May 232022
 

Aside from their premium “Wild Series” line of rums with their striking black and white labels and dizzying proof points, the relatively new Danish indie Rom Deluxe also has various downmarket rum offerings. One step down from “Wild” is the Collector’s Series, originally meant to capture rums that were not quite as strong as the former but retaining much of the quality.  On the face of it and perusing the listings, I don’t honestly see much difference, however, aside perhaps in a lower price.

The subject of today’s review is the first batch of Release 3 which hails from Bellevue, which can lead to some confusion since there are three places (maybe more) with that rather common name — suffice to say it’s from Le Moule on Guadeloupe, and made by Damoiseau (see “other notes”, below). Unusually for the French islands, it’s a molasses based rum, column still, distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2021 — and so aged a whopping 23 years in a combination of both tropical and continental — at a solid 55.5% (another batch has a slightly higher proof point of 56.1%). Stats like that have the nerd brigade crossing their eyes and drooling, and not just in Denmark; with good reason, since we see such ageing from French island rums only rarely.

The rum, fortunately, did not disappoint.  The nose was middle-of-the-road complex, a Goldilocks-level symphony of just about enough, never too much and rarely too little. The nose was slightly briny, but not a Sajous level-salt wax explosion. It had fruits, but was not an ester-bomb – peaches, apples, melons, apricots, flambeed bananas.  A little smoke, a little wood, noting overbearing, and all these notes were balanced off with a pleasant melange of breakfast spices, cinnamon, vanilla, caramel and a touch of licorice.

The palate settled down a bit and continued to channel an approach that eschewed the screeching sharp vulgarity of a fishwife’s flensing knife and went with something more moderate. There was salt caramel ice cream in Irish coffee, topped with whipped cream. Vanilla and brine, stewed apples, green peas, light pineapples, peaches in syrup. Things got a little odd somewhere in the middle of all this when distinct notes of wet ashes, rubber and iodine came out.  These however, didn’t stick around long and gave way to a dry, short, crisp finish redolent of strong hot black tea (sweetened with condensed milk), acetones, nail polish, brine and a last filip of toffee.

The whole rum, the entire sipping and drinking experience, really was very good. I like to think it channelled that school of thought propounded by Hesiod and Plautus (among many others) who promoted moderation in all things (“…including moderation,” quipped Oscar Wilde centuries later). It’s tasty without overdoing it, it’s firm without bombast, assertive where needed, one of the better rums coming off the island, and honestly, one can only wonder what made Rom Deluxe relegate a rum like this to the Collector’s Series and not to the more upmarket Wilds. 

No matter.  Whatever category it’s placed in, it’s really worth checking out of it ever turns up in your vicinity. I doubt you’d be disappointed.

(#910)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Outturn 258 bottles
  • Marque GMBV
  • The label and the stats are the same on both the 55.5% R3.1 and the 56.1% R3.2, except for the strength.
  • The rum is not an agricole, given it was made from molasses; this twigged a lot of people into believing it was not from MG BEllevue…but from Damoiseau (see next comment)
  • Note on origins: Originally this review mentioned Bellevue as being “…on the small island of Marie Galante just south of Guadeloupe (other distilleries there are Pere Labat and Velier/Capovilla at Poisson, and Bielle).” However, several people alerted me to overlooked inconsistencies here, because there is Bellevue on Marie Galante, another Bellevue at Le Moule in Guadeloupe (that’s Damoiseau’s place) and a third in Sainte Rose, also in Guadeloupe (which is Reimonenq). Because such confusions had arisen before (e.g. the TBRC 1999 Bellevue) most commentators felt it was a Damoiseau rum.  I got onto Kim Pedersen at Rom Deluxe and he wrote back “…you are right about the misprint on our website. It is a Bellevue from Damoiseau 🙂 […] there has been a lot of confusion about these rums, and I can see that my text on the webpage is more misleading than informative. So I think I have to change that despite the bottles is sold out.” So that means the review’s “sources” paragraph, and my title has been changed.
May 162022
 

Two years ago I took a look at L’Esprit’s Beenleigh 5YO rum from Australia and after trying manfully to come to grips with the gasp-inducing strength of 78.1%, I got up off the floor and wrote a fairly positive review about the thing. That rum was hot-snot aggressive and not bad at all, and there I thought the tale had ended…but then came this one. And then it became clear that Steve Magarry (who was then Distillery Manager over at Beenleigh) and Tristan Prodhomme (the showrunner at L’Esprit) read my review, rubbed their hands gleefully while cackling in fiendish delight, and released something a little older, a little stronger…and a whole lot better.

The 2014 rum which was bottled in 2020, has 0.2% more proof points than the one I reviewed, clocking in at 78.3%, and it’s one year older. It remains a pot-still rum, suggesting a lurking taste bomb in waiting. On the face of it, the stats would make you take a step backwards (unless you’re the sort of person who methodically works your way through the list of 21 Strongest Rums in the World, smiling the entire time). And taking even a cautiously tiny sniff is probably best here, because the rum is lava-like, the rum is sharp, and it presents itself to your attention with all the excitement of a switched-on electric hair dryer dropped into your hot tub…while you’re in it.

The first notes to discern are ostensibly off-putting: shards of burnt rubber, rotten carrots. plus meat spoiled enough for flies to be using it for a house. Stick with it: it gets better fast once it learns to relax, and then coughs up vanilla, almonds, toffee, brown sugar, and ice cream over which has been drizzled hot caramel.  Relatively simple, yes, and it seems quite standard (except for that startling cold-open), yet somehow the nose is really quite amazing. It continues into sweet dense fruit and whipped cream over a rich cheesecake, plus leather and aromatic tobacco, cherries and syrup, and that crisp sensation of biting into a stick of celery. It works, swimmingly, even though logic and the reading of such disparate tasting notes suggests it really shouldn’t.

Nosing is one thing, but rums live or die on the taste, because you can jerk your scorched nose away a lot easier than a burnt and despoiled tongue. What’s surprising about L’Esprit’s Beenleigh is that it actually plays much softer on the palate than we have any right to expect.  There’s almost a light perfumed sweetness to it, like strawberry candy floss and bubble gum, mixed up with more salted caramel ice cream….and mango shavings.  There’s gelato, pears, apricots over which someone poured condensed milk, and it’s really spicy, yes….but completely bearable — I would not throw this thing out of bed. Plus, it channeled enough fruitiness – orange marmalade, butter chocolates and gooseberries – to provide an interesting counterpoint. And I also liked the finish – it was hot and sweet black tea, crisply and sharply heavy, and fruitily tart, and slightly bitter in a way that wasn’t really unpleasant, just lent a distinctive accent to the close.  

By now we know more about Beenleigh (see other notes, below) than we did before the pandemic, much of it due to the increasing raft of independent bottlers who have put their juice through the door (including Velier, of late – Ralfy loved their 2015 5 YO), as well as the social media presence and engagement of Steve Magarry himself. What was once a distillery known mostly to Australians, uber-geeks and obscure reviewers, has, in a remarkably short period of time, become quite celebrated for the quality of its rum. Like Bundaberg, it has started to become an icon of the antipodean rum scene, while tasting better.

A whole lot better. This is an impressively civilized overproof rum  It hums along like a beefed-up garage-tuned homemade supercar fuelled with the contents of whatever’s brewing in grandma’s bathtub, and by some subtle alchemy of selection and ageing, becomes quietly amazing. Really.  I expected rougher and nastier and uglier, feared Azog, and yet to my surprise, somehow got Legolas. 

(#908)(87/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • Sugar cane growth had been encouraged in Queensland by the Sugar and Coffee regulations in 1864, the same year as the Beenleigh plantation was established (it was named after its founders’ home in England). Initially sugar was all it produced, though a floating boat-based distillery called the “Walrus” did serve several plantations in the area from 1869 and made rum from molasses – illegally, after its license was withdrawn in 1872, continuing until 1883 when it was beached.  Francis Gooding, one of the founders, purchased the onboard still and gained a distilling license in 1884 from which time such operations formally began in Beenleigh. Through various changes in ownership, Beenleigh as a distillery continued until 1969 when it shut down because of falling demand, then relaunched in 1972 under the ownership of Mervyn Davy and his sons; they didn’t hold on to it long and sold it to the Moran family in 1980, who in turn disposed of a controlling share to Tarac Industries in 1984. All the post-1969 owners added to the facilities and expanded the distillery’s production to other spirits, and it was finally acquired in 2003 by VOK Beverages a diversified drinks company from South Australia, in whose hands it remains.
  • Tristan confirmed that the rum is indeed all pot still distillate.
  • L’Esprit is a small independent bottler out of France, perhaps better known in Europe for its whiskies. They’ve been on my radar for years, and I remain convinced they are among the best, yet also most unsung, of the independents — perhaps because they have almost no social media presence to speak of, and not everybody reads the reviews. I also think they have some of the coolest sample bottles I’ve ever seen.
  • An unsolicited (but very welcome) sample set was provided gratis to me by the owner, Tristan Prodhomme, for Christmas 2021, perhaps because he knew of my liking for strong hooch and that I buy his stuff constantly. If we can meet next time I’m in Europe, I have to see what to do to even the scales.

SMWS R7.1 Jamaica 2000 16 YO Rum “Welcome to Jamrock” – Review

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May 122022
 

Sooner or later, no matter what the SMWS thought the Big Gun Rums deserving of their own Big Green Bottle were, they had to come here, to Release 7.1 of the vaunted and much ignored “R” (rum) series. By 2016 when it was put on sale for the membership, they had rums from Guyana (DDL), Jamaica (Monymusk and Longpond), Barbados (WIRD) and Trinidad (Providence)…and that was it. And even if you’re not in to rums – or weren’t, six years ago – it’s clear there’s just a whole lot missing there, which could have buffed and burnished the SMWS’s sadly lacking rum department.

However, after three years’ of zero rum outturn, perhaps somebody was finally waking up, because in that year nine rums came out, and four new distilleries were added — Nicaragua’s Flor de Cana (R8), Trinidad’s Angostura (R10), Barbados’s Foursquare (R6)…and Hampden Estate’s R7. Which is nice, though it would be hard to explain why Worthy Park was ignored (they were allocated R11 a year later), where St. Lucia’s Distillery was (and is), and why every single agricole has yet to be given a spot alongside sterling rums from points around the globe.

Well, never mind. The important thing is that they finally got around to adding one of the real and enduring stars of the rum scene, Hampden Estate, which had already and quietly started to make waves in the rum and whisky worlds via independent bottlers’ offerings and various spirits festivals (they would begin the release their own estate bottlings in 2018). Certain years of Hampden’s bulk sales always seem to come up as touchstones – 1992 was one such, with the superlative pair of the  Samaroli’s 24 YO and the 25 YO being examples of the possibilities, and 1990 and 2000 both had some pretty good rums from Berry Bros, Rum Nation, CDI, Renegade and SBS. In twelve years of constant writing, I’ve never found a Hampden dog.

This one is no exception. Distilled in 2000 and bottled in 2016 for release in 2017, it’s a 54% sixteen year old cultured bruiser with an outturn of 214 bottles, and even if it doesn’t say so, the marque is an LROK “Common Clean”, which places it in the pleasantly mid- to low-range of the  ester charts (and therefore provides you with the advantage of not requiring expensive insurance against having your face ripped off, as you would with a full-powered DOK sporting off-road tyres). It is, of course, pot still made, and aged in ex-Bourbon casks.

Just about every reviewer of SMWS rums (and even some of the whiskies) likes to repeat the old trope that they (a) find the odd names of the spirits incomprehensible and (b) ignore those peculiar tasting notes that are on the label. You can sort of see the point since “Welcome to Jamrock” is not exactly clear to those genuflecting to The Queen’s. Me, I read the entire label (including the warnings) and just smile and enjoy the sense of irreverent humour at play.  The truth is, though, the rum is weird, it is odd, and I think it took some courage to release back before Hampden gained the street cred it did after 2018, and people got more used to the profile.

Consider: the nose opens up with the scent of hot porridge to which has been added a pinch of salt and a pat of melting butter. To this is then brought caramel, toffee, and the dry smell of cracked plaster and mouldy drywall in an old and dusty house.  And then we also start getting olives in spicy vinegar, delicate flowers, cherries in syrup, figs, a little bitter chocolate, marmalade with a little red-pepper attitude – it’s oddball to a fault, it’s strange and it’s peculiarly tasty, and I haven’t even gotten to the second best thing about it. Which is the gradual intermingling of herbs, grasses, marigolds and a trace of sandalwood, with cinnamon, cumin and citrus juice, all doused with aromatic tobacco (and if this sounds like a lot, it’s because, well, it is.)

