr-Bourbon, 6yr-Port, 40%, 30,000 bottles
  • Mark III“2004” 2004-2015 11 YO, Bourbon Cask, 59%, 24,000 bottles
  • Mark IV“Zinfadel” 2004-2015 11 YO Bourbon & Zinfadel casks, 43%, 24,000 bottles
  • Mark V“Criterion” 2007-2017 10 YO, 3yr-Bourbon, 7yr-Madeira, 56%, 4,000 bottles
  • Mark VI“2005” 2005-2017 12 YO, ex-bourbon, 59%, 24,000 bottles
  • Mark VII“Dominus” 2008-2018 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-cognac, 56%, 12,000 bottles
  • Mark VIII“Premise” 2008-2018 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Sherry, 46%, 30,000 bottles
  • Mark IXEmpery 2004-2018 14 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Sherry, 56%, 12,000 bottles
  • Mark X “2007” 2007-2019 12 YO, ex-bourbon, 59%, 27,000 bottles
  • Mark XISagacity 2007-2019 12 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Madeira, 48%, 24,000 bottles
  • Mark XIINobiliary 2005-2019 14 YO, ex-bourbon, 62%, 12,000 bottles
  • Mark XIII“2008” 2008-2020 12 YO, ex-bourbon, 60%, 27,000 bottles
  • Mark XIVDétente 2010-2020 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Port, 51%, 21,000 bottles
  • Mark XVRedoubtable 2006-2020 14 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Madeira, 61%, 12,000 bottles
  • Mark XVIShibboleth 2005-2021 16 YO, ex-bourbon, 56%, 9,600 bottles
  • Mark XVII“2009” 2009-2021 12 YO, ex-bourbon, 60%, 30,000 bottles

 

Oct 072018
 

It’s odd that the fourth Exceptional Cask Series rum issued by Foursquare out of Barbados was issued at such a low proof. The “1998” and “Port Cask” Marks I and II were both released at 40%, but the very good “2004” Mark III went higher, much higher (59%) and carved itself a solid niche all its ownin contrast to the emerging ABV-creep, the Zinfadel dialled itself down to a relatively mild 43%. Perhaps, since both came out in 2015 it was felt to be a smart move to have one rated G just to offset the R-rated predator that was the “2004”, or to appease the importers who made Foursquare issue the first two Marks at 40%. Which would make sense, though for my money it remains an incrementally lesser offering from the House of Seale’s ECS, (an opinion I hold largely because of the great stuff that emerged after this one).

The Zinfadel 11 Year Old is a blend of batches of rums: one was aged for five years in bourbon casks and then another six in zinfadel barrels, and then married with another batch that had spent the full eleven years in bourbon casks. Unusual for the time (2015), Richard Seale went around in person to the various international rumfests, masterclasses and private tastings, and started his engagement on social media (he does this more than any other primary producer I’m aware of), trumpeting the fact that nothing was added, the rums weren’t filtered and the casks were dry, dry, dammitnot wet or with residual wine sloshing around (an old trick to flavour rum more definitively).

Well, Zinfadel is a sweet wine, and its influence was sure to be noticeable, whether the barrels are wet or dry or dampthe real question was whether that influence created a profile that worked, or was too dominated by one or other component of the assembly. Nosing it for the first time suggested it was a bit of both though leaning more to the formerit was lighter than the Real McCoy 12 Year Old I was trying alongside it (that one was 46%, versus 43% for the Zin which may have accounted for that), with delicate wine notes, vanilla and white toblerone gradually overtaken by some rotting bananas and fruits just starting to go. I liked its attendant creamy aroma, of yoghurt and sour cream and a white mocha, which grew tarter and fruitier over timegreen grapes, raisins, dark bread, plus some spices, mostly ginger, cloves and cardamom

Tasting revealed somewhat less clothing in the suitcase, though it was quite a decent rum to sip (mixing it is totally unnecessary) – it was a little sharp before settling down into a relative smooth experience, and tasted primarily of white and watery fruits (pears, watermelon, white gavas), cereals, coconut shavings, sweet wine, and had a sly hint of tart red fruiness that was almost, but not quite sour, behind it allred currants, cranberries, grapes. It was quite light and easy and escaped being an alcohol-flavoured water in fine stylenot bad for something at close to standard strength, and the touch of sweet fruitiness imparted by the Zin barrels was in no way overdone. Even the finish was quite pleasant, being warm, relatively soft, and closing off the show with some tart fruitiness, coconut shavings, vanilla, milk chocolate, salted caramel, french bread (!!) and touch of thyme.

