Sep 142022
 

Based on really really true events, which may or may not be factual….

“A column still can produce this!” smirked Indy as he poured me a generous dram of the seven year old SBS Antiguan hooch and handed it over, daring me to refuse and making sure my head was bowed and cap reverently doffed. I imagine he would not have been displeased with some genuflection, so chuffed was he – and others – with this rum.  

I considered my glass carefully, pen poised over the famed Little Black Book of Tasting Notes, trying to focus yet also look everywhere at once, because I was in the basement bar of The Proofing Room in London, there was a lot going around me at the same time, a ton of rum chums were in attendance, and the rum was quite a handful to unpack at short notice.

I had landed in the UK a few hours before (two hours late), scampered to my fleabag hotel, dumped my stuff, ran over the road to TWE to get some tasting glasses (shout out to Kelvin who was super helpful and fun to hang with in the short time I had there), then back out to meet the my vagrant itinerant friend Richard Nicholson (of NZ Rum Society fame) at the Black Parrot rum bar, and then, after sampling five or six rums, we high-tailed it over to the ‘Room where Kris Von Stedingk was magisterially holding forth on the new 2022 range of rums released by the Danish outfit of 1423. I was out of breath even before sidling in.

The joint was peppered with Visiting Royalty of Rum Geekdom: Dan Greifer was tending bar, Andrew Nicolls was feverishly making daiquiris with rum from his own brand of William George, Kit Carruthers of Ninefold was soaking up info and a glass with equal gusto, Keegan Menezes was down at the back, Indy and Jazz Singh of Skylark Spirits darting around making sure everyone had a charged glass, Vicki Ilankovan of Sated Online was mingling with her trademarked vivacity and energy, while others were calling hellos and pressing the flesh from all corners of the bar. And as Kris was in fine form with his presentation and we were derailing his spiel, Richard and I guiltily avoided his disapproving glare and snuck down to the back where the hoods huddle, and set up shop there.

I was glad it was the Antigua I started with, because that island’s distillery has been making great strides in its own experimental small batch production, dating right back to the work they were doing with the sherry cask edition back in 2016.  What I had here was a rum they sold to 1423 – that Danish outfit, you’ll recall, which is part owned by Josh Singh, the benevolent buddha of badass we left at Paris’s Maria Loca bar in 2019 but who went AWOL for this one. Antigua Distillers not only produced the subject of my very first review (the 1981 English Harbour 25YO) but has a new high-congener, full-proofed rum of its own that is supposedly off the scale and which I’ve been lusting after ever since it was released. This rum was one of its progeny.

I tried to listen to Kris rattle off the specs for the rum because he was an interesting and engaging speaker, but the serious rum convo (i.e., the “party”) in my corner was so loud (which was all Richard’s fault, I swear, the guy is just so noisy!) that I could barely hear him, and evidently Kris couldn’t either because he shouted at us to pipe down in best Ratzo style — “I’m workin’ here!” — so he could keep with the program and inform the populace and maybe sell some damned rum. We all flipped him the bird and shouted cheerfully ribald insults, then shut up. I started nosing, and then scribbling. Even at play, the ‘Caner has to work sometimes, alas.

The nose of this kinetically powered 64.9% ex-bourbon-barrel aged rum was aromatic to a fault, and demonstrated once again that well assembled column still rums can be the equal of any other kind (even if just one barrel’s outturn).  It smelled of vanilla ice cream, bubble gum, strawberries and an amazingly pungent mix of both light and heavier fruits like watermelon, green apples, grapes, peaches, and plums.  Into this was interspersed more neutral aromas of bananas, pears and papaya, and a sort of rich whipped cream that would drive a cat to ecstasy. Even with the distractions of more rums, more mixes and the loud hum of conversation, I was able to appreciate a real mastery of the craft with what came out of that bottle.