Once we get to the pour and the palate, though, the rum gets down to business, stops with the fancy stuff and hauls out the happy slapper. The good stuff slides right off and it becomes a full-out badass, starting off with new paint, medicinals, a sort of minerally tang, and the crackling flash of ozone like an electrical fire’s after-smell.  There’s the disused taste of a second hand store’s sad and expired dust-covered back shelf wares here. Paprika  and black pepper, more of that vague pimento and tobacco taste, bell peppers, chocolate oranges, strawberries, even a touch of brown sugar and toffee, plus a smorgasbord of mashed-together fruits one can no longer separate. The finish is really good, by the way – it’s fruity, estery, slightly bitter, crisp, dry and has a flirt of nail polish, oakiness, bitter chocolate, caramel and campfire ashes about it, and is one to savour.

All this, from a wrong on the wrong side of 60%.  It’s amazing, it spreads carnage in all directions, but so politely that you can’t help but love the thing, and for sure it took courage to risk releasing it as it was, because at the time Hampden was not as well known as it currently is.  Now, I have to admit that this is a rum for drinkers with some naso-glottal fortitude – solera-style fanciers, El Dorado 12 YO fans and Zacapa lovers are strongly advised to smell and sip carefully lest they be rendered comatose – yet the overall quality shines through regardless for everyone, expert, aficionado or newb alike. Even at a time when we are spoiled for choice and we can have multiple rums from single distilleries to hone our senses, there are still rums out there that shine a light on aspects of estates and producers we think we know really well, and reveal qualities we can only consider ourselves fortunate to have experienced. This is one of them.

(#907)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • The word “Jamrock” refers to Jamaican’s slang for their island which they sometimes call “de Rock” (much as Newfies do theirs), and the bottle title is also the name of a 2005 song by Damian Marley.Given the premise of the song, I like the left handed compliment it implicitly gives the rum
  • Not many others have reviewed this rum, but Rum Shop Boy also rated it high in his 2018 review (87 points). The Rum-X app averages things out at 85 points from 4 ratings (before this review gets incorporated).
  • It is assumed that the distillate matured in Europe, and was sourced via a broker, or, of course, Scheer / Main Rum.
  • For those who want more background into the SMWS, a biography and bottle list (of rums) is available.

Opinion

As I’ve remarked before, yes, sure, the Society (of which I am a card-carrying, dues-paying member) is primarily a whisky club and a whisky indie bottler and that’s where its international rep rests — but to my mind, if they are going to expand into other and interesting directions like rums, then it should be doing it right, doing it seriously, and stop farting around with a mere thirteen distilleries’ and 76 bottlings twenty years after issuing the first one (as a comparison, in their very second year the Society bottled from the 16th whisky distillery and was already approaching a hundred separate releases). The inconsistency of releases, with occasional years’ long gaps, is moving out of amateur hour and into outright embarrassing and does the society no favours at all.

A regular and consistently applied schedule of top quality rum releases, however minimal, is not an impossibility in this day and age (especially if they were to hire me to source it for them, ha ha). And if it is a big deal, if new and exciting distilleries and well-regarded older ones can’t be identified and sourced, why bring in The Global Rum Ambassador on retainer as an adviser? The Society can and should do better with its ancillary releases, because if it can’t, then it should bite the bullet, admit failure (or lack of interest and expertise), and just cease altogether instead of keeping hopeful rum fans strung along. This is a huge potential new fan base they’re ignoring, at a time when more and more people are turning disgustedly away from the prices and rarity of top end whiskies. I simply don’t get the indifference.


 

Rum Club Private Selection No. 23 2000 BMMG 21 YO Barbados Rum – Review

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Feb 212022
 

Photo (c) Christopher Sackl, used with permission

The Rum Depot is a shop in Berlin that specialises in, you guessed it, rum, and Dirk Becker, the owner, is the man behind the Berlin Rum Festival. I try to go there any time I’m in the city and have the time, because I have fond memories of my times wandering around the joint: it was the first such dedicated rum emporium I had ever visited, way back in 2012 when I had been so proud of my 50+ rum reviews (hush, ye snickerers). And aside from being introduced to Velier, Courcelles and a raft of other exclusive rums such as I could only have dreamed about in Calgary at the time, there was a whole table full of opened bottles one could sample at will.  Which I did, and do.

On this occasion it was Christmas 2021 and COVID had not yet died away so protocols were in place, but once again I was treated with patience and courtesy by Charlos and Fabian (who endured my persnickety-ness and constant questions with good cheer), and occasionally Dirk himself, when he had a free moment. At one point they brought out three bottles they intended to release in early 2022 and invited me to try them, and you’d better believe I jumped at the chance (the full story, which I started writing and clocked in at a thousand words before I put the brakes on, is better than this dry account suggests, but is too long to relate here without derailing the review completely).

Though the selections were all quite impressive, one rum from the trio was really quite a catch just on its specs, I thought: a year 2000 21 YO Barbados pot still rum from Mount Gay. We’ve been fortunate enough to try pot still rums from Barbados before, of course: Habitation Velier’s Foursquare and Last Ward releases remain two of the best known – but another one is always welcome, especially from Mount Gay, which is more noted for its blends than this kind of thing (one wonders how Dirk snapped up the barrel, and why nobody else did, but never mind).

Jacked up to 54.4%, it certainly had a lot of pedigree to live up to, and the initial nose was at pains to demonstrate the fact that it wasn’t messing around and intended to wow you from the get-go.  It was very intense, very deep and – I can think of no better word – juicy. Extremely bright aromas of honey, nougat, caramel and aromatic flowers billowed right out and enveloped the senses in a rich tangle. Some funkiness of pineapple and strawberries, salt caramel, tobacco and leather added to what was a really nice nose.

The taste was no slouch either. Very little sharpness, just solid intensity.  Honey was the first note to be discerned, tawny, raw honey dripping from the comb. Toffee, chocolate, molasses, salt caramel ice cream, a slight briny hint.  Then the aromatic tobacco and well-polished leather came onstage, followed by black cake, a mixed smorgasbord of fruits — strawberries, cherries, raisins, lychees, and even a plum or two.  There’s a touch of molasses and oak at the back end, complementing a solid finish that is musky, fruity, tart and tawny all at once, and lasts a good long time.  Which is great, since there’s not much of this stuff available and we want to savour what we do manage to sample.

Rum Club – the private bottling arm of the ‘Depot – selected and issued a really good rum here, and it adds to the reputation of Barbados as a rum producing nation. The real question it raises with me is this: with respect to pot still rums, why don’t we see more of them? Barbados has elevated its status over the last decade as the purveyors of excellent pot-column blends, which is completely fine, but I think there’s a niche to be explored here that is under-represented, both in the literature and on the shelves of our favourite rum stores. Only 292 bottles of this rum were issued to the public, most of them likely snapped up in Germany; after sampling it blind and then again knowing what it was, I thought it could serve as an indicator that there’s still lots more good stuff to come from the island, and I’d love to get more just like it. Lots more.

(#886)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Berry Bros. & Rudd 2004 9 YO Haitian Rum – Review

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Feb 072022
 

This is one of those times where I’ll circle back and fill in the detailed background later, since even a summary of more than three centuries of company life will still probably put the disinterested to sleep. 

In brief, Berry Bros & Rudd (or BBR) is a London-based wine and spirits enterprise (they have branches in several other countries) who dabble in their own bottlings of rum from time to time.  They were among the first indies to capture my attention back in 2012 or so with an extraordinary 1975 Port Mourant, but nowadays their star shines somewhat less brightly and few speak of their rums with the reverence they once were thought to command.

This rum sort of exemplifies why: it’s a rum from Haiti about which just about nothing can be found and is listed only in a few online shops which provide a bare minimum of detail.  It’s never come up for auction, is not on Rum-X’s database and nobody has reviewed it as far as I can tell. Neither Single Cask Rum nor Barrel Aged Thoughts, in their company bios, have even listed it, but then, nobody has a complete listing of BBR’s rums.

Based on the label and other sources, it is distilled in Haiti in 2004 – this of course immediately implies Barbancourt, the major and most renowned rum maker on the half-island and the only one who exports bulk to Europe where BBR would have picked up a few barrels.  As was customary a decade ago, the rum was released at 46% ABV and is column distilled, though whether molasses based or deriving from cane juice is unknown (I have little faith in the spelling convention of “rum” versus “rhum” on the label to determine the source).

That out of the way, what’s it like? It is, on initial nosing, quite pleasantly fruity and musky…but not herbal or grassy (suggesting but not confirming a molasses origin). Apples, raisins, dates and black grapes are the initial scents, followed by dark red cherries and a lingering ripe pineapple background that remains perceptible throughout. Once the rum settles down – it’s a bit thin at 46% and from time to time bites like an underfed, rice-eating, flea-bitten mongrel if one approaches it carelessly – there is a deeper note of honey, light molasses, pencil shavings and cream cheese on sourdough bread.

Some of this carries over to the palate, but not all. It tastes nicely of brine and a lightly salted trail mix of cashews and peanuts. Tart flavours of gherkins and sweet pickles creep in, leading to a firmer melange of crisp fruits and cough syrup (!!). Green grapes, unripe peaches and pears, some light orange zest and citronella. It feels watery at times, but there’s enough strength here to let more complex flavours seep through if one is patient.  The weakest point is the finish, which is less salty, sweeter and has an easy sort of fruit salad vibe going on. It’s short, breathy, easy and not too exceptional at this point: the nose remains the best part of it.

So, not a bad rum, but conversely, nothing to really write home about either.  It’s simply a competently assembled rum with no points of distinction and few weaknesses for which one might mark it down – maybe some more ageing, a few extra points of proof, would have elevated it. It’s too good to be anonymous blah, while unfortunately not staking out any tasting territory in your mind which would cause you to seriously recommend it to your friends as something they would have to try (as attends, say, every Hampden or WP rum ever made). Maybe it’s all down to BBR not having a serious rum department or in-house expertise to really select some good juice, but the upshot is that their 9YO Haitian rum from 2004 is no undiscovered masterpiece, just a forgotten rum that no-one will miss if it stays that way.

(#882)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Historical Notes

With the explosion of new and nimble independent bottlers on the European scene, some of the original bottlers we used to know a mere decade ago are fading from view, which is unfortunate.  They, these older ones, kept the flame of pure rums burning at a time when the world was glutted with anonymous blends and pointed the way to the possibilities of the rumworld we live in now. That said, I was never entirely free of the suspicion that most of these outfits had their origins in, and kept their love for, whisky as their primary focus — and rums were, at best, an afterthought. Wilson & Morgan, Cadenhead, Moon Imports, Samaroli, BBR and others, all started bottling whisky before they moved into the good stuff – but whatever the case is, they were and remain the inheritors of the merchant bottlers of old who serviced the distribution of rum around the empires they served, many of which were bought out or went under or are long out of business…and all but unknown now.

Such merchant bottlers had their origins in distributorships and spirits shops, and probably the oldest of these is the firm of Berry Brothers & Rudd in London, which, as all rum geeks are probably aware, was founded in 1698 by the surviving wife of the prematurely deceased, sadly unmissed and completely unknown Mr. Bourne, who opened a general grocery shop in that year with (one assumes inherited) funds sufficiently impressive for her to take premises opposite St. James Palace. The intricacies of the family line and business development over the centuries are too complex for this review, but by the early 1800s the shop had already moved into wine distribution and by the beginning of the 1900s was exclusively a wine and spirits merchant, bottling their own wines, sherries and whiskies well into the 20th century and expanding carefully, but globally. 

Rums seem to have been issued by BB&R on something of an irregular, ad hoc basis and the only ones predating the modern era that I know of, are a Jamaican rum from the 1960s which was auctioned in 2018, and another even rarer one from 1947/1948 that went under the hammer in February 2020 both at prices none of us can afford. Rums began to appear in the portfolio as a semi-regular thing in 2002, with a Long Pond 16YO from 1986 and a Versailles 1985 17 YO; these early editions were characterised by a simple, almost Edwardian-era label design ethos which (along with the bottle style) has now been changed several times over. Some of their modern bottlings have become very sought after, like the Jamaica 1977 or the Port Mourant 1975, but somehow the series as a whole never scaled the bar which others set so high, never got that cachet of “must have” attached to their initial work. Probably this was because of inconsistent releases and equally inconsistent quality…some were good, some were not, and some were simply okay. 

BBR continues to release rums from time to time, with a puzzling lack of publicity which may also be part of the reason their visibility is less than it could have been.  Nothing about their rum shelf is particularly impressive: not the selections, not the disclosure of what they do have, not the variety. And while they have expanded the original “Berry’s Own Selection” to now include an “Exceptional Cask” and a “Classic Range” series – sometimes distinguished, I suggest, more by price and rarity than by quality – there are never very many listed for sale or auction and no serious must-have rums to excite the cognoscenti as, say, Nobilis or Rom Deluxe does.  It remains to be seen whether the company wants to increase its footprint of well-made, well-aged rums from around the world, harness the rum-geek crowd’s enthusiasms into new and exciting ranges of young or aged expressions…or just be content to follow everyone else and remain a top tier wine and spirits merchant with a third tier rum selection.


