Feb 252021
 

Back in 2013 when I wrote about the Scotch Malt Whisky Association’s release R3.4 Barbados 2002 10YO “Makes You Strong Like  Lion”, several people went on FB and passed the word around that it wasn’t a Foursquare rum, which was hardly needed since I noted in the review that it was from WIRD, and the Rockley Still. Four years later the SMWS did however, decide that the famed Barbados company shouldn’t be left out and bottled an aged rum from Foursquare (the first of two), named it R6.1, and gave it one of their usual amusing titles of “Spice At The Races.” One wonders when they’re going to try for a Mount Gay distillate, though I’m not holding my breath.

Now, for years, every rum geek in the observable rumiverse (bar a few of my acquaintances who don’t drink kool aid) has formed up behind the oft-repeated idea that there is no way a continentally aged rum is the equal of one left to sleep in its island or country of origin. I’ve always taken that statement with a pinch of salt, for two reasons: one, its adherents always talk about taste and age, yet it’s actually touted for social and economic reasons, which is a point often lost in the shuffle; and two, I’ve simply had too many aged rums that ripened in both places for me to be so dogmatic in my assertions, and I’ve seen as many failures as successes in both. Ultimately, it’s the taste that counts no matter where it’s bottled.

This pale yellow rum cost around £75 when initially released, was 57.3% and with a 210 bottle outurn, aged for a solid 14 years old (yes, in Europe) , illustrates the problem with making such sweeping “four legs good, two legs bad” generalizations, because it’s a really a fine rum in its own peculiar way, and one I enjoyed a lot.

Consider first the nose, which opens with the firm assertiveness of my primary school teacher wielding her cane. It smells of sawdust, dusty cardboard, glue, has an odd medicinal touch to it, and also a nice smoky-sweet sort of background. Then the fruits begin their march in: orange peel, strawberries, bananas, pineapple, some light cherries and peaches. The citrus line, augmented with other sharper aromas of persimmons and ginnips provide a lovely through-line, and the smokiness and leather lend an intriguing edge.

The taste is admittedly odd at the inception; my first notes speak of a pair of old, well used, polished, leather shoes (with socks still in ‘em). This is not actually a bad thing, since it is balanced off by ginger, mauby and some rich fruit notes – apples, guavas, almost ripe yellow Thai mangoes – and these make it both tart and delicately sweet, gathering force until it becomes almost creamy at the back end, with a sort of caramel, port, molasses and vanilla taste to it. This is one of these cases where the finish lingers and doesn’t do a vanishing act on you: it’s slightly acidic and tart, with vanilla, oak, smoke, unsweetened yoghurt and a touch of delicate florals and fruits. Nice.

So, a couple of points.  Marco Freyr of Barrel-Aged-Mind, who was sampling it with me, and who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the various Bajan rum profiles, wondered if it was even a Foursquare at all (I chose to disagree, and accept the rum as stated).  Also, It’s unclear from the labelling whether it’s a pure pot still distillate, or – more consistent with Foursuare’s own releases – a blend of pot and column.  Rum Auctioneer classed it as a pot-column blend.  The bottle remains silent. The Rum Shop Boy, one of the few who’s reviewed it, noted it as pot still only in one part of his review, and a blend further down (and didn’t care much for it, as a matter of interest). However, he further noted in an earlier Kintra Foursquare review some months before, that Mr. Seale had confirmed some 2002 pot still 4S rum had indeed been sold that year. My own initial take was that it was a blend, as I felt it lacked the sort of distinctiveness a pot still distillate would impart and I didn’t think Mr. Seale shipped his pot still juice over to Europe. However, Simon’s quote from him, and Seale’s subsequent note on FB put he matter to rest – he confirmed it was a pot still spirit.

All that aside, it was a really good rum, one which shows that when they want to, the SMWS can pick rums with the best of them (especially with more familiar and more famous distilleries – their track record with less known and less popular marks is a bit more hit and miss).  If various laws and regulations being pursued stop indies from getting continentally aged juice in the years to come (though this is unlikely given the extent of Scheer’s stocks), I think the Society can still rest comfortably on its laurels after having issued a rum as fine as this one, young as it may be in tropical years.