All this went into the Book with some haste, because things were moving fast, and the bar surface in front of me kept filling up with more and new glasses that had to be guarded from the potential depredations of light-and-sticky-fingered rum enthusiasts (we are not known for respecting the finer points of personal property when it comes to the good stuff). Andrew, enthusiastic as anything, kept making more William George daiquiris (which were really good — but even a tippler as practised at pilfering as Richard had trouble keeping up with the rollout), and because Kris was moving smartly along with his presentation, Jazz and Indy continued bringing more and more SBS rums to us back-bench louts. Brazil, Denmark, Jamaica, Venezuela, Guyana, French Antilles…we had a minor United Nations of Rum going on here. Every time they poured another sample — which joined its partners on the countertop in front of me in an ever-expanding lineup —  they observed how slow I was going, and regarded me with the sorrowful disappointment of skilled guilt-trippers – “What, Lance, is what we’re doing here not good enough for you?” “You don’t like SBS any more or what?” and (more cuttingly) “Eh eh, bai, I thought you were a pro, man!” (that stung).

I hastily concentrated on moving on to the taste, and here I must simply observe how vibrant and alive the rum was. Sharp — of course it was — and hot, yet that dissipated quickly, and the tastes were at all times there, thrumming, compelling, well defined and completely solid. And there were lots of them. Tart fruits notes of soft yellow mangos, soursop, ripe gooseberries, strawberries, dark cherries and almost overripe pineapple started the party off. These were balanced by nutty flavours combined with unsweetened chocolate, caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, coffee grounds and even a touch of herbs and spices (dill and cumin). Under it all was bananas and the creaminess of a sweet caramel latte which segued beautifully into a finish of epic duration, redolent of the sweetness of sugar cane, the muskiness of caramel and molasses, and the slight bitterness of freshly sawn lumber and ground coffee beans.

What’s amazing about the rum is how well it sips, even at that dramatic proof point. There’s no straining for effect, no sense of extra ageing or esterification added for your edification, no vulgar “let’s whip this out shall we?” backdam bragaddocio of codpieces compared (this sort of thing is left to visiting rum chums in seedy rumbars). It’s an astounding, amazing, astonishing rum, one where the initial experiments I tasted all those years ago seem have come to a kind of glorious fruition. I know the distillery has its own branded rums, ramped up, beefed up, torqued up, squirting esters and proofage in all directions, and I’ve been after those for ages.  Until I get one of them, however, this will be a more than adequate substitute. 

It was with some regret that I moved to other rums in the SBS’s lineup for the year – yet for the remainder of my time at the bar I kept a glass of this thing running, and eventually considered it the best of the lot, when it was all over. We laughed and talked and discussed rums and had a whole load of fun dissing each other, and finally the whole thing devolved into a raucous party and jam session which was then relocated to Trailer Happiness after we got chased out of the Proofing Room. Yet I remember this rum so well, even without the tasting notes.  It showed that English Harbour’s Catch of the Day rum from 2018 which I had also enjoyed and continue to regard as an underpriced steal, had been no accident.

So, to wrap up this overlong “review” let me sum up for those who like it brief. SBS’s 7 Year Old 2015 High Congener Antigua rum is frikken’ phenomenal and I’m just annoyed with myself for not grabbing the damned bottle out of Indy’s hands when I had the chance. He might have decked me, and maybe I would have left the bar with head held high and feet held higher…but man, it would have been worth it to get this thing.

(#937)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • Initially, based on the lack of disclosed detail on the label and the product sheet, I thought this was not a high congener rum but after the first posting, both Joshua and Kris came up to confirm that yes, it was. “There was no particular reason” for the oversight, Josh said, but my money is on simple forgetfulness, because no sane marketing guy would leave such a juicy tidbit out.  So anyway, I went back and changed the post a little and amended the title to make mention of the fact.
Aug 082022
 

Long time readers of this site will know something of my movement away from softer Spanish/Latin style rons over the years. There’s nothing particularly deficient about many of them (only some), and I have a soft spot for quite a few.  It’s just that I find most quite unadventurous, occasionally boring, sometimes added-to —  though of course they all have their adherents and supporters who buy them and keep the distilleries humming. At most, one can cast aspersions on their escutcheon with matters having to do with disclosure and/or adulteration, something which companies like La Hechicera and Dictador out of Colombia, Malecon from Panama and Mombacho out of Nicaragua (there are several others) have often been the target of. That does not mean, however, that they’re all bad, and it would be a mistake to tar them all with the same brush of indifference and despite.