Overall, quite an impressive dram for something so relatively staid in its strength. The nose is really the best part of it, though it does promise quite a bit more than the taste eventually delivers. With the light tastiness of the three partsaroma, palate and finishit’s easy to see why it remains a fan favourite. And while it’s not one of my favourites of the Exceptional Cask Series (so far the Criterion holds that honour for me), it beat out the Real McCoy 12 YO handily, is within spitting distance of the 2004, and is a worthy addition to the canon of the Exceptionals. I’d buy it againand the nice things is, three years after its release, I still can.

(#556)(83/100)

Oct 042018
 

Following on from the 2008-issued, dropped-out-of-sight, no-we-didn’t-see-it Exceptional Cask Series Mark I, Foursquare issued the 9 year old Port Cask Finish ECS Mark II in 2014 (and in a neat piece of humorous irony, it didn’t mention Mark-anything on the label, and wasn’t really a finished rum). And in 2015 the game changed with the solid triumph of the 2004 Mark III.

The wholly-Bourbon-cask-aged Mark I 10 YO “1998” was, in my opinion, a toe in the water, issued at a meek 40% and seemed like a way to test whether a different blending philosophy could be used to move away from the RL Seale’s 10 YO, Rum 66, Doorly’s XO and 12 YO rums without replacing them entirely. The Port Cask Finish released six years later in 2014 wasn’t getting too adventurous with its strength either, but it did show where Foursquare’s thinking was heading: a pot/column blend aged three years in bourbon barrels, six in port barrels. As I recall from the year it came out, it made a modest kind of splash“an interesting new direction for Foursquare” went one supercilious FB commentbut the madness of today’s sell-out-before-they-go-on-sale had to wait a little longer to gain real traction.

By 2015, Foursquare’s strategy clicked into place with the introduction of not one but two new rums, the milquetoast 43% Zinfadel Mark IV for the sweet-toothed and general soft-rum-loving audience, and something more feral for the fanboysthe 2004 11 YO Mark III, a straight-up bourbon-cask-aged rum, also a pot/column blend, unleashed at a muscular 59%.

That strength provided the 2004 with a crisp snap on the nose that was quite a step up from anything from the company I had tried before. It was fruity, precise and forcefully clean in a way that clearly demonstrated that a higher proof was not a disqualifier for greater audience appreciation. It smelled of wine, grapes, red grapefruit and mixed that up with scents of sourdough bread, unsweetened yoghurt and bananas. As if that wasn’t enough, after standing for a while, it exuded aromas of coconut shavings, irish coffee, vanilla, cumin and cardamom that invited further nosing just to wring the last oodles of scent from the glass.

Sometimes a proof point closing in on 60% makes for a sharp and searing experience when tastednot here. With some smooth blending skill, it remained warm-verging-on-hot, going down without bitchiness or spite. It tasted smoothly of vanilla and coconut milk and yoghurt drizzled over with caramel and melted salt butter. It developed a smorgasbord of fruitsred grapes, red currants, cranberry juicewith further oak and kitchen spices like cumin and coriander bringing up the rear. There was even some brine and red olives making themselves quietly known in the background (the brine came forward over time), and while the finish wasn’t all that long, it provided a clear finish of oak, vanilla, olives, brine, toffee, and nougat, and was in no way a let down from what had come before, and I enjoyed this one a lot

The day I tried it, this rum was in some really good Bajan company, lemme tell you, and it held its own in fine styleso yes, that’s an unambiguous endorsement. Overall, the 2004 was a solid, well-constructed rum with a panoply of tastes that could hardly be faulted. It was way ahead of anything Foursquare had made before, instantly pushed the “standard” 4S/Seale/Doorly lines into second-tier status, and to my mind did more than any other single rum to mark Foursquare’s future ascendance and reputation on the Bajan rum scene. It pointed the way to the superlative 2006 10 Year Old, the excellence of the Criterion Mark V, and all the other Exceptional Casks to come, like the 2005, the Dominus and the Premise.

Best of all, continuing a philosophy Foursquare have adhered to ever since for the Exceptionals, it wasn’t priced out of sightand those who saw it for what it was and managed to buy a bottle or a case, had very little to complain about, because the rum was and remains on the short list of Foursquare’s real good ‘uns. Their best rums, whether made alone or with the Habitation, mix controlled passion and cheerful excess, uninterested in any kind of subtle statements, and you know what? — with this one, Richard may even have cracked a smile as he made it.

(555)(85/100)


Other Notes

The week after this review went up in October 2018, I named the entire 8-rum series of the Exceptionals to that point, asoneKey Rum of the World. The tag still fits, with all the subsequent releases merely adding to the rep of the line.

