Oct 192020
 

If one rates popularity or the reach of a brand by how many joyful fanboys post pictures of their latest acquisition on social media and chirp how lucky they are to have gotten it, surely Velier’s oeuvre leads the pack, followed by Foursquare, and after them come trotting Kraken and Bumbu and maybe an agricole or two from Martinique. Nowhere in this pantheon (I use the term loosely) is Bristol Spirits to be foundyet, in the late 1990s right up to the mid 2010s, Bristol was releasing some very good juice indeed, including the near legendary 30 year old Port Mourant 1980 and some rums from the 1970s that were just joys to sample.

In fact, so popular were they, that the company even ventured out into blends and spiced rums, like the Caribbean Collection (Trinidad), Mauritius cane juice rhum, Bristol Black and so on. They released rums from Haiti, Mauritius, Peru, Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, Cuba, Barbados (Rockley 1986, lovely stuff) and raised the profile of the islands’ rums just as the wave of the rum renaissance was breaking. Not for them the single barrel approachmost of the time they followed Rum Nation’s ethos of mixing several barrels into one release.

Since then, Bristol has fallen somewhat out of favourI think Mr. John Barratt may be retiring, if not already withdrawn from the rum sceneand it’s rare to see their bottles for sale outside of an auction, where their prices vary directly with age, from £1800 for a 1974 Demerara to as little as £45 for a 2003 Cuban. This 1985 Versailles was bottled in 1998 at a time when nobody knew a damned thing about the stills, and back then probably sank without a tracenowadays, it’ll cost you five hundred quid, easy.

The Versailles wooden single pot still is one of the three wooden heritage stills (the Savalle is a fourth but not of wood) now housed at Diamond estate where DDL has its headquarters. It’s distillate is usually blended with others to produce blends with distinctive profiles, yet for years many bottlers have tried to issue them on their own, with varying resultsand it is my contention that it takes real skill to bring the raw untrammelled ferocity of a cask strength wooden pot still hooch to some level of elegance sufficient to create a disturbance in the Force.

Bristol, I think, came pretty close with this relatively soft 46% Demerara. The easier strength may have been the right decision because it calmed down what would otherwise have been quite a seriously sharp and even bitter nose. That nose opened with rubber and plasticine and a hot glue gun smoking away on the freshly sanded wooden workbench. There were pencil shavings, a trace of oaky bitterness, caramel, toffee, vanilla and slowly a firm series of crisp fruity notes came to the fore: green apples, raisins, grapes, apples, pears, and then a surprisingly delicate herbal touch of thyme, mint, and basil. Marius of Single Cask, who wrote a good evaluation of a number of Versailles 1985 vintages, commented on a marzipan hint, but I didn’t get that at all.

The taste, though, was where I think it really came into its own. It was just lovely: lots of fruit right offpears, apples, peaches, guavas, kiwi, both ripe and unripe, crisp and fleshy and a contrast in opposites. The herbs remained, though somewhat muted now, and a delicately clear and sharp line of citrus ran in and out of the profile, like a really good dry Riesling punctuated by tart green grapes; and a drop or two of rather unnecessary water revealed a background touch of unsweetened yogurt to balance everything off. Really nice to taste, moving sedately to a finish no less impressive, but acting more or less as a summation of the entire experience, adding just a dry burnt sugar note that was very pleasing.

Overall its a very good Versailles, one of the better ones I’ve tried. Unlike Marius I thought the strength was not a negative but a positive (he felt it was excessively diluted), because otherwise other sharper and less savoury aspects might have taken precedence and upset the fragile balance upon which my personal appreciation of the rum rested. Nowadays we consider the “low” ABV somewhat wussy, but remember, at that time in the nineties, to release a rum at 46% was considered recklessly daringeven ten years later, people were still telling Foursquare not to release the ECS Mark I 1998 at more than standard strength.