These thoughts occurred to me because I was forced to take an honest look at what these too-often mild-as-milkwater rums could do when done well, when I tried one that Bristol Spirits — one of the more venerable of the modern independents — had sourced from Venezuela.  The exact distillery it comes from is something of a mystery (more on that below); and it is a column still, molasses-based spirit, aged 12 years in refill American oak (ex-bourbon and in both Venezuela and Europe), un-chill-filtered, unadded-to and released at a robust 47% ABV…which I suggest is somewhat uninspiring and which Bristol calls “just about right”.

They may be on to something there, because frankly, there is little to find fault with.  The rum is crisp and tangy, with aromas jumping all over the map: initially quite fruity with scents of lemon meringue pie, pineapples, unsweetened yoghurt, bananas, it switches over after a few minutes and presents light caramel, vanilla, flowers and is light enough to present almost as an aged agricole-style rhum. It’s apparent simplicity belies an under-the-hood level of complexity I must confess to not expecting (which may be why John Barrett, Bristol’s owner, was smirking the entire time as I tried it).

Nose is one thing, though: and many rums of real olfactory promise falter and die on the palate.  At 47% this is reasonable sipping territory, which is to say, it won’t try to defenestrate my tongue.  Here, it must be conceded that the rum succeeds very nicely.  It has a good mouthfeel; it’s tangy and a little sour, yet with a solid underpinning of caramel and chocolate oranges. Ripe Thai mangoes and peaches are in evidence, some light fruit, and here again, it feels like a firm and slightly deeper agricole rhum, musky, a bit tannic, slightly sweet.  An interesting amalgam, all summed up by a shortish finish that showed off a last flirt of salt caramel ice cream with fruit bits sprinkled on top, a touch of light brine, some flowers, and it is over way too quickly.

So let’s talk a bit about Bristol, one of the stalwarts of the indie bottling ecosystem, a small company run by one man, John Barrett (he has recently brought in a young man, his son-in-law, to help run things). Bristol was established as far back as the 1990s, at the dawn of the modern rum renaissance, and if you really are curious, the Boys of Rumcast did a great interview with the man just a few weeks ago. Bristol Spirits, along with Renegade and Rum Nation, were the first indies I came into contact with that showed me the directions rum could go, and one of my best memories of the early rums I tried and wrote about, was the terrific PM 1980 25 year old that almost converted a dedicated single-malt lover to rums on the spot.  Bristol Spirits has faded from popular acclaim somewhat over the last five years or so, as new, young and aggressive little indies from all over Europe claimed market share and eyeballs of social media, yet they never went away, and their bright and simple labels have been a fixture at many a rumfest where I skulked around, and I’ve never actually had a bad one from the stable.

Bristol buys barrels like everyone else, trades them and exchanges them and sources stuff here and there, does some tinkering, blending and ageing of their own, holds on to stock they like, bottles stuff they think is ready. With respect to this Venezuelan rum, in my opinion, they hit the sweet spot, because it’s very ready. 

This is a rum that defies expectations (especially mine), and is one of the best Latin/Spanish heritage-style rums of my recent memory – in fact, it forces a reconsideration of what these distilleries can do, if juice like this becomes the norm rather than the exception it currently is. The strength is near-perfect, the notes shimmer in simple harmonies that speak of subtle and elegant arrangements which you can almost, but not quite, sense. There’s not a whole lot of oomph going on — consider it a serene chamber piece, not a symphony — and the level of complexity exhibited by a Hampden, for example, is not in evidence. Yet somehow it goes beyond all that, and at the end, it works, it tastes great and you enjoy it, and isn’t that what counts?