Nov 062017
 

#398

Everyone has a favourite Foursquare rum and the nice thing is, like most large large brands, there’s something for everyone in the lineup, which spans the entire gamut of price and strength and quality. For some it’s the less-proofed rums still issued for the mass market, like Rum 66 or Doorly’s; for others it’s the halo-rums such as the Triptych and 2006 ten year old. However, it my considered opinion that when you come down to the intersection of value for money and reasonable availability, you’re going to walk far to beat the Exceptional Cask series. And when Forbes magazine speaks to your product, you know you’re going places and getting it right, big time.

The Criterion 2007 ten year old (Mark V) released this year is the fifth and latest of these rums, following from the Bourbon Cask 1998-2008 10 YO (Mark I), Bourbon Cask 2004-2015 11 YO (Mark II), Port Cask 2005-2014 9 YO (Mark III), and the Zinfadel Cask 2004-2015 11YO (Mark IV). It’s quite a step up from the Port Cask, without ascending to the heights of the 2006 10 year old or other rums of its kind. For those who don’t already know, the Criterion is a pot-still and column-still blend, and while the ageing regime (three years in ex-bourbon casks and seven years in very old Madeira casks) is fine, it also subtly change the underlying DNA of what a pure Bajan rum is.

Let me explain that by just passing through the tasting notes here: let me assure you,the Criterion is pretty damned goodactually, compared to any of the lesser-proofed Doorly’s, it’s amazing.The sumptuousness of a Louis XIVth boudoir is on full display right from the initial nosing. Even for its strength – 56% – it presented with the rich velvet of caramel, red wine (or a good cognac). Oaky, spicy and burnt sugar notes melded firmly and smoothly with nutmeg, raisins, and citrus peel, cardamon and cloves, and there was a glide of apple cider on the spine that was delectable. The longer I let it breathe, the better it became and after a while chocolates, truffles and faint coffee emerged, and the balance of the entire experience was excellent.

Tasting it, there was certainly no mistaking this for any other rum from Barbados: the disparity with other rums from the island which my friend Marco Freyr remarked on (“I can detect a Rockley still Bajan rum any day of the week”) is absolutely clear, and as I taste more and more Foursquare rums, I understand why Wes and Steve are such fanboys. The rum is a liquid creme brulee wrapped up in salt caramel ice-cream, then further mixed up with almonds, prunes, cherries, marmalade, cider and nutmeg, remarkably soft and well-behaved on the tongue. Coffee and chocolate add to the fun, and I swear there was some ginger and honey floating around the back end there somewhere. It all led to a finish that was long and deeply, darkly salt-sweet, giving last notes of prunes and very ripe cherries with more of that caramel coffee background I enjoyed a lot.

So, in fine, a lovely rum, well made, well matured, nicely put together. No wonder it gets all these plaudits. My feeling is, retire the Doorly’s linethis stuff should absolutely have pride of place.

Here’s the thing, though. Purists make much of ‘clean’ rums that are unmessed with, exemplars of the style of the country, the region and the estate or maker. By that standard this rum and its brothers like the Zinfadel and the Port are problematical because none of these are actually ‘pure’ Bajan rums any longerall this finishing and ageing and second maturation in second or third-fill barrels is watering down and changing what is truly “Barbados” (or perhaps Foursquare). What these rums really are, are a way of getting around the adulteration prohibitions of Bajan law….adding taste and complexity without actually adding anything that would qualify as obvious adulteration (after all, what is ex-bourbon barrel ageing but the same thing with a more “accepted” cask?). So for the pedant, one could argue that the series is more a high end experiment and what comes out the other end is no longer a pure Barbadian hooch but a double or triple matured blended rum based on Bajan/Foursquare stocks….a subtle distinction and so not quite the same thing.

Maybe. I don’t care. My work here is to describe what I taste and offer an opinion on the product as it stands, not its underlying production philosophy: and the bottom line is, I enjoyed the experience and liked it, immenselyit blew the socks off the Doorly’s 12 year old I also tried that day, and makes me want to get all the Exceptional Cask series, like yesterday, and put dibs on all the ones coming out tomorrow. The Criterion is drinkable, sippable, mixable, available, accessible and all round enjoyable, and frankly, I don’t know many rums in the world which can make that statement and still remain affordable. This is one of them, and it’s a gem for everyone to have and enjoy.