 

Letter of Marque Hampden (DOK) 2009 8 YO Jamaican Rum – Review

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Jan 162022
 

DOK.  The initials which have now become a word, have such a sense of menace.  They have all the unfriendly finality of an axe thunking into an executioner’s block. And perhaps this was deliberate, because a DOK rum (I give a delicious shiver) is at the trembling razor’s edge of esterland, 1600 g/hlpa, something so torrid and intense that it is used to calm down cask strength neutral alcohol before being sold to Scotch lovers, and those only now getting into rum.

Richard Seale is famous for his exasperation about DOK-weenies and fangeeks who wax rhapsodic about these things, because he knows that such a high concentration of esters was historically there for a reason – not to drink neat or rack up drinking brownie points, but to act as a flavorant to pastries, perfumes and cheap European rums in the 19th and 20th centuries (some of these uses continue). The taste of such a rum is so intense that it serves no sane purpose as a drink in its own right, and even in a mix it’s akin to playing with fire if one is not careful.

But of course, nothing will dishearten these spirited Spartans, for they, like your faithful reviewer, are way too witless for fear, and it’s a badge of honour to always get the rum that’s the biggest and baddest with the mostest even when the biggest ‘n’ baddest Bajan says otherwise: and so when one gets a DOK through fair means or foul, well, it’s gonna be tried, screaming weenies be damned.  And I gotta be honest, there’s some masochism involved here as well: can I survive the experience with my senses intact and my sanity undisturbed? Does the Caner like rum?

Judge for yourself.  I poured the pale yellow rum into my glass – carefully, I don’t mind telling you — and took a prudent and delicate sniff. The strength was manageable at 66.4%, and I’ve had stronger, of course, but I was taking no chances.  Good idea, because right away I was assaulted by the squealing laydown of a supercar’s rubber donuts on a hot day.  The tyres seemed to be melting on the road, the rubber scent was that strong. Man, there was a lot to unpack here: porridge with sour milk and salted butter, sharp as hell. Creamy not-quite tart herbal cheese spread over freshly toasted yeasty bread. Glue, paint, turpentine, more rubber, varnish, acetones, the raw cheap nail polish scent of a jaded Soho streetwalker, and still it wasn’t done.  Even after five minutes the thing kept coughing up more: sharp fruits, pineapple, strawberries, ginnip, gooseberries, plus paprika, basil, dill, and red olives.

And the taste, well, damn.  Sour milk in a latte gone bad, plus glue, paint, acetones and melting rubber.  Gradually, timorously, meekly, some fruits emerged: raisins, pears, unripe strawberries, pineapples, green mangoes, ripe cashews.  Oh and olives, leather, brine and coffee grounds, more fruit, and I was thinking that half of me wanted to shudder, stop and walk away, but the other half was mordantly curious to see how long this level of crazy could be maintained before the thing ran out of gas.  Truth to tell, not much longer, because after about half an hour it seemed to think I had been punished enough, and the intense pungency drained away to a long, spicy, dry but tasty finish – I could give you another long list of finishing notes, but at the end it simply repeated the beats of what had come before in a sort of crisp and spicy summation that left nothing unrepeated.

Look, I’m not making up these tasting notes in an effort to impress by establishing the extent of my imaginative vocabulary, or how complex I think the rum is.  Therein lies a sort of pointless insanity by itself. The fact is that those sensations are there, to me, and I have to describe what I am experiencing. That the rum is a smorgasbord of sensory impressions is beyond doubt – the question is whether it works as it should, whether it provides a good tasting and drinking experience, or whether it’s just a pointless exercise in dick measuring by an independent who wants to establish a rep — somewhat like Rom Deluxe did when they released their own DOK at 85.2%, remember that one?  As with that rum, then, I have to respond with a qualified yes

Because it works…up to a point. 

The issue with the rum and others like it — and this is an entirely personal opinion — is that there is simply too much: it overwhelms the senses with an undisciplined riot of aromas and flavours that fail to cohere.  Admittedly, the boys in Germany chose well, and the Letter of Marque is not quite on the level of crazy that attended the jangling cacophony of the Wild Tiger…but it’s close, and here I suspect the ageing did take some of the edge off and allow a bit of smoothening of the raw indiscipline that the Rom Deluxe product sported so happily.  Too, the strength is more bearable and so it works slightly better from that perspective as well.  

And so, I have to give this the score I think it deserves, which is a bit on the high side, perhaps. It sure took courage for the Rum Cask company to release it onto an unsuspecting public, and there’s a lot of interesting aspects to this Jamaican rum: if one dilutes a bit, tastes carefully and with attention, I think a lot can be taken away.  Most people aren’t like that though, and I suspect that if an average Joe was given this without warning, he might grudgingly praise the thing, but would hardly be likely to spring for a bottle the way a committed Jamaican rum fan would. Unless, of course, he wanted a rum that was demonstrably one of the the biggest, bestest and mostest.

(#875)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • Letter of Marque is a brand of the Rum Cask indie bottler in Germany
  • The rum was selected by bloggers Rumboom, Single Cask Rum and Barrel Aged Thoughts.
  • Distilled in 2009, this was some of Hampden’s first output laid down to age, when they reopened that year
  • 300-bottle outturn
  • A “Letter of Marque,” once called a privateering commission, was a document issued by a Government (usually the crown) during the Age of Sail to authorize a private person to attack ships of another nation with which the Government was currently at war.  Essentially it legalized piracy by outsourcing naval guerilla operations to mercenaries — privateers or corsairs — under the mantle of the national interest. The 1856 Paris Declaration eventually ended the practice of privateering and the issuance of such letters worldwide.
  • On Rum-X, some thirty or so DOK rums are listed; clearly, whether we like it or not, these high-ester funk delivery systems are here to stay and as long as they get made, they will get sold, and drunk, and boasted about.

Samaroli 2004 11 Year Old Haitian Rum – Review

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Jan 102022
 

When we think of Haiti two names in rum immediately spring to mind: clairins and Barbancourt.  This pair of diametrically opposite rum making styles dominate the conversation to such an extent that it is often overlooked that there are other distilleries on the island, like Barik / Moscoso, Agriterra / Himbert, Distillerie de la Rue (Nazon), Distillerie Lacrete, La Distillerie 1716, Beauvoir Leriche and Janel Mendard (among others).  Granted most of these don’t do much branded work, stay within their regional market, or they sell bulk rum only (often clairins or their lookalikes that punch up lesser rums made by even cheaper brands), but they do exist and it’s a shame we don’t know more about them or their rums.

I make this point because the Samaroli 11 year old Haitian rum from 2004 which we are looking at today, doesn’t actually say which distillery in Haiti made it.  Admittedly, this is a pedantic issue, since we can surmise with near-total assurance that it’s a Barbancourt distillate: they supply the majority of European brokers with bulk rum from Haiti while the others mentioned here tend to do local sales or over-the-border business in the Dominican Republic.  But we don’t know for sure and all the ebay sites and auction listings for this rum and other Haitians that Samaroli bottled, do not disclose the source, so we’ll take it as an educated and probably correct guess for now.

What else?  Distilled in 2004 and released in 2015 at 45% ABV, the rum hews closely to the mantra Silvio Samaroli developed all those years ago, which said that at the intersection of medium age and medium strength is a nexus of the best of all possible aromas, textures and tastes, where neither the rawness of youth or the excessive oakiness of age can spoil the bottled distillate, and the price remains reasonable.  Well, maybe, though what’s going on these days price-wise might give anyone pause to wonder whether that still holds true.

The rum does nose nicely, mind you: it starts off with a loud blurt of glue paint and nail polish, warm but not sharp and settles down into an almost elegant and very precise profile.  Soft notes of sugar water, pear syrup, cherries, vanilla and coconut shavings cavort around the nose, offset by a delicate lining of citrus and florals and a subtle hint of deeper fruits, and herbs.

Overall the slightly briny palate is warm, but not obnoxious.  Mostly, it’s relaxed and sweet, with pears, papayas, cucumbers plus maybe a single pimento for a sly kick at the back end.  It’s not too complex – honestly, it’s actually rather shy, which may be another way of saying there’s not much going on here.  But it still beats out a bunch of standard strength Spanish-heritage rons I had on the go that same day.  What distinguishes the taste is its delicate mouthfeel, floral hints and the traces of citrus infused sugar cane sap, all quite nice.  It’s all capped by a short and floral finish, delicate and spicy-sweet, which retains that slight brininess and darker fruits that are hinted at, without any effort to overwhelm.

Formed in 1968 by the eponymous Italian gentleman, the firm made its bones in the 1970s in whiskies,  branched into rums, and has a unicorn rum or two in its portfolio (like that near legendary 1948 blend); it is the distinguished inspiration for, and conceptual ancestor of, many Italian indies who came after…but by 2022 and even perhaps before that, Samaroli slipped in the younger generation’s estimation, lagging behind new and hungry independents like 1423, Rom Deluxe or Nobilis.  These brash insurgents issued cask strength monsters crammed with 80+ points of proof that were aged to three decades, or boosted to unheard ester levels…and the more elegant, easier, civilized rums Samaroli was once known for, no longer command the same cachet.

Now, this quiet Haiti rum is not an undiscovered steal from yesteryear, or a small masterpiece of the indie bottler’s art – I’d be lying if I said that. It’s simply a nice little better-than-entry level sipper, quiet and relaxed and with just enough purring under the hood to not make it boring. But to me it also shows that Samaroli can continue to do their continental ageing thing and come out with something that — while not a brutal slug to the nuts like a clairin, or the sweet elegance of a well-aged Barbancourt or a crank-everything-up-to-”12” rum from an aggressive new indie — still manages to present decently and show off a profile that does the half-island no dishonour. In a time of ever larger bottle-stats (and attendant prices), too often done just for shock value and headlines, perhaps it is worth taking a look at a rum like this once in a while, if only to remind ourselves that there are always alternatives.

(#874)(82/100)


Other Notes

  • It is assumed to be a column-still rhum; the source, whether molasses or sugar cane, is unstated and unknown.
  • 270-bottle outturn

Velier 70th Anniv. St. Lucia Distillers “Warren Khong” 2010 7 YO Rum – Review

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Dec 082021
 

It’s the Red Queen’s race, I sometimes think: top dogs in the indie scene have to keep on inventing and innovating to maintain their lead, release ever-older or fancier bottlings, enthuse the fans, show how cool they are, all to remain in the same place — and none, perhaps, know this as well as Velier, whose various “series” go back a decade or more and keep the bar set really high. The legendary Demeraras, Caronis and Habitations, the Indian Ocean series, Endemic Birds, Foursquare Collaborations, 70th Anniversary, Appleton Hearts, True Explorer, Rhum Rhum, NRJ…the list just keeps growing.

But the unspoken concomitant to these various collections is that new editions spring from Luca’s fertile imagination and keep getting issued, so often and so quickly that though they elevate Velier to the status of front runner, they drop out of sight almost as quickly if no champions arise to promote them regularly.  Sure, one or two here or there attain mythical status (the Skeldons, some of the Caronis, the original NRJ TECA, the Damoiseau 1980, the Foursquare 2006 and the HV PM White are some such) but in the main, series as a whole tend to vanish from popular consciousness rather quickly.  Consider: can you name the component bottles of the Endemic Birds series, or even how many there are?

Back in 2017, the Genoese firm of Velier celebrated its 70th anniversary (of its founding in 1947, not Luca Gargano’s ownership), and to mark the occasion they released (what else?) a 70th Anniversary series of bottles from all over the map.  Within that select set was a further sub-group, one of six rums whose label and box design ethos was created by Warren Khong, an artist from Singapore of whom Luca was quite fond1. These were rums from Hampden (Jamaica), Mount Gilboa (Barbados), Nine Leaves (Japan), Chamarel (Mauritius), Bielle (Marie Galante) and St. Lucia Distillers, and it’s this last one we’ll be looking at today.

The St. Lucia Distillers edition came from the 6000-liter John Dore pot still No. 2 and in a nice gesture, Velier sent Ian Burrell around to Castries to select a barrel to be a part of the collection.  It was distilled in 2010, aged seven years (tropical, of course), and 267 bottles were issued at a nicely robust 58.6%. 

So, nosing it. Sweet acetones and rubber in an extraordinary balance; initially almost Jamaican, minus the fruit…but only till it changes gears and moves into second.  Sweet, light and forcefully crisp with very precise, definite nasal components. Orange zest, green grapes apples and cider.  Vanilla ice cream.  Varnish, smoke, thyme, mint, pineapple, tic-tacs. There’s a lot foaming on the beach with this rum and it’s definitely worth taking one’s time with.

The palate is trickier: somewhat unbalanced, it’s hot and a bit addled and doesn’t roll out the welcome mat, but nobody can deny it’s very distinct. Initially a shade bitter, and even sour; acidic, cider-like, bubbly, light, crisp, sharp, distinct.  Lots of easy esters here, perhaps an overabundance, because then they get bitchy, which is something that happens when not enough care is taken to balance them off with barrel influence and the inherent character of the rum itself. Becomes nice and sweet-salt as it opens up, which is pleasant, but the finish, relatively the weakest part of the entry (though still very good) is all about esters, fruitiness and some briny notes. Lots of ‘em.