(#928)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


The Distillery

The producer noted on the label is stated as being “Destileria Sofa” which seems straightforward enough, except that you’ll never find a distillery of that name in Venezuela (and believe me, I tried).  Rum-X and various European shops make mention of it – always with respect to this very same rum and no other – and some remark it’s located in the NE of the country.  But that’s all you get.  There’s no mention of the distillery on google, reddit, wikidot or any other resource I can consult…except for one, and so, your intrepid soused reviewer got on to Simon over at Bristol Spirits: he’s the guy who helps me out when Mr. Barrett doesn’t pick up the phone. 

Long story short, it’s a distillery that makes a certain well regarded rum possibly named after a 16th century Carmelite nun, which has an association with Bacardi that prohibits it from using its own name on independent bottlings such as Bristol’s. So something similar to the “secret distillery” which Compagnie des Indes sometimes includes on its label, or how “A Jamaican Distillery” is used on occasion to avoid complications with the useage of a name like Worthy Park or what have you.  Most of the time you’re given enough to work with, as I was, but I’ll respect the confidentiality in print and not come right out with the name.

All that aside, even though permission was given to use the name of Destileria Sofa on the label as the source for the rum, I still don’t actually know what that represents or means or where the name comes from, so if anyone knows any better, or can provide information from Venezuela, feel free to send it along and I’ll add it to these notes.


Other Notes

  • After this review went up, Mads Heitmann, who runs the Danish webshop Romhatten, commented that the rum was tested at 10-11g/L sugar which he later confirmed with Bristol Spirits. If this is so (I have an outstanding email to them) it won’t change the review, which is locked, but it would explain something of the slight voluptuousness and sweetness the rum displayed, even if not particularly unpleasant in any way.
Jul 142022
 

Belize, until recently, had somewhat withdrawn from the epicenter of avant-garde and popular rum culture. Traveller’s, the main distillery in the country, produced soft Spanish-heritage-style rums like the One-Barrel, Three-Barrel and Five-Barrel rums and the excellent Don Omario (not sure if it remains in production), yet it was overtaken by the full-proof pot-still ethos that have of late almost defined quality modern rums for the deep diving aficionados and connoisseurs. That’s not to say Belize’s rums weren’t popular – they were, and remain so, especially to those who knew about them and liked the style.  It’s just that in terms of wider appreciation and “must-have” collectors’ hunger, constant innovation, new expressions, relentless marketing and attendance at festivals the world over, Belize’s rums didn’t keep pace, and have lapsed into a sort of quiet somnolescence.

Two things have changed that view and helped raise the visibility of the country, more than a little. One was the establishment of the Copalli Distillery in 2016: this was (and is) a small, ecologically-minded organic rum maker utilizing sugar cane juice, and their small production outturn, while not reinventing the wheel, has received plaudits and good press (I have not tasted any…yet). In today’s world where environmental concerns, organic agriculture and sustainable practices are considered selling points and hallmarks of quality, the establishment of this distillery immediately created attention.

The other was a development in the USA, home of the micro-distilling culture that prides itself in starting up small outfits that produce every spirit known to man on their small stills (and are at pains to advertise a few that aren’t). In the US, strangely enough, and in spite of the success of Ed Hamilton, almost no indie bottler has ever bothered to establish itself as a serious endeavor to take on the Europeans: at best it’s an occasional one-off bottling that appears, like the Stolen Overproof — and yet that strikes me as really peculiar, given the proximity of the Caribbean and Central American distilleries, and the opportunities this offers. In 2019, however, somebody didn’t wait for the second knock: a new company called Windyside Spirits was established by New Yorker Eric Kaye and his wife, specifically to support their Holmes Cay brand, and they went in with the intention of being a serious independent bottler in their own right.

What does that have to do with Belize? Well, in their first year (2019) Holmes Cay tentatively released a Barbados Foursquare rum (selected so they could do a first bottling that would “knock it out of the park”) and it was so well received that they followed that up in 2020 with four more rums: from Guyana, Barbados (again), Fiji…and Belize. By now Barbados, Guyana and even Fiji were already well known and Belize was something of an outlier, but the combined street cred and positive word of mouth attendant on these releases certainly spilled over…and that small Central American nation was again being seriously considered as a rum maker of some note.