ABV aside, what I did feel was the barrel didn’t have enough of an effect, overall, and it could have rested for a few more years without harm, and indeed, been even better afterwards. Marco Freyr of Barrel Aged Mind who wrote about the rum himself in 2014 and was the source of the sample, thought that much of the youthful freshness of the original distillate was maintained and could have been aged longer without harm. But clearly, both he and Marius really liked the thing, as did I. It’s a wonderful expression from the year, and even if there are older Versailles rums out there (like Bristol’s own 1985 22 Year Old which I’d dearly love to sample one day), to try this one from the dawn of rum’s ascent to the heights, when the wooden stills were just rising to prominence and attention, is an experience not to be foregone.

(#770)(87/100)

Aug 052020
 

The Cadenhead 1964 Port Mourant is one of the great unicorns of our time, a rum whose 36 years of ageing sail majestically across the senses, impervious and indifferent to the up-and-coming claimants for the crown of “oldest” and “strongest’ and “bestest” and “mostest”. Not since the Age of Velier have we seen anything like this and in some ways it supersedes even those behemoths we had all ignored back in the day, because they were “too expensive.”

And expensive this is: in June 2020 a variant bottle of this thing (bottled in 2000, 70% ABV) was bid up past all reason on Rum Auctioneer until it went under the hammer for a cool £3,000, which makes it pricier than rums from the 1930s and 1940s sporting amazing pedigrees of their own (though still less than a Velier Skeldon 1978). There’s another one now available in the August 2020 auction (the one I’m writing about here, bottled in 2001). Such prices dissuade all but the most foolhardy, the deep-pocketed or those who “clan-up”and rightfully so, for surely no rum is worth that kind of coin, and who in this day and age has it anyway?

And those stats, whew! 36 years old, pre-independence 1964 distillation (this, when finding anything from as recently the 1980s is already a problem fraught with the potential susurration of rapidly emptying wallets), Port Mourant distillate at a time when it was still at Uitvlugt, 69.3% of turbo-charged thrustthese things suggest an extraordinary rum, which usually fills me with dread as a reviewer: for, how could any rum live up to that kind of hype? Yet somehow, against my fears, Cadenhead has indeed released something exceptional.

Consider the nose: I loved it. It smelled like it was reared in an ultramodern Swiss lab and fed a diet of woodchips from DDLs stills and given only liquid molasses runoff to drink to dilute the raw caramel. It was a smoothly powerful rush of wood, well-polished old leather, smoke, licorice peas, stewed apples, prunes, and oak tannins. No rubber, no acetone, no paint stripper, just controlled thick ferocity. Some salted caramel, and molasses, flowers and as I stayed with it the subtler aromas of fennel, rosemary, masala and cumin and a twist of lemon zest all emerged.

Clearly unsatisfied with just that, it toughened up something serious when tasted. It showcased less a sense of shuddering sharpness aiming only to inflict careless pain, than the surefooted solidity of a Mack truck piloted high high speed by a really good stuntman. It’s creamy, hot, redolent of caramel, sweet bon bons and molasses. Anise. Whipped cream in a fruit salad of raisins, prunes and caramelized apples. Just a flirt of salt, and also some pine-sol mixing it up with soft flowers, coffee grounds and macadamia chocolate cookies. None of the ageing was wasted, and it did exactly what it meant to, no more, no less, with grace and power and the sense of complete control at all times. Even the finish demonstrated this: it was enormously long lasting, coming together at the last with a sort of burly, brutal rhythm of toffee, toblerone, almonds, coffee and citrus that shouldn’t work, but somehow manages to salvage real elegance from all that rough stuff and full, firm tastes. It’s a great conclusion to a seriously well aged rum.