Back in 2017 Marius over at Single Cask Rum reviewed the rum giving it love to the tune of 93 points; and six months later, two of the coolest deep-diving Danish rumdorks of my acquaintance — Gregers and Nicolai — went through the series in its entirety and were really quite enthusiastic about the St. Lucia, both scoring it 91. Some months later I nabbed a sample from Nicolai (same bottle, I’m guessing) and this review results from it. It’s an interesting rum to try, for sure: had I tried it blind I would have sworn it was either a Jamaican DOK-wannabe or a grand arome from Savanna, with some intriguing aspects of its own. That said, the rum seems to be too reliant on the sharp sour fruitiness of the esters which the pot still had allowed through to establish some street cred, leaving other aspects that would have made it shine more, left out, taking a back seat or just subsumed.

While by no means a merely average rum – it is, in point of fact, very good indeed, I want more like it and so far it’s the best scoring St. Lucia rum I’ve ever tried – I’m not convinced that it exceeds the (or my) magic 90 point threshold beyond which we enter halo territory. Nowadays it has sunk into partial obscurity and the dust-covered collections of those who bought theirs early, and while prices have been creeping up over the last years, they are thankfully not four figures yet. It’s too bad that more reviewers haven’t tried and written about it so we could see how other scores rank up, but then, it’s really all a matter of degree: all of us who’ve tried it agree that it’s one really fine rum, no matter how many or how few points we award. And it demonstrates once again – as if it needed to be proved – that Velier maintains a comfortable lead in the race they’re running.

(#870)(88/100)

SMWS R1.4 Monymusk 1991 21 YO Jamaican Rum (“Gets The Juices Flowing”) – Review

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Dec 052021
 

Nobody ever accused the Scotch Malt whisky Society of being in a hurry: although they began releasing rums as far back as 2001 (three unnamed releases, from Jamaica, Guyana and Barbados), they seemed none too happy or enthusiastic with the results, for they waited another ten years before issuing another Jamaican (the R1.2 “Rhubarb and Goose-gogs”), then two more in 2012 during Glenmorangie’s tenure at the helm…and then we hung around watching another seven years go by (and new owners take over) before the R1.5 “A Little Extravagant” came out the door in 2019. 

As you can imagine, the first issues now command some hefty coin, though thankfully not Velier-esque levels of certifiable insanity (the R1.4 I’m discussing here has been climbing though: £190 in 2016 and £230 two years later on Whisky Auctioneer). This is likely because until Simon Johnson of The Rum Shop Boy blog began reviewing the SMWS rums in his own collection in 2018, most rum people overlooked WhiskyFun’s reviews (or my own 2012 attempts to be funny) few knew anything about the Society’s cane output, or cared much. They were too obscure – the overlap between whisky and rum anoraks had not yet gathered a head of steam – and deemed too expensive.

The R1 series (see ‘Other Notes’ below for a quick recap on the numbering schema) of the Society is from Jamaica, Monymusk to be exact and this specific one is from the third issue in 2012, the R1.4, which, in an unconscionable fit of rather reasonable naming, they call “Get the Juices Flowing” … though of course that could describe any Jamaican under the sun.  Distilled in 1991, bottled in 2012, the still is unmentioned – however, since Monymusk rum is distilled at Clarendon which has had a columnar still only since 2009, it’s almost certainly a pot still rum. A peculiarity is the outturn: 696 bottles from a “single cask”, which the label helpfully tells us was a sherry butt (likely 500 liters or perhaps more), and as we know from experience, the Society does not muck around with proof but releases it as is from the cask – 66.2% here. 

That out of the way, let’s get on to the interesting stuff: a continentally aged rum old enough to vote, from a distillery from which we don’t get such offerings often enough. Nose first: wow, very powerful (66.2%, remember? … that’ll put some hair on the old biscuit-chest). Deep burnt sugar, buttery and caramel notes offset by smoke, almonds, ashes and charred wood (don’t ask) and a cornucopia of fruits: red wine, citrus, green apples, grapes, raisins, dates, prunes, peaches, strawberries….it’s very rich, with hot and spicy fumes and aromas just billowing out of the glass.

The strength manifests itself uncompromisingly and solidly when tasted as well. Trying small sips until one adjusts is probably best here, because then the flavours can be savoured stress free and more easily.  And there’s a lot of those, including initial notes, the beginning of tarry smokiness and burning rubber (excuse me?  I didn’t think this was a Caroni). There are also light florals, delicate white fleshed fruits, contrasted moments later with more acidic ones – cider, green apples, mangoes, red grapes and the tartness of lemon peel, all twinkling and frisky, plus brine, olives and some salted caramel. The finish is excellent too – long, toasty, cereal-y, crisp herbs, fruit-filled, a lollipop or two, bubble gum, strawberries and that light touch of saline. 

While there’s no such notation anywhere on the product page or the bottle itself, clearly someone knew enough to let the esters of the leash here, and balance them carefully with softer tastes to take the edge off.  The overall impact is undeniable, and it’s a very impressive dram – very fruity and yet also quite dark and firm in its own way with the caramel, vanilla and brine integrated into the profile very well.  There are some weak points here and there, mostly at the inception of smelling and tasting: one’s senses need to become acclimatized to the force blasting out of the glass before true appreciation sets in.  But overall, this is as good as any Hampden or Worthy Park rum out there, and it’s only major drawback is that it’s so hard to locate these days.

(#869)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • For those new to the Society’s ethos, they don’t name their products, they number them: this stemmed from a practice they had fallen into in the 1980s when whisky distilleries providing single barrels didn’t always want their names associated with this young upstart. Numbers were assigned, one per distillery, plus a second decimal for which release; and funny names — which supposedly were coded references to the taste profile — were added later. With the exception of the first expressions in 2001, rums followed this practice and as of this writing in December 2021, fourteen distilleries in seven countries, all in the Caribbean and Central America are represented. There’s a master list tacked on to the bottom of the Society history which I keep updated as best I can.
  • Sincere and grateful hat tip to Simon Johnson, who spotted me this sample when I couldn’t find one. His own review is worth reading.

Opinion

I’ve written and thought about the SMWS more than most indies, because I find their business model very interesting, and most of their rums aren’t bad at all – they just don’t seem to have a firm handle on where they want to go with this aspect of what they do.  In terms of their operations, on the surface they are an independent whisky bottler, sourcing barrels from whisky distilleries and releasing them to the market. The main difference is that this market is all subscriber-based and requires membership in the society (at an annual cost, additional to that of the product), and you’ll never see one of their bottles on a shop shelf (unless said shop is a member themselves – and even then, they can only sell to other members).

This creates some interesting commercial dynamics.  With thousands of members around the globe and only a few hundred bottles per release (single barrel, remember), it’s inevitable that most people wanting, say, one of the 275 bottles of release 66.177, will be SOL. The society has responded to this inevitable problem by issuing many more expressions in a given period than ever before, from all over the flavour map, and allocating supplies all over the world. They have begun doing blends. Prices are not subject to escalation (except on secondary markets). And of course they have dabbled their toes into other spirits categories as well – gin, bourbon, Armagnac, rum, and so on.

One could reasonably argue how this possibly results in an ongoing commercial enterprise: after all, today there are tons of companies selling single cask bottlings and you don’t have to worry about membership dues tacked on to what is already a hefty price (indie bottlings tend to be more expensive than readily available blends or estate bottlings because of their individualistic nature and different cost structures). The SMWS’s success has rested on a number of pillars: first mover advantages – they were among the first to seriously popularize the concept of single barrel unblended whisky sales, at scale (while not inventing it); great barrel selections in their first years; really good marketing; the mystique of exclusivity of a subscriber based society; and the gradual move and expansion into more than just Scottish distilleries’ whiskies – other countries, other spirits and even an ageing programme of their own (they no longer just buy pre-aged casks from distilleries).

Because the Society remains at heart a whisky-based enterprise, rums are unfortunately given short shrift, and even engaging Ian Burrell to be a sort of onboard consultant in 2020 hasn’t helped much – there has been no noticeable improvement or creative explosion on the rum front. The rums that are released are occasionally set at a price difficult to justify, not as varied as they could be (releases remain solely from the Caribbean and Central America in a time of interesting production from around the world) and the lack of real advertising of these products doesn’t engage the broader rum community who could potentially be their greatest cheerleaders. Other better-known and well-regarded indies are running circles around SMWS’s rum portfolio, issuing more, better, more often and with a lot more hooplah, and primary producers are only just getting started themselves. Moreover, the Society’s rums are released with an inconsistency that is problematic by itself: why would anyone fork out an annual subscription fee when one can’t tell whether in a single year this can result in many rums available for purchase, or a few, or one…or none?

So, personally I think that the rum section of the society needs serious work and more attention by someone who can dedicate time and energy to that alone and not dilute their focus with other things. If a 29 year old Guyanese rum or a 23 year old Caroni can cost £275 each and remain on the ”available” list for months, then I think there are underlying issues of price, promotion, awareness and perception of value that must be improved. The Society may be the cat’s meow on the whisky front (though I note that grumbles about availability, price and quality are a constant feature of online discourse), but with respect to rums, they’re nowhere near the front of the pack. And that’s a pity for an aspect of their work that has such potential for growth.

[Note: this opinion is an expansion of observations briefly touched on in the 2020 company profile of the SMWS; also, full disclosure: I am a member of the SMWS myself, focusing solely on their rums].


 

Rom Deluxe RDL #5 – Worthy Park (2017)(Jamaica, WP 7 YO)

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Nov 152021
 

Rumaniacs Review #130 | 0864

Today we’ll look at the propenultimate rum which the Danish company Rom Deluxe released in their initial forays into their local rum scene.  Six of the seven rums (the seventh being a special release for a client in 2020) were bottled in 2016-2017 after which the “line” ceased. They were all unlabelled and not sold to commercial establishments on a consistent basis, but taken around to tastings, friends, retailers and served as something of an introduction to the tiny company back before they got “serious”. I wonder if they made any money off them.

This is a Worthy Park rum, cask strength, distilled in 2010 and bottled in 2017 (it’s the only one that was done that year). 

Colour – Gold

Age – 6 YO

Strength 64.9%

Nose – The funk is strong with this one.  There’s gooseberries, pineapples, unripe Thai mangoes, unmistakably Jamaican, a serious, fierce nose. Bags of fruit – green apples, pears, blood oranges, red grapefruit, coming to a nice sweet-sour combo after a few minutes.  I’d say there was some light vanilla and baking spices at the back end, but not enough to do more than lend an accent to the main dish.

Palate – Salt, sour and sweet, really strong, but the sharpness is kept at bay with a firmness of taste elements that is impressive. Funk of course, “tek front”, this thing is Jamaican beyond doubt.  Brine and olives in lemon juice, green grapes and apples, grapefruits again, plus grated ginger and a touch of (get this!) wasabi. So softer notes of dates and figs, cumin, nutmeg.  I could sip this for hours, and in fact, I pretty much did.

Finish – Long, dry, fruity, with apples, grapes, citrus, pineapples, kiwi fruits and strawberries.  Plus vanilla.  And bubble gum.

Thoughts – Really good, really solid rum, lots of notes from around the wheel, but always, at end, a Jamaican pot still rum, and a very impressive one.  I doubt I’d be able to say WP or Hampden in a pinch (and it’s a WP, of course)…just that it’s not a bottle I’d give away if I had one. The bad news is that this one is long gone.  The good news is they — Worthy Park and the independents like Rom Deluxe – are making more.

(85/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks as always go to Nicolai Wachmann, for the sample, and Kim Pedersen of Rom Deluxe for his help with the background details.
  • Outturn unknown

Rom Deluxe RDL #4 (2016) (Barbados, Foursquare 11YO)

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Nov 112021
 

Photo Courtesy Rom Deluxe

Rumaniacs Review #129 | 0863

Rom Deluxe, the Danish company whose very first release and company biography was profiled last week, ended up making a total of seven initial bottlings, all of which were more or less non-commercial, and served primarily to establish the small company’s bona fides around the country. They are long since only to be found either in some collector’s back shelf, unlabelled and perhaps even unremembered, or in Rom Deluxe’s own shelves. As a comment on the many years that Rom Deluxe was only a small hobby outfit, observe that six of these seven bottlings were made in 2016 (the year the company was founded) to 2019 (the year of the “Wild series” first release) after which the ethos of changed to a more commercial mindset; the 7th edition, in 2020, was a special edition for a client, not the market.

In the founding year four bottlings were done, with the second and fourth from Barbados – Foursquare to be exact.  This fourth edition was 11 years old (from 2005), and released in early 2017 at cask strength, though the exact outturn is unknown – I’d suggest between two to three hundred bottles.

Colour – Gold

Age – 11 YO

Strength – 58.8%

Nose – Sweet light fruit, raspberries, papayas and the tartness of red currants.  Cherries and unripe green pears.  Vanilla and the slight lemony tang of cumin (I like that), as well as some hint of licorice.  Delicate but emphatic at the same time, yet the heavier notes of a pot still element seem curiously absent.