(88/100)

Dec 282016
 

A rum that comes together in unexpected but ultimately satisfying ways

#331

Finishing remains a hit or miss proposition for rum makers. Rum Nation’s finished Demeraras are pretty good, El Dorado’s 15 year old expressions in various wine finishes kinda work (in spite of the sugar adulteration), while neither the Legendario’s muscatel reek or the Pyrat’s orange liqueur nonsense ever appealed to me (and never will). So what’s there to say about the port finished 2005 issued by Foursquare as part of their “Exceptional” series?

A few good things, a few not-so-good ones. FourSquare is far too professional, too competent and too long-lived an outfit to make a really bad rum, though of course they do make some rums to which I’m personally indifferent. Here the good stuff lies in the preparation and core stats, the less than good comes from the proof and a bit of what comes out the other end. But all that aside, I believe it’s a waypoint to the future of FourSquare, when taken in conjunction with the Zinfadel finished 11 Year Old (43%), the 2004 Cask Strength (59%), and the 2013 Habitation Velier collaboration (64%).

The stats as knowncolumn and pot still rum, nine years old, distilled at FourSquare in 2005, bottled in June 2014, having spent three years in bourbon casks, and then another six in port casks, some caramel added for colouring, with an outturn of around 12,000 bottles, issued at 40%. One wonders how ⅔ of total ageing time in port barrels can possibly be interpreted as a “finish” of any kind, because for my money it’s a double-aged rum, something akin to the Dos Maderas 5+3 or 5+5 rumsbut all right, maybe it’s merely an issue of terminology and I’m not a total pedant in these matters, so let’s move on.

Starting out, the smell suggested that it was made at right angles to, and amped up from, the more traditional FourSquare rums like Rum 66, the R.L. Seale’s 10 Year old or even the Doorley’s. To my mind it was a lot of things that those weren’t, perhaps due to the unconventional (for FourSquare) ageing and cask regimeneverything here was more distinct, clearer, and a cut or two above those old stalwarts. Initially there were some faint rubber and acetone notes, after which the fruit basket was tossed into the vatblack grapes, citrus zest (orange or tangerines, not lemon), prunes, plums, vanilla, toffee and a dusting of earthy grassiness, cinnamon and maybe nutmeg. Not as forceful as a cask strength monster, no, yet pleasant to experience.

Most drinkers take their spirits at living room strength and won’t find any fault with 40% but for me the decision to bottle such an interesting rum at that ABV suggests a lack of confidence in whether to take the plunge by stepping over the full proof cliff, or continue with tried and true profiles, tweaking just a bit to sniff out the market reaction. The downside to that decision is that some of the awesome promise of the nose was lost. The smorgasbord of the fruit remained, dialled down, delivering prunes, dark ripe cherries, plus bananas, coconut shavings, nuts, brine, and the deep sugar cane aromas from fields that have just been burnt, all in well controlled balance and warming the tongue without assaulting it, leading to a quiet, short finish that lingered without presenting anything new. Sogoodbut still underwhelming.

What is perhaps surprising is that the rum works as well as it does at all – 6 years in port casks would normally be excessive since it’s less a finishing than an entire profile switcherooWhiskyFun, tongue in cheek as always, remarked it might better be called a bourbon start than a port finish. In fine, it all comes together well, and it is a lovely rum, which is why the encomiums roll in from all points of the compass. But since I know FourSquare has more up its sleeves than just its arms, I also know they can do betterand in the years between this rum’s issue and now, they have.

The 2005 is therefore not a rum I have problems recommending (especially for its very affordable price point). I simply posit that it’s a scout to the beachhead, a precursor, an exercise in the craft, not the ultimate expressionand scoring it to the stratosphere as many have done, is giving consumers the impression that it’s the best buy possible….which it isn’t.

Because, like its zinfadel cask finished brother, what this rum really is, is the rum equivalent of John the Baptist, not trying to garner any of the laurels for itself, just waiting and preparing the way for the extraordinary rum that was yet to come.

In August 2016, it did, and that’ll be the subject of my last review for 2016.

(82/100)


Other notes

  • In 2020, I named the entire Exceptional Cask Series asoneof The Key Rums of the World.
  • I let my glass rest overnight, and it developed a milky, cloudy residue after several hours. Maybe it was not filtered? I’d like to know if anyone else had a similar experience with theirs.

Dec 162015
 

BBR 1977 Sepia

BBR have made a rum that has all the fidelity and quality of the rums from times gone by, without compromise….a 60% velociraptor that really does get you and chomp you down.