The Cadenhead Uitvlugt 1964 followed all the traditional ways an indie has of producing a rum, except then it proceeded to dial it up to 11, added steroids, horse tranqs and industrial strength factory cleanser, and released it to just about zero acclaim (I mean, have you ever herd of it?). It’s excellence lay in how it came together over time, I thinkit started at a low idle, then gained force as it moved along. The early tasting notes and impressions could come from any one of a dozen rums, but as it developed we see a great original product coming into focus, something we have perhaps tried before, and which remains buried in the recesses of our tasting memories, but which we rarely recall being done this well.

So, circling back to the original point, is it worth the money? If you have it, yes, of course. If you don’t, maybe you can dream, as I did, of scoring a sample. “To me this is the Holy Grail” remarked Gregers Nielsen when we were discussing the bottle, and now, having tried it, I can completely understand his unrequited love (or should that be lust?) for it. Maybe, if I could, I’d pawn the family silver to get it as wellbut in the meantime, for now, I was simply happy to have received the generosity of Alex Van Der Veer, and toasted him happily as I drank this really quite superlative piece of rum history.

(#750)(91/100)


Other notes

It goes without saying this is continentally aged, The outturn is unknown.

Aug 032020
 

The three wooden stills now all gathered at DDL’s Diamond facility are called Heritage stills, their wooden greenheart components regularly serviced and replaced, and the questions they pose about the matter of Theseus’s ship are usually ignored. That’s not really important, though, because they may be the three most famous stills in existence, and the taste profiles of the rums they create are known by all dedicated rumistas, who enjoy nothing more than relentlessly analyzing them for the minutest variations and then bickering about it in a never-ending cheerful squabble.

My own preference has always been for the stern elegance of the Port Mourant, and the Enmore coffey still produces rums that are complex, graceful and sophisticated when done right. But the Versailles still is something of an ugly stepchildyou’ll go far and look long to find an unqualified positive review of any rum it spits out. I’ve always felt that it takes rare skill to bring the rough and raw VSG pot still profile to its full potentialnone of the familiar indies has had more than occasional success with it, and even Velier never really bothered to produce much Versailles rum at the height of the Age.

This brings us to the Danish company 1423: it makes many mass-market rums for the broader supermarket shelves in Europe, but is perhaps better known worldwide for its boutique rum arm the Single Barrel Selection, which specializes in single cask, limited bottlings. These aim squarely at the connoisseurs’ palates and wallets, and have gained a quiet reputation (and a following) for their quality rums and geographical range. The Diamond 2003 is a case in pointit’s 12 years old (bottled in 2015), has a finish in marsala casks, comes off the Versailles single wooden pot still and is bottled at a completely solid 62.8% with an outturn of 264 bottles. And it’s quite a hoot to drink, let me tell you

“Something is rotten in the State of Diamond,” I wrote cheerfully after a good deep sniff, and just enough to make it interesting.” Which was quite trueit smelled of fruits and vegetables starting to go off, and added some deep oak tannins which thankfully did not get overbearing but receded rapidly. To this was added almonds, peaches, prunes, anise, strawberries, some light vanilla and raisins, all tied together in a neat bow by a briny note and some zesty citrus.

The palate was also quite good, irrespective of how much (or how little) additional taste the finish provided. It had the creaminess of salted caramel ice cream, the dark fruitiness of raisins and prunes and black cake and overall struck me as a deceptively simple, very solidly-constructed rum. The good stuff came from around the edgesyou could sense some fennel and licorice and vanilla, and perhaps some nuttiness, red wine, indian spices and cloves, all dancing around that central pillar without taking center stage themselves. The finish didn’t try for anything new or exotic, but was content to sum up all that had gone before, and gave last notes of toffee, cumin, masala spice, caramel, dark fruits and brine, a nice sweet-salt amalgam, without any sharpness or bite on the exit at all. Nice.

There has been occasional confusion among the stills in the past: e.g. the SBS Enmore 1988 which I am still convinced is a Versailles; but this is (in my opinion) neither a PM nor an Enmore and if there’s any further confusion it may derive from the marsala cask whose influence is faint, but enough to skew one’s mind away from a pure VSG kind of aroma.