Palate – Completely solid rum to drink neat; dry and a touch briny and then blends gently into salt caramel ice cream, black bread and herbal cottage cheese (kräuter quark to the Germans).  After opening and a few minutes it develops a more fruity character – plums, ripe black cherries – and mixes it up with cinnamon, light molasses and anise. It goes down completely easy.

Finish – Nice and longish, no complaints.  The main flavours reprise themselves here: anise, molasses, dark fruits, a bot of salt and some citrus. 

Thoughts – Okay it’s a Foursquare, and so a pot-column blend, but perhaps we have all been spoiled by the Exceptionals, because even with the 58.8% strength, it seems more column still than a pot-column mashup, and somehow rather more easy going than it should be. Not too complex, and not too bad — simply decent, just not outstanding or memorable in any serious way.

(82/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks as always go to Nicolai Wachmann, for the sample, and Kim Pedersen of Rom Deluxe for his help with the background details.
Oct 192021
 

Photograph courtesy of reddit user SpicVanDyke,

DDL has, since 2016, capitalized on the worldwide fame of the heritage stills which the independents had forged during and before the current rum renaissance (though it is a peculiarity of the culture that many Guyanese remain completely unaware of the reverence they’re held in around the globe). They have released several editions of the Rare Collection, and also begun to dabble in some interesting experimentals, as well as standard proof editions of the individual wooden still marques (rather than blends). Beginners and Guyanese rum lovers are spoiled for choice these days in a way I can only envy….where was all this juice when I was growing up?

Yet, to my mind, for all of DDL’s effective multi-pronged colonization of the Demerara rum space, it’s not yet time to count out the independent bottlers who did so much to raise the profile of the marques and the stills at the first place. The SMWS, 1423, Tamosi, the Compagnie, Silver Seal and many others are releasing rums edging ever closer to three decades old, from all the major stills. And even if age isn’t the thing, there are always rums released by outfits we barely heard of — like Norse Cask or Kingsbury or L’Esprit — that somehow wow us with their sheer untrammelled excellence.

One rum like that is from what I seriously consider to be one of the most unsung independent bottlers in the rumisphere, L’Esprit. Located in Brittany and run by Tristan Prodhomme, they have bottled few “merely ho-hum” rums in their short history…at least in my opinion. The subject of today’s review, the 2005 12 YO from the Guyanese Port Mourant double wooden pot still, shows why I think that to be the case: it’s among the best they’ve ever done, and one of the best PM rums out there that isn’t from the 1970s, doesn’t have 20+ years of ageing and doesn’t cost multiples of four figures.

Just opening it and taking a deep sniff brings back a lot of memories, not just of Guyana but the ghosts of PM rums past.  It smells rich and deep and dark (in spite of the dark hay colour), of chocolate, toffee, nougat, of fresh bread hot from the oven.  There’s the aroma of pastries, ginger, marzipan and the fruitiness of rum-soaked, raisin-infused Christmas black cake sprinkled with crushed almonds, and over all of that is the scent, never overbearing but always there, of licorice and anise and lemons. 

Tristan bottled this thing at 58%, which was probably the right decision because it has such a rich and intense panoply of tastes that were it stronger, it might conceivably overwhelm your taste buds with a cheerful sensory overload. It’s dry and dusty, hot but not quite sharp, and if the nose restrained the fruits before, it now allows them off the leash: citrus peel, raisins, plums and dark, ripe prunes; oranges and strawberries and, because that clearly wasn’t enough, even stuffed some flambeed bananas in there for good measure. There’s vanilla ice cream sprinkled with nuts, more black cake (a lot of black cake), toblerone, aromatic tobacco, even a touch of salt caramel and Swiss bon bons. It leads to a long, dry, pungent and aromatic finish redolent of citrus, tart fruits, some yoghurt, anise, dark fruits and a final slice of the cake your Granny used to save for you on Boxing Day.

This rum is, in short, really kind of spectacular.  It does nothing new, but gives so much and does what it does so well, that it’s like revisiting all one’s favourite Port Mourant rums at once. Do I have a thing for Guyana generally, and for Port Mourant specifically?  Sure I do. But it’s more than just liking a rum, any rum, or even this rum. Tasting it is a form of natsukashii — a Japanese term for some small thing that brings back sudden, clear and strongly fond memories — not with a wistful longing for what’s past but with an appreciation of the good times, now gone, always remembered. 

Because, sooner or later, my mind always returns to Guyana. Not just for the nameless waterfalls, the South Savanna or the Pakaraimas; not only because I miss pepperpot, cookup, or a clap’ roti wit’ baigan choka, or egg ball ‘n’ sour; and not solely because I remember the cool red waters of its creeks, Stabroek Market, that lovely blue mosque at Crabwood Creek, speedboats across the Essequibo, cricket at Bourda, the regatta at Bartica, running along the seawall, or the dreaming jungle paths ‘in de bush’ where I worked all those years ago. 

No, not only for those things, though certainly that’s part of it, and of course, I’ve eaten labba and drunk creekwater, so there’s that.  But eventually, always, my mind goes back for the sheer variety of the country’s rums, those amazing rums, in their seemingly inexhaustible variety, that come from all those many stills housed at Diamond. L’Esprit didn’t intend to make a rum that evoked such feelings, of course, but that’s what they did. Every one of us has some object (or some rum) like that.  This is one of mine, and even if you disagree and just drink the thing, I believe you’d like and appreciate the rum for what it is too — a superb example of what DDL is capable of and what L’Esprit managed to bottle.

(#859)(91/100)


Other notes

  • A special hat tip to the reddit user SpicVanDyke, who graciously allowed me to use his photograph when mine turned out to be garbage. His (also positive) review, the only other one I could find, is here.
  • 238-bottle outturn

SMWS R10.1 Trinidad Distillers 1991 25 YO Rum (“Carnival Concerto”) – Review

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Sep 272021
 

Just in case rums that have mated with a two-by-four are not your thing, kiss your significant other tenderly and take a deep heaving breath before sipping SMWS’s first Trini offering, because at 63.4% and with this profile, you’ll need a fall-back plan.  I mean, there’s an enormous expanding blast radius of sharp aromas and tastes billowing around this thing that makes such prudence not just an option, but a requirement. Reading the stats on the bottle gives rise to some serious anticipation, which makes it all the more peculiar that it ends up being so…ordinary.

Take a careful sniff. You’ll probably find, like me, a fair bit of “traditional” rummy aromas here: vanilla and caramel, blancmange, coffee, creme brulee. The slight bitterness of oak and wood varnish. Raisins, kiwi fruits and orange rind, a touch of mild salt.  And….and… well actually, that’s pretty much it. What the…? For sure the nasal assault is strong and sharp and hot, yet that proof point, that quarter century age, does suggest that it should do more than simply giving the impression of still being in short trousers. It feels washed out.

How’s the profile when tasted, then? Better, yes…up to a point. The hot bite of oak tannins leads in and never quite lets go. Some shoe polish, iodine, glue. Coiling behind that are salted caramel ice cream, vanilla (again, annoyingly obstreperous) and white chocolate, almonds, and where the hell are the fruits gone? At best, if you strain you might pick up some black tea and with water and I dunno, peppermint gum, a green apple, maybe half a pear.  Water helps tone down that acrid tone, but this just – paradoxically enough – calls attention to the fact that it’s there to begin with. Finish is assertive and spicy, then fades fast, leaving behind memories of spices – marsala, cumin, more vanilla, brown sugar and again, oak and black tea.

By now you’ve probably come to the dismayed realization that this is not a rum eliciting paeans of praise from choirs of angels who’ve gotten high on their share, and you’d be right, because it fails on a number of levels. The strength obliterates subtlety: not always a bad thing when done right, but on this occasion all it does is dampen down what should be a more complex, dense series of tastes. Even with 25 years of continental ageing there should be more going on — instead, we get a fiery shot that could as easily be five years old.  The vanilla is like a guest that won’t leave and between that and the oak, the result is a rum overwhelmed by hot simplicity.

The SMWS, which was formed in 1983, is primarily a whisky society, though in recent years they have branched out into armagnacs, cognacs, bourbons, rums, and even gins. So far they have rums from Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica, Panama, Nicaragua, Belize and Trinidad and it’s all a bit hit or miss, with mostly Barbados, Jamaica and Guyana rums holding up their end when rated against other indies doing the same thing. From T&T they have several Caronis (the R13.x series) and only two from Trinidad Distillers, the R10.1 and R10.2, issued in 2016 and 2017 respectively. That distillery is of course the home of Angostura, and always struck me, what with their industrial stills and barrel focus, as closer to the Spanish heritage production ethos than that of the English.

Personally, I’m not always won over by Trinidad rums aside from the Caronis (this is a purely personal thing). Angostura, though more informative than the Panamanians, too often shares something of their overall ho-hum, good-’nuff anonymity and deserves an occasional suspicious look. Sort of like “Okay, it’s a rum, so what?” That can work with blended releases issued to the broader market where “cheap and decent” gets the sales, but for a more exacting audience exemplified by those people whom the indies serve, that can be fatal, as it is here. The R10.1 is a strong blast of nothing in particular, a big show with no go, showcasing far too much of the barrel and not enough of the booze.

(#853)(79/100)


Other notes

  • Initially the rum sold for £195 but subsequent auctions on WhiskyAuctioneer and Catawiki came in lower than that.
  • Aged in refill ex-bourbon barrels between December 1991 and 2016, with a final outturn of 228 bottles.
  • A comprehensive list of all the SMWS’s rum bottlings can be found at the bottom of the biography.
Sep 222021
 

€57. Think about that for a minute. That’s how much this rum cost when it was first released in 2005. Good luck finding it anywhere near that, now. By 2019 the bottle price had already climbed past £1800 and as of this writing it is closing in on three grand on the auction listings.  And it’s not even the most famed or the best of the Demeraras, because the unicorns most avidly sought after and collected tend to be the PM and Skeldons, and maybe the Albions and UF30E. For some reason, Diamond, LBI, Blairmont and Uitvlugt rums from the canon, even those from pre-1990, are occasionally deemed as “less” — whatever that can possibly mean in this day and age — though of course still appreciating nicely on secondary markets.

Photo (c) Velier

The French Savalle-still Guyanese rum released by Velier may not be one of the top-tier three-decade-old grail quests (unless it’s being sourced by a canny and knowledgeable investor-fan who knows better), but I submit it certainly has the pedigree to be included in the pantheon. Distilled in 1988 and aged in Guyana until 2005, it’s a robust 52.9% 17 year old rum whose origin still was housed at Uitvlugt at the time, and four barrels came together to produce 1091 bottles, which, if they used ex-bourbon American Standard barrels, implies an angel’s share so measly as to be impossible – Luca Gargano got back to me and said it was four 200-liter refilled (i.e. consolidated) barrels.

The aromas of this thing were certainly of that rich thickness that marked out others from that far back. The nose was initially spectacular – plasticine, furniture polish, fresh paint over new wood; briny and olive-y, offset by a wonderful scent of autumn leaves after a rain, damp aromatic tobacco, and the deep smell of ripe, fleshy fruits. As it opened up molasses and salt caramel ice cream came forward and were joined by darker and oversweet prunes, blackberries, red cherries…they teetered right on the edge of going off altogether before pulling back from the brink.  Crisp and musky at the same time, the nose had just a trace of tannins at the back end, and was, after some time, even faintly bitter – the fruits were there, but so was the hint of something sour, like an almost spoiled lemon.

The palate was a curious beast, again quite briny, which I thought unusual for an Uitvlugt.  Too, there were these peculiar – if faint – notes of tar and petrol, then the sour-sweet taste of freshly-grated ginger. However, after these badasses came, sneered and then departed, we were thankfully in more familiar territory: molasses, caramel, and burnt sugar took over the stage, to be joined by lemons, chocolate oranges, a freshly baked meringue pie, raisins, dates and prunes. You might think that such notes would present as somewhat oversweet, but the rum never quite overstepped the mark and stayed crisp and flavourful without too much excess in any department. I particularly loved the lingering finish, which was a touch sharp, fruity, warm, redolent of breakfast spices and some olives, as warm and welcome and sweet as Mrs. Caner’s kisses when I promise to buy her that Prada purse she’s been after for so long.

It’s become almost conventional wisdom that the Age’s Demeraras are the pinnacle of everything a Demerara rum could ever aspire to be. Few rums from anywhere equal them, fewer surpass them and they are both summit and baseline for any Demeraras ever made. Given the mania to get one, and the aura of near mythical invincibility surrounding the series, it is difficult nowadays to be objective about any of them…though cold reason suggests that statements of their magnificence are unlikely to be true in every single case.