(#804)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Rum Shop Boy scored the rum 67/100, so about 83 points by my scale and 3½ out of 5 on Wes’s.  Like Marco, he commented on how different it was from the Foursquare rums he knew, and rated it “disappointing”.
  • Angus over at WhiskyFun liked it much more and scored it 87, rolling out the tongue-in-cheek “dangerously quaffable” line, and meaning it.
  • Ben’s Whisky Blog (near bottom of page) rates it a “Buy” with no score
  • Post details regarding source still is updated based on a conversation on FB the same day I put it up.  It could indeed be a pot still rum, but the jury remains out.
Oct 152020
 

The Reddit /r/rum forum gets far too little attention and kudos for what it accomplishes.  It acts as a useful backup for (and provides a deeper well of knowledge than) the fleeting one-sentence commentary on Facebook from which I have gradually withdrawn more and more.  Most of the really intelligent and literary rum discussions take place here, and that’s not even counting the witty short-form text-only reviews of T8ke and Tarquin_Underspoon, LIFO_Accountant and all the others who post here. 

In 2018 one of the moderators suggested to the redditors that perhaps we all, as a collective, get a cask and bottle it as a “Reddit-only” edition, to be sold at a minimal markup. He would look after cask purchase, bottling and labelling and then put it up for sale on FineDrams for us – our involvement would be in the selection of which casks.  Redditors were also asked to put some names in a hat to form a small tasting committee and, full disclosure, I was asked to be one of them – to my disappointment, I had to decline due to my geographical difficulties (I was pissed, let me tell you). Samples from barrels of rum from several countries (Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana) which matched the price criteria were sent around, blind, and eventually the tasting committee picked this one from Foursquare, a nice sharply chubby little 13 year old. Unsurprisingly, I sprung for a bottle (as I have for all subsequent editions — the reddit rum forum seems to have turned into a tiny indie all by itself) which was around €75 or so.

Briefly, it’s a pot-column blend, continentally aged, single cask, 266 bottles, not chill-filtered, no fancy finishing as far as I’m aware, red gold, and a muscular 63% ABV.  I particularly liked the label, which the designers (yet other redditors) put together with a sort of stark simplicity that clearly suggested they thought Velier was far too overdecorated with fripperies of baroque ostentation and should be shown what “minimalism” really meant.  Not sure what was behind the XXX (hush, ye snickerers) but whatever, and the “One” was a neat touch, suggesting other editions to come much like the Danish indie Ekte, and it’s No. 1 and No. 2 and so on.  It’s a cool looking bottle, unlikely to be available any longer given its small outturn — if you can find it, it’s a decent addition to the canon, though it won’t supplant the ECS or 4S-V Collaborations in people’s affections any time soon, fans being who they are.

All right, so let’s dive right in. Nose first. Musty, dark and fruity notes right off the bat, sweet and tart, very intense (no surprise, given that strength). It had a touch of brine, balanced off by vanilla, coconut shavings and a nice creamy mocha, freshly ground coffee beans, plus brie with dark peasant bread.  Perhaps it was mean to be breakfast alternative, a sort of all-in-one experience: I mean, you were getting a real balanced start-your-morning diet here – fruit, toast, cheese, coffee. The aroma was very deep and intense, but also rather sharp initially, and it took time to calm down and open up the kitchen.

Tastewise, a 50-50 combo of salty elements (brine, olives, a maggi cube) and sweet ones – fruits (bananas, soft yellow mangoes, some overripe citrus), caramel, honey, fudge, plus a strong latte and bitter chocolate. More wood on the taste than had been sensed on the nose, and with the heat and sharpness carrying over, it made for a sip to have with caution, not abandon. This was one rum I would have preferred a little less powerful and indeed, with water it settled down and coughed up some raisins, dates, and pancake syrup notes. The finish was long on fruits, sweet, hot and aromatic, but added little to what had come before – mostly vanilla, chocolate, ripe sharpish bubble gum and pineapple that suggested (but did not speak loudly about) funk.

To be honest, I’m surprised it worked as well as it did. The vanilla was too dominant for me, the citrus peel note kicked in too late, and the flavours seemed somewhat uncoordinated, lacking a coherent through-line – it jumped haphazardly from one note to another in a sort of playfully chaotic jumble that somehow and pleasingly worked. In a way it reminded me of a low-rent ECS bottling (the 2004 or 2005 maybe, it shares some DNA with the former for sure), but at end, it must be judged on its own, for what it is. In that vein, not bad. It adheres to Foursquare’s blending philosophy, while daring to be occasionally different, haring off on a tangent like a not-quite-housebroken puppy let off the leash once or twice, before docilely returning to the profile that makes it recognizably a product of its famed distillery of origin.