And it’s good, very good indeed. Even Duncan Taylor with their 27 YO 1985 couldn’t better it, DDL’s own Rare Release wasn’t significantly better (I’ve heard the Mezan and Samaroli variations are excellent but have not tried them). But it seems to me that the VSG marque is really not meant to be a standalone except for purists and deep diversit works much better as part of a blend, which is indeed what DDL uses it for in its aged releases, rarely issuing it on its own.

Summing up then, with all those difficulties in trapping the best profile out of a notoriously temperamental still, it’s completely to its credit that 1423 managed to wring as much flavour and class out of a relatively young Versailles distillate aged in Europe as they did. Perhaps their 1988 Enmore was in fact from that still also, but this one is no slouch on its own terms, has less ambiguities about its origins to boot and is an all ’round fine drink to have on the shelf.

(#749)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • The length of finish in marsala casks is unknown, if SBS responds to the query I sent, I’ll update.
  • Thanks to Nicolai Wachmann for the sample.
Jun 282020
 

On the first day and at the opening hour of the 2019 Berlin Rumfest, a motley collection of scruffy rum folks met at the back of the hall. Alex Sandu (the young Oxford-based Romanian barman who’s now making a name for himself on the Rum Barrel site) was talking with me about what it takes to manage and maintain a rum site. Indy and Jazz Singh of Rumcask and Skylark Spirits drifted by and sat down, and we all sighed rapturously with the memory of a rum session we had had at Lebensstern rum bar the evening before. Nicolai Wachmann, anonymous rum ninja from Denmark, having left us earlier to go look for junk food outside, rejoined us while still furiously chomping at the semi-masticated remains of his fifth burger, and we all amused ourselves shouting cheerful and childish insults at Gregers Nielsen, who was running the 1423 stand a few feet away. This is the way we soberly conscientious rum chums keep the flag of Rumdom flying high. People must know we take our duties seriously.

Things calmed down when Johnny Drejer approached, though, because in his fist he carried a bottle a lot of us hadn’t seen yetthe second in Romdeluxe’s “Wild Series” of rums, the Guyanese Enmore, with a black and white photo of a Jaguar glaring fiercely out. This was a 61.5% rum, 17 years old (2002 vintage, I believe), from one of the wooden stills (guess which?) — it had not formally gone on sale yet, and he had been presented with it for his 65th birthday a few days before (yeah, he looks awesome for his age). Since we already knew of the elephantine proportions of the Wild Tiger Release 1, we all immediately tried to elbow each other out of the way in our hurry to thrust our glasses at him, and demanded our rightful shares. And to his credit, Johnny, gentleman to the last, shared generously without hesitation or charge before hastily retreating to more civilized areas of the ‘Fest where rabid aficionados would not assault his immaculate person or pinch his birthday prize, and might remember he was actually only 50.

Now, 61.5% might seem like a lot, and indeedif you’re not ready for itit will try its best to take your face off. But nosing it with no more than the usual care suggests that it really is quite civilizedcreamy, even. Certainly one can inhale rich aromas of pencil shavings, butterscotch, sawdust and licorice, all standard for Enmore distillate. I can’t say I sensed much in the way of florals or citrus except as a brief background hint; most of the secondary wave consists of black bread, dark fruits, brie, cereals, almonds, anise and crushed walnuts. Maybe a whiff of mocha if you strain.

All this is fairly common, even boilerplate. It’s on the palate that it rises to the occasion and shows some more chops. Now the label notes it was primarily continentally aged so some tropical ageing can be inferred; it’s just shy of hot on the tongue, extremely robust, and very tasty indeedyet also not rough or sharp. You can taste unsweetened chocolate, anise, blancmange, salted caramel and coffee grounds to start with, and as it relaxes and opens up and you get used to its bold profile, musky, dark fruits like raisins, prunes, not very sweet but with a lot of body. I like the damp sawdust and licorice, the way I always do in an Enmore-still rum, and the long, fragrant finish was pleasant to a fault. Johnny, who had measured the strength of the rum and was mentioned on the label, had gotten himself a pretty nice dram.