Still, we have to face facts – the early rums distilled in the ’70s and ’80s really were and are a cut above the ordinary, and there are few weaklings in the bunch, which is why a rum like this can now be found only on secondary markets for four figures. Even parking my cynicism and experience, I have to concede that the Uitvlugt 1988 is so good and so tasty and so approachable – and so limited – that in the years to come, it might go the way of the Skeldons and bankrupt a third world nation. It was and remains a rum seething with the richness of a great spirit in any category, and has added luster to the annals of the Demeraras.

(#852)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • Angel’s share calculation: 1,091 bottles x 0.7 liters/bottle ÷ 4 barrels = 191 liters/barrel, which works out to a loss from the maximum 800 liters (4 x 200 liters for the “standard” ASB) of around 5%. Luca Gargano confirmed (a week after this article went up) that several 200 Liter barrels had been consolidated into the four which were mentioned on the label..
  • The marque on the barrels is SP-ICBU. Tech details from Velier’s site.
  • Not many reviews out there.  Single Cask Rum was really enthusiastic about this one (96 points), much more so than I was, while Marco, in one of the first such reviews back in 2014, was less positive in his unscored review and as usual, his historical detail is impeccable. Gregers Nielsen, one of my rum chums, was so horrified by my “measly” score that he nearly unfriended me on the spot, since he felt it to be one of the top five Velier Demeraras ever made.

Moon Import 1982 22 Year Old Blended Jamaica Rum – Review

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Sep 122021
 

It’s unclear to me what Moon Import thought it was doing back in 2004 when they blended this rum. They had done blends before, something of a departure from other Italian independents who since the 1970s had thought to bootstrap their expertise with single cask whisky selections into commensurate skill with single cask rums … but few except maybe Rum Nation (which was formed nearly two decades after Moon Import) took blends seriously.

Even when released as such, for the most part rums made that way tended to be multiple barrels of a single distillery, usually a particular year and age, so that more bottles of something exceptional could be wrung out. Moon, while certainly adhering to that philosophy when it suited them, also played around with blends more than most, particularly with Jamaican rums and here they mixed up stock from four different distilleries: Innswood, Long Pond, New Yarmouth and Monymusk, from what were undoubtedly barrels aged in Scotland. One wonders how come Hampden and Worthy Park were not considered for inclusion…perhaps they were too aggressive and didn’t play nice.

For originality at least, kudos to Moon – at that time the various operating distilleries in Jamaica were not very well known, so to take these four and combine them took some courage — to mention them individually at all was unheard of. Too bad they ballsed it up on the labelling – they spelled the name wrong on one of them, then added insult to injury by calling it a “Rhum Agricole”, just as they did with the Demerara 1974 released the same year.  They mentioned which bottle in the series it was…but not the total outturn. Moreover, they noted year of production (1982)  and year of bottling (2004)…then said there was a 25 year old hiding in one of them. Clearly quality control and fact checking were unfunded areas of endeavour in the labelling department back in the day.

But that aside, the rum had its points that its shoddy labelling could not entirely hide. Bottled at the 46% commonly used by small independents at that time, it smelled of wax and sugar water plus a bit of unsweetened yoghurt, and stoned fleshy fruits like cherries and peaches just starting to go off a little.  It presented like “Jamaica lite”, a sort of gently funked-up rum which today would be thought of as “meh” but back then was probably considered scandalous. I liked it, not least because that nose really took its time coming out and even a quarter hour later I was writing down things like “old paper”, “sweet and dry” and noted how the light clarity of green apples and citrus combined nicely with the softer aromas.

Tastewise, I would have to say it was somewhat indeterminate: it was hardly Jamaican at all by this point. Oh the flavours were there: the questions is, what were they? The rum was dry, almost astringent, and presented tastes of faint, dry smoky spices like masala, paprika and tumeric. There was some fruity ruminess – raisins, figs, dates, caramel, vanilla, and cinnamon, and yes, there were fruits hiding behind those, but it was curiously difficult to come to grips with them because they kept ducking and bobbing and weaving. Still: fruits, florals, black tea, spices, and a nice cleanliness ot the experience.  It all wrapped up in a finish that carved its way down with firm clarity, leaving behind memories of vanilla, nuts, light caramel, raisins, aromatic tobacco and peaches.

So what to say about the rum? Well, it was a good drink and a tasty dram. It was nice and complex, good nose, excellent palate, worked well as a sipping rum — after twenty plus years of ageing the rough edges had been gently sanded down to smoothness. I liked it, and I think you would too, in spite of its mild I’m-not-sure-I’m-a-Jamaican character. 

The combination worked, and the four distilleries made for an interesting blend. I’m just left with a nagging sense of incompleteness, as if there was more in there we were missing. Bottling each distillery’s rum as a quartet might have done more to highlight their qualities than mixing them all together and forcing them to give up their individuality in the soft merging of variant profiles.  It is to Pepi Mongiardino’s credit that he made a rum that skated past such concerns and came out the other end as a product worth getting. And so, while it does Jamaica no dishonour at all, I think you’ll also find that it inflames rather more desires than it quenches.

(#850)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • Bottle #218 (total outturn unknown)
  • The bottle says “pot still” but I’m ignoring that in my tagging
  • Translation of back label:“This exceptional Jamaican Rhum is part of two different bottles blended from four different distilleries: Innerwood, Yarmouth, Monymusk and Long Pond, aged in Scotland for 20 and 25 years.The two barrels could have been assembled but to keep the meticulous difference we preferred to keep them distinct.

    It will be interesting for amateurs to test themselves in tasting the two different vintages.

    Presents a bouquet of nutmeg, cinnamon, hay, yellow fruits such as apricot, banana and peach smoothed and ripe, and a final of chilli. On the palate it results in licorice wood at the entrance, with honey, cedar, ginger and dry banana.

    Exceptional cleaning and drying of the palate.”

Velier Caroni 1996 21 YO Extra Strong 100º “Imperial Proof” Rum – Review

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Sep 062021
 

By now, the story has entered into the folklore of rum: in October 2004 Luca Gargano and the (late) photographer Fredi Marcarini, sniffing out rums from around the Caribbean to round out Velier’s rum portfolio and being dissatisfied with Angostura’s offerings, decided to visit the Caroni distillery, even though it had already been closed for a year. Arriving at the premises and being let in, they were shown a warehouse where several thousand barrels dating back more than twenty years had been stored (and implied to be overlooked, if not actually forgotten). Most of the barrels were bought by Velier in several tranches over the following years, and always presented as some sort of exotic treasure, an undiscovered, unappreciated and unheralded jewel in the mud brought to light through intrepid and personal Indiana-Jones-style sleuthing that reaped the benefits — which larger and less adventurous rum bottlers who safely bought from European brokers, could and did not. 

In the ensuing years beginning in 2005, Caroni rums were carefully released in limited batches to the market, primarily Italy. Just as with the Demeraras, these releases broke new ground – for one, the barrels were not always blended into huge consistent outturns of several thousand bottles, but were often released as they were, a few hundred at a time: at best maybe two or three barrels of similar provenance or age or strength might be combined.  And this is why there are so very many Velier Caroni rums in existence – at last count I have about sixty-plus (the Hampden “Endemic Birds” series follows the principle of multiple bottle releases, though I submit it is for completely different reasons). Sometimes there are bottles from the same year, the same age, but a few proof points apart; in others, it’s a “Heavy” or a “Light” edition. Blends began to be issued in larger quantities.

The rum from today is from the middle of the Caroni era (which we are still living through, even if the end may now be in sight) – distilled in 1996, blended and bottled in 2017 at “Imperial” proof of 100º (57.18%), a massive angel’s share of some 86%, resulting in an an outturn of about 7,000 bottles. The decision to bottle at this strength is supposedly to showcase the heavy character of the rum and perhaps genuflect to the Navy tradition, but I suspect this is more a convenience than anything else, as various lesser and greater proofs have always characterized the Caroni line without any such romantic explanations. The red and white label, it should be noted, like the gold-white-blue Tate & Lyle facsimile adorning some of Velier’s later Caroni editions, is a replica of the style of a 1940s original. Tracking that down proved elusive, unfortunately.

So, to the tasting then. By now the heavy, tarry and fusel-oil profile of the Caronis is one of the most recognized taste markers in the rum world, so it comes as no surprise to find it here: the rum presents opening aromas of rich caramel and tar, deeply intense, with petrol held way back. There’s licorice and dark fruits – raisins, prunes, plums and blackberries – plus a nice sharpish and lighter cognac kick that is far from unpleasant. The real characteristic of the nose seems to be less the diesel machinery than the garden, however – black grapes, very soft mangoes and all manner of overripe fruit. There’s just little tartness to balance that off…unsweetened yoghurt, maybe.

Tasting the thing reveals powerful tar and petrol notes by the bucketload, dry, oily and amazingly mouth coating. The profile is nicely solid, hardly sharp at all, and displays a touch of brine and olives, as well as — initially — an oddly metallic, medicinal sort of taste.  

Once it settles down a richly dark, perfumed profile emerges for real: licorice, tar, dates, raisins, prunes, dark unsweetened chocolate, black grapes, blueberries, that cognac line again.  There’s a delicate sort of citrus background that lends a nice counterpoint to the duskier, heavier tastes. It’s not a rum to hurry through, even on the finish: this is dry, long, aromatic, phenolic, leaving behind mostly sweet thick caramel molasses notes and some burnt rubber, plus a last flirt of exhaust fumes as it roars away into memory.

As a blend, it’s really kind of spectacular – there aren’t many of these deep, surly rums around any longer, and even the New Jamaicans’ high ester rums tend towards the fruity and sharp notes, not the brutal stomp-it strength of the Clydesdales that are the Caronis. That said, not everyone will like the heaviness of the experience: agricole lovers or those who prefer soft Spanish light rums will find little to enthuse them here, and that’s Caroni for you — not everyone is in tune with the steampunk esthetic and industrial farting of this long shuttered Trini style.

But I like it, and think that even if the prices of the smaller, older and rarer editions of Velier’s Caronis are too high, there’s still good quality and interesting tastes to be found in the high-outturn blends like 12 year old, or the 15, 17 and a few others. The appeal of the Caroni line of rums lies in their miniscule variations from one batch to the next (no matter who issues it), which allows any curious enthusiast to sample just a few and get a good sense for what it’s all about. The 21 year old from 1996 is among the oldest of these blends, and while it does cost a bit, it is, in my opinion, also among the best.

(#848)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • It is often believed that Velier first released the Classic Demerara rums, and as their availability declined and the price ascended (sometimes beyond all reason), the Caronis came in to supplant them as the second great series of rums which made Velier’s reputation.  But strictly speaking, this is not true – the awareness of the Caronis peaked much later, but they began to be released in 2005, just around the same time as the first “true” dark-bottled Demeraras from the Age began to hit the market.

Additional Background

The myth of the “discovery” of these thousands of barrels may be true, but others dispute it, claiming that it had always been known that the rum stocks were there and they existed and were for sale. This goes as far back as 2000 when the distillery was already in perilous financial straits and courting buyers, and one local story held that a foreign consultant valued the year 2000 existing stocks of eighteen thousand barrels at between TT$1 billion (about US$160,000) and TT$6 billion (~US$935,000) depending on whether they were sold as aged or bulk rums. Both numbers were seen as implausibly low (US$935,000 for 18,000 barrels works out to US$52/barrel), as the writer was at pains to point out. 

The distillery shuttered in 2003, and as is now well known, independents like Velier et al, and Scheer/Main Rum, bought out the stocks over the next few years – it was not done all at once, nor was it only Velier, and it went through Government officers (one could hardly get an export license without them). What is missing from all accounts is the pricing asked for and paid, and for what volume. In 2018, by which time Caronimania was a well established (if misunderstood) phenomenon, Raffique Shah (the author of the original 2000 article) returned to the theme and scolded the politicians of the day for ignoring or not even understanding the rum stocks’ pricing given their elevation to the “Blue Label Crowd.” He suggested that they disdained their own country’s rum, couldn’t be bothered to do any due diligence, and allowed a huge potential windfall to slip through their fingers. He all but accused them of skullduggery and corruption.

Whether any of this is true or not is, at this remove, probably impossible to tell. Commercial entities are under no obligation to disclose such matters and since we know neither the volume of barrels sold nor the amount paid for each, or by whom, anything beyond this point is just uninformed speculation that hopefully will one day be replaced by facts. But it’s a good case study in how rums (or any local  third world resources for that matter) get bought and sold.


 

Our Rum & Spirits Enmore MEV 1990 24 YO Guyana Rum – Review

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Sep 022021
 

One of the German independent Our Rum & Spirits’ earlier bottlings is the Guyanese Enmore from 1990 which was bottled in 2015, a year after they released their first one (an 11 YO Diamond). It’s a respectable 24 (European) years old, a solid anvil-dropping 61.2% ABV, 178 bottles, and of course, it’s not from the Enmore coffey but from the Versailles single wooden pot still, which was the still-in-residence at Enmore Estate back then, before everything got shipped off to Diamond around 2000 in The Great Consolidation.