It’s Christmas, so let’s get another one of the pricier, rarer bottlings out of the way just in case someone sees it and wants one for his grandfather. In all honestly, with just 220 bottles of the Jamaica 1977 in circulation, and at the price point it retails for, one could be forgiven for wondering why I am reviewing a rum that very few people will ever try or buy. And that’s a fair question. Blame it on the fire that The Sage lit under my tail in April 2015 when we founded the Rumaniacsthe opportunity to try (and share) very old, very rare, and yes, rather expensive rums, whose like we shall not see again.

Berry Brothers & Rudd requires no introduction except insofar as to mention that this 36 year old rum is part of their “Exceptional Cask” series which I first heard about last year. Jamaican rums of that age being as rare as hen’s teeth, and having a few quid squirrelled away, I rushed online to buy myself a bottle, prayed it wouldn’t be an expensive misfire, and then waited a year to open the thing. BBR as usual are very tight lipped about the rum and from which plantation it originates, which strikes me as maddeningly and pointlessly obscure. But anyway.

I enjoyed the presentation a lot. A stiff black cardboard box, enclosing the stubby bottle you see in the picture, and a label that takes simplicity to a whole different levelthe only extraneous thing about it is the tasting notes. They should have put in the provenance, and left the notes outbecause fans and connoisseurs won’t need those, and well-heeled Wall Street derivative traders who buy three or four of these, won’t care.

Let’s begin with how it poured. Rich, dark orange, thick and almost oily in the glass. Scents acted like they were in a hurry to reach the open, and billowed out immediately. I had to be a little cautious with 60.3% so I let it open and then sighed happily: strong, pungent and estery notes led out immediately. It was hot to handle initially until it settled down, yet I detected very little real sharpnessit was powerfully firm to nose. As it developed, vanilla, coconut, some light bananas, aromatic tobacco and a whole lot less oak than I was expecting all came out to join the party, without displacing the sharper citrus and fruity notes that had started things rolling.

BBR 1977 Label

And the taste, wellwow! Amazingly deep and pungent. It didn’t start out with a bang or a tantaraa of trumpets, wasn’t over-oaked, and indeed I thought that the nose was all there was. But observeit developed from simple initial starting points: spices, esters, light tannins and some vanilla, some dusty cardboard; and these pleasant but almost standard flavours hung around like those shy gawky boys on the dance floor who want to ask the girls to “tek a wine” but can’tand then, slowly, other richer components evolved. Cumin, hay, tobacco leaves, some tar, caramels, sharper mangos and citrus peel leavened by softer coconut and bananas. It was barely sweet, a little briny and spicy and deep on the tongue, yet it displayed a very rich profile that made it a pleasure to savour and come back to over a very long time. More to the point, these complexities were well balanced and not competing with each other.

And thankfully, the finish carried things away with a flourish too, and the rum didn’t choke at the back end: it was a long, finish, leaving memories of cedar, dust, a heretofore-unnocticed bit of pot-still wax and salt, some more light caramel and cinnamon, and frankly I thought that between the heat and the length, that fade was just short of epic.

I felt that the Jamaica 1977 was extraordinarily well constructedit shed the extraneous frippery and maintained only the vitaland it pulled off an interesting bait-and-switch by seeming to be a lot less than it actually was. It started out by seeming to be one of the simplest, most straightforward rums out therefull out Jamaican, if you willand developed into one of the more complex profiles I’ve had from the stables of the island. I think Berry Bros. & Rudd have made an astonishingly brave and great rum here. Trying to come up with precise rationales, I am unable to make my reasons clear without resorting to meaningless generalizations that you’ve read a hundred times before, so let’s see if I can put it another way.

One thing I really admired about my father (without ever telling him soheaven forbid, an actual compliment between us?) was that trick he had, to shed his cloak of intellectual ability and professional achievement, put on a pair of ratty jeans and sockless flats, and go playing dominos with a cheapass rum and a bowl ‘ice down by the GT ghetto with old squaddies; where he would cuss up and get on and mek plenty plenty noise, his modulated tones giving way to “nuff suck teet” and the objurgatory roughness of loutish street creole. This rum reminded me somewhat of him: tough and uncompromising and not easy to get along with, a paradoxically cultured product that managed to hearken back to brawny working class boys who “get some educatement” without shame or apology; which blended artistry, crudity and power into a cohesive, complex, drinkable whole. When you think about it, that’s actually a rather remarkable feat for anyone or anything to pull off. And if you can follow that line of reasoning, that’s why I thought this rum was a pretty damned good, near-brilliant, piece of work.

(#245. 90/100)


Other notes

No, I don’t think I’ll recommend you drop this much money on a rum, any rum, even this one, unless you really can spare it. Get a taste if you can. If Jamaicans are your thing, you’ll love it.

Bottle #44 of 220

BBR 1977 Colour