Romdeluxe in Denmark isor started out asmore a commercial rum club that makes private label bottlings and runs promotions, than a true independent bottlerbut since they have issued several releases, I’ll call them an indie and move right on from there. Their “Wild Series” of rums has evinced a lot of attention, not just because of its variety but because of the beauty of the stark black and white photography of the large cats with which they adorn their products.

So far there is a tiger (R1 Hampden, Jamaica), jaguar (R2 Enmore, Guyana), puma (R3 Panama), black panther (R4 Belize), lion (R5, Bellevue, Guadeloupe) and leopard (R6 Caroni, Trinidad). I don’t know whether the photos are commissioned or from a stock librarywhat I do know is they are very striking, and you won’t be passing these on a shelf any time you see one. The stats on some of these rums are also quite impressivetake, for example, the strength of the Wild Tiger (85.2% ABV), or the age of the Wild Lion (25 years). These guys clearly aren’t messing around and understand you have to stand out from an ever more crowd gathering of indies these days, if you want to make a sale.

Still, perhaps because I’ve had so many of rums from the Enmore still, my impression is that this one doesn’t ascend to the heights. It’s a completely decent rum and at that strength you’re getting flavour and a reasonably complex profile. However, it isn’t really unique, and won’t wow your socks offoriginality is not its forte, and it seems, rather, to be a restatement of much that has gone before. So it’s easy to like and appreciate, but conversely, leaves no lasting imprint on the mind. A month from now, like just about everyone who was there that afternoon sampling this thing, you won’t recall many memorable characteristics of the rum itself, or much that made it stand outexcept perhaps for the fact that it was nice. Oh yeah, and that boss design. If that’s what makes you buy it, then I guess its work is done. Me, I’m saving for some of the others.

(#740)(83/100)

Nov 242015
 

Port Mourant 1974 cropRumaniacs Review 012 | 0412

The Velier retrospectives continue. So sad they’re out of production, and that DDL aren’t letting Luca take any more barrels from their old stocks. The dinosaurs like this one continue to be collector’s itemsthe good Lord only knows where the 1972 is at these days. I last looked at this lovely rum back in 2013, when I was able to get a bottle into Calgary (bought in 2012, don’t get me started on the headaches that took), and its rep has only grown since then.

Colourmahogany

Strength 54.5%

NoseJust lovely, so very distinctive. The DDL Single Barrel PM is both younger and less intense, and showcases what they could do if they had the courage Velier displayed here. Cardboard, anise, cherries and prunes lead off. That characteristic dark licorice and raisins emerge over time, even the tang of some balsamic vinegar, and wafting through all that is the smell of musty old books. That may not sound appealing, but trust me on thisit is.

PalateAll we have expected, all we have been led to await, comes straight to the fore here. It’s like all PMs ever made, just a bit boosted and with a character just individual enough to be its own. Heated and a little jagged, smoothening out only after a few minutes. Licorice, tar and the fruity mix inside a dark black cake. Part of what makes this rum so impressive is the overall textureluscious may under-describe how well the PM melds on the tongue. With water, some sweetness creeps slyly in, caramel and toffee and cinnamon emerge, and though it is somewhat dry, what we are left with is the fruits, the wood, the tar, the magical amalgam that spells Port Mourant.

Finishless succulent than I recalledit’s a little bit dry, and very nicely heated. Even at 54.5% (which may be the perfect strength for what has been bottled), the fade goes on for ages, leaving some cinnamon, anise, light brown sugar and almonds to remind you to have some more.

ThoughtsA solid, fantastic old rum, one of those aged offerings that sets its own standards, and against which other PMs are measured. I’d never say no to another bottle, or even another taste. And I’ll never stop complaining to DDL that this is where they should put some effort.

(90/100)