By now I’ve been trying various single-still offerings from Guyana for years, usually made by the indies but also, more recently, by DDL themselves. One thing I’ve observed is that Enmore distillate tends to be a shade more elegant and a touch light, the Port Mourant is dark and rich and rarely bad at any age, while Versailles is somewhat more brutal, is raw and assertive, and takes real skill to bring to its full potential. This may be why there are so many bottlings of the other two in circulation, while Versailles is rather more rare, and used more in Demerara rum blends (along with the PM).

That said, it’s always interesting how a rum made three decades ago and aged for so long holds on to its character. The nose here opens with fresh, damp sawdust and varnished lumber.  One would expect a certain mellowness of age, a smoothening out of roughness, yet the rum still noses like a product much younger, retaining a thin crisp vibrancy, with notes of glue, acetones, licorice, smoke, well-polished old leather, faint salted caramel, and a few ripe stoned fruits for some edge. Oh, and some sweet dusting of brown sugar and cinnamon.

The palate is where such forceful strength comes into its own: here that presents as dry, woody and very sharp, like a whole bag of Red Rose loose black tea dumped into a very small pot and then doused with some brown sugar and a tin of evaporated milk (we called it “bush tea” back in the day – I once fed my little brother some when he was doing exams and he stayed up for two days straight on the stuff). Vanilla, molasses, caramel and licorice are the dominant flavours.  Subtler hints of acetone, soya and brininess become noticeable after a while, and some very faint floral and fruity hints waft around without ever making a serious statement.  Unsurprisingly it concludes with a finish as long as a polar summer sunset, but it’s slim pickin’s: wood and tannins, some salted caramel, anise, and again, a grain or two of cinnamon.

Well, I have to say that for something sporting a jock of such high ABV and age, I did expect something more complex and pungent on the attack. While undeniable strong and hard on the senses, in the flavour department the rum packs all the verve and panache of an eunuch’s underwear. The opening notes are simple, almost lackluster; then the palate overwhelmed with wood and varnish, and I was reminded of the Old Man Spirits’ Uitvlugt, which also showed off a lot of oomph but had little serious sensory action beyond the obvious. It suggests to me that the cask was not very active, and what you got was what the raw distillate brought to the party, not what the barrel itself was able to add.

Be that as it may, I can’t give the final product a completely failing grade, because let’s admit it, at that strength you’re getting a lot, the tastes that are there aren’t bad, and if it takes a bit more effort to tease out more interesting and extra aromatic notes, well, so be it. All the stats – the ABV, the age, the country, the still – are just excuses to get us to engage our senses with the rum itself, a Diamond-based Duke Nukem that’s all action and no reflection, desiring no deeper meaning for itself beyond the test of your ability to cope with it. Speaking for myself, I can’t say that’s entirely a bad thing.

(#847)(84/100)


Background History

Our Rum & Spirits, located in the small town of Hildesheim just south of Hanover in north-central Germany, is among the first of the new wave of modern German independents, however small they might be. Back in 2014 when the company bottled its first release (a Guyanese 2003 11 YO from Diamond), the rum business was a sideshow to Christian Nagel’s restaurant which served rums (and some other spirits) as part of the menu. 

The next logical step was to bottle what he himself would like to have – at the very least if he had a barrel, he wouldn’t run out quite so fast. The reception to the initial Diamond was so good that others followed, and two years later he was exhibiting at the Berlin Rum Fest: he’s now a regular and a medal winner there (several times) and has multiple bottlings from Guyana, Barbados, Panama and Jamaica. For me he’s a regular stopping point whenever I’m there, if only to chat and say hello.

By early 2018 he removed his spirits activities to different premises from the restaurant and now acts as both independent and distributor; this aspect of his work became successful enough that in June of 2021, gave up the gastronomy business altogether.


 

Silver Seal Special Reserve “Dennery” St. Lucia Rum (Sestante Collection)- Review

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Aug 302021
 

This rum has a very long title: it’s full name is the Silver Seal St. Lucia Distillers “Dennery” Special Reserve Rum, of the “Sestante Collection.”  It’s something of a collector’s item these days, though issued relatively recently around 2017, and all the various terms on the label require some background explanation that might derail your interest in the review itself (unless you’re a trivia and history nut like I am and actually, y’know, enjoy this stuff).  

Let me just provide some bare bones detail on the rum, get right into the tasting and then you can nod off to the extraneous material beneath that if you’re of a mind.  Firstly, it’s a single cask bottling of 600 70-cl bottles watered down to 43% (hence the substantial outturn).  It’s a no-age-statement and undated rum which is highly annoying given that it came from a single cask, and demonstrates that much as we like the indie bottlers, some (even the Oldies) still have a ways to go on matters of disclosure from time to time. Since there’s only one distillery on the island, it’s no hardship to deduce who made it.

That’s the easy part. Things get tricky from here: there are few references online about the rum – not a single reviewer I know has tasted the thing, and those that tasted its cousin, the “Superior” like Wes, Serge or Steve, had similar grouches about it, that there was just nothing to go on, and SS was not returning calls.  The SS website was and remains completely useless; and as if that isn’t bad enough, there are three separate “Dennery” rums from Silver Seal: the Superior, the Special Reserve with a silver box (600 bottles, 43%) and the Special Reserve from the Sestante Collection with the dark red box (600 bottles, 43%). All display a similarly stunning paucity of information.

Another peculiarity is how dark it is – it possibly speaks to decades-long maturation, if one is feeling generous and if SS ever bothered to mention it. But probably not. A first sniff and a snoot rapidly dispels any such ur-aged collector’s edition fantasies.  It presents immediately with such a deep black licorice note that I remember thinking this was a mislabelled Demerara.  It smells of the rich, wet loam of newly turned garden earth after a rain.  Thick aromas of licorice, bitter caramel, wood chips billow out, later accompanied by unsweetened chocolates, coffee, then citrus, chocolate oranges, mint, dark cake.  It’s very solid and not subtle, and completely at odds with the 1931 series of rums I was trying alongside it. Or, for that matter, with the standard Admiral Rodney.

The palate was similarly odd…yet hauntingly familiar. It took me back to the jungles of Guyana where I worked as a young man fresh out of school, redolent of rotten, moss-covered logs decaying into damp dirt and leaves, under a dripping canopy speared here and there with dappled sunlight, and I literally cannot find another way to accurately describe this remarkable profile. It tasted of old and well-polished leather Berbice chairs, minerals, smoke, compost, unsweetened chocolate and dark fruits, creamy cake and just a touch of brine and lemon peel, leading into a long (for 43%) and dry finish that showed off closing notes of aromatic tobacco, dried prunes, dates and again, that leather.

Unusual?  Yeah, it’s unusual. Based onthe writers’ tasting notes it shares a lot of DNA, it would appear, with the Superior — and this is where real info on each of the three releases would have helped us understand the tastes better. It reminded me less of a St. Lucian rum than an over-oaked Versailles from Guyana, and – in a strange way – even the dour wooden mustiness of the Saint James 1885.  I’m going to give it points for unusual tastes and an interesting experience that does not fail (in my opinion, too often people mark something down because they expect it to be one way and then it doesn’t conform to the preconceived notion, for good or ill) but take away a few for excessive dark sweet oak and licorice that dominates too much.  

So is it a buy? The SS Dennery does occasionally sail into — and out of — various auctions for under £200, so it’s something of a pricey-but-affordable indulgence.  And it does have a solid indie name behind it, and tastes and samples well. Yet I can’t find myself recommending the thing. Not because it is too little like a St. Lucian, but because if Silver Seal didn’t care enough to tell us anything concrete about its age or its components or dates or stills, then either they’re too lazy to actually service their consumers in the modern age, or they know damned well what it is they’re peddling and are hiding it. This starving author ain’t buying on either account.

(#846)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • Silver Seal was founded by an Italian, Ernesto Mainardi in 2000 and like its predecessor, the Sestante import company which he had established in the late 1970s, it dealt primarily in whiskies: they began to do their own bottlings in 1985. Few records of the rums either company made are extant – most of the famous Silver Seal rums we know today were issued after Mainardi sold both companies to Massimo Righi, the owner of Whisky Antique, in 2010.
  • “Sestante” means sextant in English, and is the name of a collection Silver Seal created that was meant to pay homage to Mainardi’s original company.  It showcases both whiskies and rums, but it remains unclear what makes them special. Too few of the rums in that collection – not that we know anything much about them since there’s no master list anywhere – have been reviewed to make any definitive statement about the matter.
  • St Lucia Distillers was formed in 1972 through the consolidation of the Dennery Distillery, which was owned by the Barnard family, and the distillery run by the Geest family at Roseau Bay. In 1993 the Barnards bought out the Geests, and in 2005 sold out to CL Financial (may their glasses be perpetually empty) who in turn, after their reckless financial exposure to the crash of 2008 nearly bankrupted them, sold out to Spiribam, the current owner.
  • Since St. Lucia Distillers has four stills (two John Dore pot stills, a hybrid Vendome pot still, and the original two-column McMillan coffey still) and their standard line is all blended, the Dennery rum  is likely a pot-column blend (my opinion).
  • There is no “Dennery” style or classifiable rum type (unlike, say, the Rockley over in Barbados). The name has been given to the rum as a callback to the distillery’s origins, that’s all.

Opinion (adapted from my coment on FB)

I make a lot of noise about prejudging rums based on expectations, and indeed, I firmly believe it is hard to let such notions go when you know you’re tasting a rum this old, from that distillery located in this-or-that particular country. Your experience and background serve to provide background and comparators. As well as, of course, your preferences, biases and likes/dislikes.

But I also believe in the provision of information by the bottler, and to evaluate a special edition – which this supposedly is – one has to know what exactly is special about it: is that the age? provenance? distillation? great harvest from a special year? fancy barrels?

None of this is provided by Silver Seal, and yet within that limitation, the rum is quite nice (though a rather startling divergence from what we understand to be St. Lucian rums). But the opinion on “just the profile” is now harder to contextualize because that’s the only data point there is. Is it as good as other rums that old, other rums that come off of that still, that strong, that year? There’s simply no way to know that or discuss it, and as such I find myself not recommending it for the buy unless you really want to get it and have the free coin. Which I don’t and I don’t.

Cadenhead Green Label Barbados 1986 18 YO Rum (WIRD) – Review

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Aug 262021
 

Cadenhead, in their various rum releases stretching back a hundred years or more, has three major rivers running into the great indie rum ocean, each of which has progressively less information than the one before it:

  • The cask strength, single-barrel “Dated Distillation” series with a three- or four-letter identifier and lots of detail on source and age; I submit these are probably the best and rightly the most sought-after rums they release.  The only question usually remaining when you get one, is what the letters stand for.
  • The Green Label series; these are usually single-country blends, sometimes mashed together from multiple distilleries (or stills, or both), mostly from around the Caribbean and Central/South America (they’ve gone further afield of late).  Here you get less detail than the DDs, mostly just the country, the age and the strength, which is always 46% ABV. I never really cared for their puke yellow labels with green and red accents, but now they’re green for real. Not much of an improvement, really.
  • Classic Blended Rum; a blend of Caribbean rums, location never identified, age never stated (not  on label or website), usually bottled at around 50% ABV. You takes your chances with these, and I’ve only ever had one, and quite liked it.

The subject of today’s review is a Green Label Barbados. This is not the first time that this series (which Cadenhead releases without schedule, rhyme or reason) has had a Barbadian rum in it: in fact, I had looked at a Barbados 10 year old back in 2017.  There are at least seven rums that I know of in that series, not counting the full strength “Dated Distillation” collection, and I think they have an entrant from every distillery on the island between the two collections except St. Nicholas Abbey (which doesn’t export bulk). Most of the Greens are from WIRD or Mount Gay, while Foursquare is rather better represented of late in the DDs.

Which one is this, then? As far as I know, it’s a WIRD rum done in the Rockley style, based on these data points: Marco Freyr’s research, Marius Elder’s Rockley tasting based on research of his own, the year of distillation (1986 is a famous year for the Rockley style), and my own tasting – none of which is conclusive on its own, but which in aggregate are good enough for government work, and I’ll stand behind it until somebody issues the conclusive corrective.

I say it’s a Rockley style (see below for a historical recap), which is an opinion I came to after the tasting and before looking around for details, but what is it about its profile that bends my thinking that way?  Well, let’s get started and I’ll try to explain.  

Nose first: It’s both sharp and creamy at once, with clear veins of sweet red licorice, citrus, sprite and fanta running through a solid seam of caramel, toffee, white chocolate, almonds and a light latte. Letting it open up brings forth some light, clean floral scents, mint, sugar water, red currants and raisins, which the Little Caner grandly dismissed under with the brief title of “oldie fruity stuff.” (You can’t impress that boy, honestly).

The palate is interesting: it’s clean, yet also displaying some of the more solid notes which would suggest a pot still component; it retains the sharp and crisp tartness of unripe fruit – red currants, raspberries, strawberries, mangoes. Here the caramel bonbons and toffees take a back seat and touches of brine, pimentos and balsamic vinegar suggest themselves. Leaving it alone and then returning, additional notes of marzipan, green grapes and apples are noticeable, and also a rather more marked oak influence, though this does not, fortunately, overwhelm. The finish is dry, sweet and salt, with some medicinal iodine flashes, plus of course the oak, fruits and licorice, nothing too earthshaking here.