This rum was from the aforementioned Travellers Distillery, and the exact route it used to get to the US, whether via a broker and Europe or directly to the US, is unknown (the rear label suggests it was completely done in Belize). But clearly it went a long way, navigated the torturous byzantine byways of US regulations, and paid a lot of taxes, which is why it retails for a hundred bucks and more even in the US and that by itself might be an issue…to say nothing of the 61% ABV proof point, which would not recommend it to the casual fan of Captain Morgan or Bacardi. It is a column still product deriving from molasses, was aged from 2005 to 2020 in ex Bourbon casks and was released at full proof and without any additives or messing around.

What this produced, then was a dark reddish amber rum of some character.  Nosing it for the first time was quite a kinetic experience: it reminded me initially of a full proof Demerara rum: caramel, toffee, molasses, marshmallows (slightly singed), vanilla, mocha, and coconut shavings.  It took something of a detour by adding sly background notes of acetones, nail polish, a lemon zest, coca cola and even some licorice, and overall the impression was one of solid, well-aged, not-overly-complex rum of consistent quality.

The palate was (somewhat to my surprise) even better, though I was left regarding it rather dubiously and scribbling in my notes whether this was a Demerara or not and whether anything had been added.  Some woody tannins were in evidence, slightly bitter, plus coffee grounds, licorice, damp tobacco, caramel, molasses and brown sugar – I mean, it wasn’t, quite, but it sure had elements that a Guyana PM- or Enmore-lover would not be unhappy with. It also felt rather sweet (though not cloying, just a sort of background sense), and had a good bit of dark fruit action developing over time: very ripe dark cherries, black grapes, bananas, and dark unsweetened chocolate, all of wich went well with the toffee-caramel-molasses combo that had started the palate party.Ther finish, as befitted such a strong drink, was nicely long, mostly licorice, chocolate, coffee, and some tannins, a quietening down of that nose and palate, though one that did not add anything new, just toned it all down as it closed things off.


So for a rum chanelling the Spanish-heritage style (short fermentation, high ABV off a column still, flavour primarily by ageing), a bit on the odd side, but very nice; rums made in this way (even if by a former British colony) issued at proof have always excited my curiosity, perhaps because there are so few of them. That’s not to say this one works on all levels or fires on all cylinders because compared to others it is not quite as complex – the proof helps it get past that hurdle in a way that would not have succeeded as well as it did, had it been, say 40%. And then there are the taste and dark colour, which excite some doubts.

But I make that remark as a person who has tried more rums from around the world than most. For an American rum audience used slim pickings locally and to staring wistfully across the European rum shops, getting a rum like this must have been like a blast to usher in the zombie apocalypse. No additives, limited outturn, a tropical age statement of a decade and a half, single cask, and…was that really cask strength? The Belize 2005 took all the dials that rum-makers from Central and Latin America had consistently and puzzlingly left almost unturned for decades and spun them savagely around to “11”. As with the others in the line, the reviews it garnered were almost uniformly positive: Rum Revelations scored it 88 (“a flavour bomb”), Flaviar gave it a solid 8.0/10, Paste’s Jim Vorel penned an enthusiastic (if unscored) review, Rum Ratings’ three voters all said 9/10 and Rum-X had one reviewer award it 98 points. 

All of which probably says more about the strength of the desire North Americans have for rums that are better than the standard blah they too often have to put up with, than the intrinisc worth of the rum when looked at dispassionately. But still: the Belize 15YO shows that there is something better than ten-buck supermarket fodder available — and while it may be pricey, it is worth it, and demonstrates that there is indeed a market for indie bottlings made by Americans, for their side of the Atlantic.