(#761)(83/100)


Other notes

  • For the avoidance of all doubt, I am not advocating having this rum for breakfast for any who might inadvertently misinterpret my remarks above. Dinner for sure, though.
  • I would link to T8ke and Tarquin’s and others’ reddit profiles, but they post other stuff on other fora so that it’s not really feasible.  But trust me.  What they write is worth it.
  • After this went up, T8ke commented that the XXX was not meant to be salacious or speak to any kind of multiple distillation: “The ‘XXX’ was another exercise in stark simplicity. General zeitgeist and cartoons are loaded with ‘moonshine: XXX’ bottles to convey that “hey, this has alcohol in it”. Same idea with XXX bottlings. This is rum. It’s alcoholic. Here’s everything you need to know and nothing you don’t. Drink up.”
May 242020
 

No one these days needs any introduction to the Real McCoy series of rums, which Bailey Pryor released in 2013 in conjunction with Foursquare Distillery (another name requiring no elaboration). He was inspired, so the founder’s myth goes, to try his hand at rum after making a documentary on the Prohibition rum runner of yore for whom the phrase “The Real McCoy” is named, since said gent gave pure value for money and didn’t try to gyp his customers.  You could almost say that this is the first instance of a Barbados rum being given a name that supposedly touts its attributes, which is now ascending to the heights of polysyllabically pretentious ridiculousness…but never mind. 

Although Mr. Pryor initially released a 3YO and a 5YO and a 12 YO McCoy rum, somehow the gap-filler of an 8 or 10 year old was not addressed until relatively recently when the 10 year old started to go on sale in the USA (around 2017), issued as a limited edition of 3000 bottles. It was a blend of pot and column still Foursquare distillates aged for between 10-12 years in charred ex-bourbon and virgin oak (the proportions of pot:column and 10:12 years remain unknown, though it’s noted that a rather larger pot still component is present) and bottled at 46%.

You’d think that with that kind of mix-and-match combination of several elements – char, age, oak casks, stills – you’re in for a flavour rollercoaster, but you’re not, not really.  The nose was simply….less (and that’s not because of the 46%, as I was trying it with a set of equal-or-lesser-proofed rums). Basically, there was too much bitter woody smells in the mix, which elbowed out – or at least dominated – the softer aromas for which Barbados is better known. So while I could sense some vanilla, fleshy fruits (ripe mangoes, cherries, papaya), bananas, honey and some light cumin, the real problem was how little of that managed to crawl out from the rock of the woody foreground.

On the palate, the slightly higher strength worked, up to a point.  It’s a lot better than 40%, and allowed a certain heft and firmness to brush across the tongue.  This then enhanced a melded mishmash of fruits – watermelon, bananas, papaya – plus cocoa butter, coconut shavings in a Bounty chocolate bar, honey and a pinch of salt and vanilla, all of which got shouldered aside by the tannic woodiness. I suspect the virgin oak is responsible for that surfeit, and it made the rum sharper and crisper than those McCoy and Foursquare rums we’re used to, not entirely to the rum’s advantage. The finish summed of most of this – it was dry, rather rough, sharp, and pretty much gave caramel, vanilla, light fruits, and some last tannins which were by now starting to fade.  (Subsequent sips and a re-checks over the next few days don’t appreciably change these notes).

Well, frankly, this is not a rum that turns my crank.  While respecting the proficiency and heritage of their long history of rum production, I’ve not cared overmuch for Barbados rums as a whole – too many are just “okay,” lacking unique individuality in too many instances, and it takes a rum like the Plenipotenziario or the 2006 10 Year Old or the Criterion or the Mount Gay Cask Strength to excite my interest…which isn’t much given how many rums are made on the island. 

There’s also the odd fixation with blends that remains puzzling to me since it would seem that in today’s climate of rum appreciation, more aged 100% pot still rums from Fousquare or Mount Gay or WIRD would lend lustre to the island and enhance its variety and terroire to a greater extent than a series of recurring and juggled-tweaked blends would — because right now it’s just the skill and rep of the master blenders that keeps bored yawns of “I’ve had this before” at bay (this is a cruel but true observation about human nature). Fortunately, there are indicators that this is changing – Mount Gay has pot still rum on its current lineup, Foursquare and WIRD both have some on the to-do list, and the Habitation Velier Foursquare pot still rum showed off the potential, so this sub-category is not being ignored completely. 

But for now, this rum doesn’t really work for me. It’s a lesser son of greater sires, a minor Foursquare rum in all ways that matter – nose, taste, finish, the works. It’s one of the few instances where, for all its greater-than-usual pot still makeup and ten years of ageing, I have to ask in some puzzlement What were they thinking? And if I were to give it one of those facile latin names that seem to be gaining traction these days, I’d call it Tantum Odiosis, because that’s really all it is. Now that’s a veritas for you.

(#729)(79/100)

Oct 222019
 

This is a rum that has become a grail for many: it just does not seem to be easily available, the price keeps going up (it’s listed around €300 in some online shops and I’ve seen it auctioned for twice that amount), and of course (drum roll, please) it’s released by Richard Seale.  Put this all together and you can see why it is pursued with such slack-jawed drooling relentlessness by all those who worship at the shrine of Foursquare and know all the releases by their date of birth and first names.