The rum as a whole is not unpleasant at all, and yes, it’s Rockley style — if you were to retry the SMWS R6.1 from 2002 (“Spice at the Races”) and then sample a few Foursquares and a MG XO, the difference is clear enough for there to be little doubt. Surprisingly, Marius felt the herbal and honey notes predominated and pushed the fruits to the back, while I thought the opposite. But he says and I inferred, that this is indeed a Rockley.

I think the extended maturation had something to do with how well it presented: even accounting for slower ageing in Scotland, eighteen years was sufficient to really enhance the distillate in a way that the older Samaroli WIRD 1986 released two years later somehow failed to do. It’s rare, unfortunately (we don’t know the outturn), but it’s come up for auction on whisky sites a few times and varies in price from £80-£120, which I think is pretty good deal for those who like Barbadian rums in general. This rum from Cadenhead is not a world beater, but it’s quite good on its own terms, and showcases an aspect of Barbados which is nice to try on occasion, if only for the variety. 

(#845)(85/100)


The Rockley “Still”

(This section will not be updated, and has been transferred to its own post, here, to which all subsequent information will be added)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a final note, the actual, long non-functional Rockley still has long been sitting on the WIRD premises as a sort of historical artifact.  In November 2021, it was noted they were shipping it off to a coppersmith in France for refurbishment, with view to making it useable again.


 

El Destilado Aguardiente de Panela (Mexico) – Review

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Aug 152021
 

It was probably a good thing that I first tried this innocent looking white rum1 released by the UK independent bottler El Destilado (not to be confused with the restaurant of the same name in Oaxaca) without knowing much about it. It came in a smallish bottle, sporting a starkly simple label I didn’t initially peruse too closely, and since I was at a rumfest, and it had been handed to me by a rum chum, well, what else could it be, right?

It might have been a rum, but even at the supposedly standard strength of 43.15% ABV, the juice burst with flavours that instantly recalled indigenous unaged cane juice like clairin, or a supercharged grogue fresh of the still and sporting serious attitude.  It smelled, first of all, woody — resinous, musty, oily, lemony; it reeked of brine and olives, almonds, pine-sol air freshener and only at the back end, after taking some time to recover, were there a few shy hints of flowers and some rich, almost-gone fleshy fruits. That’s not much when you think about it, but I assure you, it made up in intensity what it lacked in complexity. 

Okay, so this was different, I thought and tasted it. It was solid and serious, completely dense with all sorts of interesting flavours: first off, very pine-y and smokey. More pine sol — did someone mix this with household disinfectant or something? This was followed by fresh damp sawdust of sawn lumber made into furniture right way and then polished with too much varnish, right in the sawmill (!!). Vegetable soup heavy on the salt, with generous doses of black pepper and garlic and cilantro…and more pine.  Barbeque sauce and smoky sweet spices, like hickory I guess. Darkly sweet but not precisely fruity – though there are some of those – more like the heavy pungency of rotting oranges on a midden heap somewhere hot and tropical, closed off by a long and smoky finish redolent of lemon pine scent, and spoiling fruits, and more olives.

This was intense.  Too raw and uncultured to be a serious top ender, white or otherwise — and I like white rums, as you know — but defiantly original and really quite unique.  I thought the pine notes were overbearing and spoiled the experience somewhat…other than that, a completely solid rum that was probably cane juice, and probably unaged, and a cousin to the French island agricoles.  Somewhere out there a bartender was loving this thing and blowing it kisses.

Which was correct, as confirmed by a more detailed look at that label. It was an unaged cane juice spirit called Aguardiente de Panela, came from Mexico, was akin to the Paranubes from Oaxaca and many others like it. I cautiously liked it – “appreciated” might be a better term; it was tasty, quite original, and felt like it took rum in whole new directions, though it took care not to call itself that. I can say with some assurance that you would be unlikely to have tried anything like it before and therein might lie both its attraction and downfall. But I suggest that if you can, try it. It might be problematic finding any, given the limited outturn of 160 bottles (and indeed, it was something of a one-off, see my notes below this review).

Labelling the thing as an aguardiente (again, see further down) gives it a pretty broad umbrella, though clearly it is a cane juice derivative. It might have been better to use “cane spirit” to make the sale since aguardientes are a very loose category and present a moving target depending on where one is. Be that as it may, it is has all the hallmarks of a local back-country moonshine (decently made in this instance, to be sure), sporting the sort of artisanal handmade small-batch quality that makes rum geeks salivate as they search the world for the next clairin or grogue.

When such micro-still quality is found, the production ethos behind it that makes it so attractive creates issues for their producers. The output tends to be small and not easily scaled up (assuming they even want to); there somewhat inconsistent quality from batch to batch, and some simply don’t hold up over time. Moreover, such aguardientes or charandas or agricoles or unaged spirits are usually not made for a discerning international rum audience, but for local and regional consumption, by and for people who don’t know (and don’t care) that there are certain markers of consistency and quality asked for by foreign audiences. It isn’t for such tourists that it’s made (a point Luca also thought long and hard about, before promoting the Haitian clairins back in 2014).

This aguardiente perfectly encapsulates that issue.  It is a unique and unusual, very distinctive small batch agricole-style cane juice rum in all the ways that matter.  It satisfies its local audience just fine. That it doesn’t fly as well past its own terroire may not be its problem, but ours. That said, you certainly won’t find me complaining about what it’s like, because I want me some more. And stronger, if I can get it.

(#843)(81/100)


Other Notes:

  • The origin of the cane juice spirit / aguardiente is one of those near-unknown family stills that dot the Mexican back country (the Paranubes was like that also), and made, as stated above, more for village consumption than export. Here, it came from a three-column still tended by Sr.  Delfino Cruz, which — if one can go by the label — is in the small village of San Pablo Ameyaltepec where he produces mostly mezcal. This tiny community of less than two hundred is in the state of Puebla, with the more famous state of Oaxaca on its southeast border: the El Destilado boys were sourcing mezcal from him.
  • Charlie McKay, one of the founders, told me: “We actually only got one batch of the Aguardiente de Panela and then weren’t able to get it again. The Aguardiente was sourced while Michael and Jason were tasting some of Delfino’s mezcal and they noticed a bunch of liquid in drums, asked about it and he sheepishly allowed them to taste it. It’s sort of a side product he was making but more for locals rather than as his pride and joy. Anyway the liquid was super tasty and the guys bought a bunch of it on the spot. I believe, but I’d have to double check, that it was distilled in the same still that he makes his mezcal in.  The panela aspect is the sugar he uses. Our current rum which is an Aguardiente de Caña is make from raw sugar cane juice, extracted straight from the plant and fermented. The panela is a preserved form of sugar that comes as set blocks […] usually from sort of conical shaped molds. It almost looks like a darker version of palm sugar that you’d get from an Asian grocer. Anyway this is rehydrated and fermented, then distilled which gives it a slightly different flavour profile to the more green Caña version. […] It was basically something Delfino wasn’t trying to sell us, but they boys saw it and had to taste it, then we got it, sold it all and now it’s gone.”
  •  The “Panela” in the title is named after panela, an unrefined sugar which is made by boiling and evaporating cane juice – it’s therefore something like India’s jaggery which we have come across before. Panela is commonly made around South America (especially Colombia) and it’s not a stretch to say aguardiente can be made from it, hence the name.
  • The rum was distilled in a three column still and apparently fermented in tanks made of local pine wood – which is where the pine notes must have carried over from. It is likely that wild yeast was used for the fermentation.
  • El Destilado, whose name is on the label, is a UK based indie bottler based on London, run by a trio of spirits enthusiasts — Michael Sager, Alex Wolpert and Charlie McKay; their tastes seem run more into agave spirits than rum per se since this was one of only two cane spirits they have released so far amidst a plethora of mezcals from Oaxaca. As a separate note, I like their minimalist design philosophy a lot.
  • Another rum released by El Destilado is an equally obscure “Overproof” Oaxacan Rum at 52.3% which Alex over at The Rum Barrel took a look at a few months back. 

A Brief Backgrounder on Mexican cane spirits and Agardientes

Having a large band of tropical climate and a vibrant sugar industry, it would be odd in the extreme if Mexico did not have rums in its alcoholic portfolio.  The truth is that their artisanal, indigenous rums are actually not well known: not just because of the overwhelming popularity and market footprint of mezcal and tequila, but because rum brands like Bacardi, Mocambo, Prohibido, Tarasco and other popular low-cost “decent-enough” sellers have the limelight. They tend to stick with the tried and true model of standard-proof light blends of middling age to saturate (primarily) their own and the American market. So the backcountry small-batch rums of long-standing production — which in these days of full proof and indigenous tradition are sometimes overlooked — tend to have a hard time of it.

Leaving aside big brands and other alcoholic categories, however, there have always been many local cane distillates in Mexico, less exalted, less well known, often sniffed at. Some are as specific as charanda, others as wide ranging as aguardiente.  The subject of today’s review is one of the latter, and if for purists it does not fall into our definitions of rum, I argue that if it’s a sugar cane distillate, it should be counted in “our” category, it needs a home and I’m perfectly happy to give it one.

Aguardientes – the word is a very broad catchall, akin to the generic English word “spirits,” translating loosely as fiery/burning water – are strong distilled alcoholic beverages, made from a variety of sources depending on the country or local tradition: macerated fruits (oranges, grapes, bananas, etc), grains (millet, barley, rice, beets, cassava, potatoes, tubers), or the classic sugar cane versions. They can be regulated under that name, and several have protected designations of origin. 

Aguardiente as made in Mexico has a very supple definition, depending on where one is in that country and what the source material is. In some places it is a distilled cane spirit, in others it can be made from agave. It can be proofed down to 35%, or be stronger. It can be added to with spices, additives, you name it…or not. It’s either a poor man’s drink or a connoisseur’s delight, an indigenous low-quality moonshine or the next wave of craft spirit-making to enthuse young hipsters looking for The Next Big Thing. 

Globally, for the purpose of those who primary spirit is rum, aguardientes are and should be limited to those which derive from cane juice only, and indeed many such spirits are properly labelled as aguardiente de cana, or some such titular linguistic variation (in Mexico this is particularly important because of the move to call agave spirts like mezcal aguardiente de agave and create a separation within the term). Unsurprisingly in a category this broad, clairins, grogues, guaros, puntas, charandas, even cachaças, are lumped into it, sometimes incorrectly – it’s a term which requires qualifying words to nail down precisely. But for the moment and this review, consider it a cane-juice-based, small-batch, local (even traditional) alcoholic beverage, and judge it on that basis.

Sources:

I have drawn on general background reading, personal experiences, wikipedia and the Rumcast interview with Francisco Terraza (timestamp 00:30:01) for some of the information on aguardientes generally and Mexico specifically


Addendum

After posting the link to this review on Reddit’s /r/rumserious (full disclosure – I am the moderator of that sub), City Barman made a comment that same evening which I felt was both enlightening and well written, and he kindly gave me permission to quote it here as an adjunct to the main review:

“Back in 2003, we went with a friend to visit his family in Oaxaca. We enjoyed an almost three week bacchanal, sampling as many of the local spirits as we could get our hands on. Tequila, mezcal and aguardiente de caña ran through our blood. The only real value of 90% of what we drank was its ability to get one drunk, on the way cheap. A far majority of it was tolerable to OK, from a taste standpoint, at least to my arrogant Western palate. 10%, however, was special, unique, sometimes divine, and as I found out later, often fleeting.

It’s a very different way of life, a very different culture that allows these incredibly small producers to exist. There is a very fine line separating them between “back-wood moonshiners” and “small batch artisans”. From month to month, a single distiller may find itself on different sides of said line. When one depends on naturally grown, fresh greens and wild, airborne yeast for the process, Mother Nature often overrides human intention. Replacing these things with more standardized, industrial methods would change the end product.

The process, by its very definition, is unpredictable and inefficient. It’s what makes the spirits cheap and “easy” to produce and also affordable to the masses. It’s also what typically creates the magic, when it happens, often entirely by accident. Unpredictable and inefficient are two qualities that ensure the likes of Diageo and Rémy Cointreau will go nowhere near the “category”, hence destroying it. The likes of Signor Gargano may find an audience for these unpredictable, small batches of joy. There may also be other producers, besides Señor Carrera, whose processes create a more consistent, predictable product.

Perhaps it’s perfectly fine and right that these spirits stay with their terroir. They represent the art in spirit making. Art that is intended for consumption, like live music and theater, is ephemeral and not entirely replicable. They also tend to be the ones that come closest to transporting their imbibers to Nirvana. Perhaps it’s good impetus to get us to escape our back yards, travel, and learn something about other human beings; their culture; their fears, hopes and dreams; their favorite drink.”