(#923)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • The reputation Holmes Key developed with this and other rums almost instantly led to two episodes on the podcast RumCast (#2 for the Barbados, and #30 for the Fiji) and blurbs, reviews and articles in various industry fora like Paste, GotRum, Drinkhacker, Rum Lab, Wine Enthusiast, Robb Report, Forbes, and Esquire (to name just a few). No European indie ever got that kind of press so fast, ands it points out – to me, at any rate – a huge unmet demand for the sort of rums they make and the model they use to produce them.
  • In his review on Rum Revelations, Ivar also remarked on the caramel and winey taste and wondered if Travellers had monkeyed around with it. I don’t doubt HC themselves were completely above board when they said they didn’t, but on the other hand, they took what they got on faith, so who knows?
  • Thanks to John Go, who sent me a sample.
Jun 272022
 

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is the largest subscription-based spirits distributor in the world, focussing primarily on whisky but also blends, bourbons, gins, cognacs and, yes, occasionally rums. It has long passed the stage of simply buying a cask here or there and releasing the subsequent bottling, but is a noted stockist and ageing warehouse in its own right, purchasing new make spirit from all over the map and barrelling it themselves. Their prime focus remains the whisky arena, no matter what sort of minor releases they do in other areas of the spirit world, which I guess is understandable given their historical mandate and membership.

That said, 2017 was a relatively good rum year for the SMWS, because that was the year that the most rums were ever issued since they first got the slightest bit serious about them (in 2011): eighteen in all, of which seven were from a single distillery – Worthy Park 1. All but one of the WP Seven derived from a series of casks laid down in 2010 and somehow most of these have made it over into my stash, which does nothing to allay Mrs. Caner’s suspicions as to how much money I spend on rums (not much, honey, honest!).

So today, we’ll be looking at R11.4, a 66.1% ABV beefcake coming off a pot still, aged six years in Europe and with an outturn of 267 bottles. I’d write a longer introduction and throw in a few other observations, but really, with both the society and the distillery being known so well, it’s hardly required nowadays.

The rum is given the usual unique Society title, which this time is actually less obscure than most: it’s called the “Tasty Treat” — though that might be stretching things (especially for those new to the rum scene). The nose, for example, instantly reminds one of the insides of a pair of sweat-infused rubber boots after a hot day spent tramping through a muddy field of freshly turned sod, before it relaxes and grudgingly provides notes of sweet acetones, nail polish and turpentine (just a bit). And if you think that’s odd, wait a while: you’ll be greeted by brine, olives, cucumbers in light vinegar paired with sashimi in pimento-infused lemon juice (I kid you not). By the time you recover, all that’s gone and all that’s left is sharp, tartly ripe fruits: apples, pears, apricots, pineapples. And a touch of orange peel.

The palate is quite hot, as can be expected from something with such a high proof point; however, letting it breathe for a few minutes so it opens up and lets the sharper alcohol fumes dissipate, mitigates that heat, and a rum of rather well balanced flavours emerge out of the chaos. The segue from the nose is seamless: first the spicy, tart, fruity notes – pineapples, pears, strawberries, cherries, yellow mangoes – followed by milder, more mellow tastes.  These are flambeed bananas, caramel, honey, almonds, walnuts, unsweetened yoghurt, vanilla, and hot black tea infused with just a touch of cinnamon and cardamom. I particularly enjoyed how it finished, long and dry, with all flavours coming onstage for a final curtain call.  Nothing new at the close, nothing original, just a succinct summation of the whole experience in a languorous fade.

The odd thing about this rum is that good as it is, strong as it is, it’s missing something of the overall punch and uniqueness of some of the earlier R11.x series, let alone Worthy Park’s own rums which I had on hand as comparators.  It’s tasty and complex enough, yet lacks the voluptuousness of the juice WP puts out the door in its estate bottlings, and jumps around the flavour wheel without the structure of R11.2 or the excellent R11.3.  Maybe that’s a factor of the European ageing, maybe it’s the single barrel, maybe it’s just a different palate, maybe it’s the relative youth. It’s just not quite … there. And so, much as I like it, I can’t quite elevate it to the status of a must-have that had to be acquired by fair means or foul: because while it’s tasty enough, it’s not quite a treat.

(#918)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

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.
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.


 

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) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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.


 

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.
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
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)

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].


 

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
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
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.
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.”

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.