But what is it? Well, to go by the label, it’s the result of a selection of some of the 1985 rum barrels belonging to the Alleyne Arthur reserves; and for the curious, Alleyne, Arthur & Hunte were also once merchant bottlers in Barbados (they made the original Old Brigand and the Special Barbados Rum); they acquired Doorly’s in the 1970s and were themselves taken over by Foursquare in 1993. Now, in 1995 the source rum – a pot and column still blend – which had been aged for ten years by that point, was vatted, and three barrels were left over from that exercise.  These three barrels were aged for a further six years (Richard said that “they sat for a bit – [three barrels were] small enough to forget about”) and finally decanted in 2001, into about 400 bottles – at the time the idea was to create a premium release, but they just stood there gathering dust “for no more reason than we never came up with the premium packaging.” Finally, after seeing Velier’s releases, Richard realized that premium labelling and dressing up was not really required, that simplicity was its own cachet, and the audience preferred a simple bottle and clear explanation…and in 2015, the 16 year old rum hit the market at last.

Strictly speaking, this is a rum that could easily be mistaken for an earlier Exceptional Casks release (say, the 1998, or the 2004). The nose, warm and firm, is well tamed and really well rounded.  It smells of molasses, nuts and ripe orange peel. There are also flambeed bananas, Irish coffee, apricots, some smoke and a trace of wet wood coiling around in the background, but at 43% it is well tamed and quite easy, a real sipping drink with no qualifications.  

The nose is fine, but this is one of those occasions when the palate does more.  It’s as dry and silky rough as a cat’s raspy tongue, not sweet, just firm, with just enough edge to make you think of a tux-sporting East-end hood. The acidic and tart notes are held way back with softer and muskier tastes up front: oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies, biscuits, cereal, and crushed walnuts.  Again the sweet is kept under control, and spices like cumin and massala are hinted at, together with candied oranges, rosemary and a trace of fennel. The finish is also quite good, surprisingly durable for a rum bottled at such a tame strength, and again I am reminded of the Mark 1 or Mark II as a comparator.

So definitely a rum to try if you can get a hold of it. It opens a window on to the profile of rums made in Barbados in the 1980s before the rum renaissance, by a company no longer in existence and continued by their successors and inheritors.  When we discussed it, Richard remarked that he could never quite recreate it, because he didn’t know what was in the blend – it was leftovers from the vatting, the “recipe” never written down, created by a now-retired blender. And while he undoubtedly regrets that, his eyes are set on the horizon, to all the new rums he is working on creating now and in the future, and all those who love Barbados rums will undoubtedly follow him there. But for those lucky enough to get a bottle, a sample, or a sip of the 1985, I’m sure a fond memory will be spared for this one-of-a kind bottling too. However recent, it is still a part of history trapped in a bottle, and should perhaps be tried for that reason alone, quite aside from its tasty, languid and easygoing charms.

(#668)(84/100)

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 Foursquare — in 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 rum – that’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 available – every week I see four or five posts on FB that someone has picked up the Criterion or the Zinfadel or the Port Cask – reasonably 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 Seale – for to speak of him is to speak of Foursquare – has made a virtue out of what, in the previous decade of light-rum preferences, could have been a fatal regulatory block – the 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 them – experimenting with the pot still and column still blends, barrel strategy, multiple maturations, various finishes, in situ ageing – and 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 either – the rums they make in the Exceptional Series are quite good…it’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 clear – if 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 years…which 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 rum – that 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 series – outdone, perhaps, only by the mania for collaborations like the 2006, Triptych and its successors – it 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 Jamaica – tropical ageing, no additives, cask strength.  So forget Barbados…these 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 effectively – for 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 as of 2018

Note – I 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 higher…but 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.

N – Rubber 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.

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

F – Short, smooth, breathy, quiet, unassuming. Some fruits and orange peel with salted caramel and bananas

T – Still 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 philosophy – we 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

N – Clean 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.”

P – Brine 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).  

F – Clear 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 distributors – and 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.”

N – Light, 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.

P – Opens 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.

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

T – A 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 rum – all 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

N – Red 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.

P – Flambeed 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

F – Long. 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 rate – your own mileage might vary).

N – Deep 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

P – Very 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.

F – Long and aromatic, fruits again, rosemary, caramel and toffee.

T – Not 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

N – Dusty, 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.

P – Solid, sweetish and thick, very much into the fruity side of things – raisins, 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.

F – Quietly 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.

T – Quite 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

N – If 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!).

P – Very 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.

F – Delicately dry, with closing notes of caramel, vanilla, apricots and spices.

T – Too 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 entirely – each 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.