May 052022
 

Photo (c) Boatrocker Brewing & Distilling, from Instagram

The distillery and brewery called BoatRocker (with what I am sure is representative of a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour shared by many Aussies) is another small family-run outfit located in Melbourne, a mere 50km or so north of JimmyRum. It was officially founded in 2009, and like many other such small enterprises I’ve written about, their genesis is far older: in this case, in the 1980s, when the (then teenaged) founder, Matt Houghton, was enthused by the Michael Jackson (no, not that Michael Jackson) show “The Beer Hunter” – this led to a lifelong love of beer, homebrewing, studies of the subject in University, and even gypsy brewing after graduation, which he and his wife Andrea did while saving pennies for a “real” brewery.  In 2012 they acquired property, plant and equipment (as the bean counters like to say), and established their first barrel room and cellar door, all to do with beer.

All this is about the suds, for which they soon gained an enthusiastic following and a good reputation, but where’s the rum, you ask. Well, that’s where things get a little murky and several sources have to be consulted over and above the company webpage. In short, in 2017 Boatrocker merged with a Western Australian gin-and-vodka distillery called Hippocampus — the investing owner of that distillery had taken a 33% share in Boatrocker in 2015 — uprooted that company’s hybrid still “Kylie” and moved lock stock and barrels to Melbourne.  This is what is making all the distilled spirits in Boatrocker now, though I get the impression that a separate team is involved. They produce gin (several varieties, of course), whiskey, vodka and two rums (one is spiced).  Oddly, there’s no unaged white in the portfolio, but perhaps they made enough money off of existing spirits, so that the need to have a white cane spirit was not seen to be as important. On the other hand, rum may not seem to be the main attraction of the company,

This rum then. For the primary ferment, a rum yeast originally from Jamaica is used. They utilise a dunder/muck pit (also not mentioned on the site), and have cultured many bacteria and wild yeast from the local area, which is continually evolving as they add fresh dunder at the end of each rum run. The esters produced by the yeast and bacteria help provide depth to the base spirit. How long the fermentation goes on for is unknown, but once this process is complete, the rum distillation is done using the aforementioned 450 litre hybrid pot still (with two ten-plate columns) and engaging just the first column and five plates – the juice comes off the still at around 58% ABV, and set to age for about two years in first-use bourbon barrels imported from the USA, with a further year in high-char (#3) American oak barrels. Bottlings is done after dilution to 45% ABV, and there you have it.

So that two-barrel maturation is why they call this rum “Double Barrel”, and indeed it does present an interesting profile, especially how it smells. The aromas are exceptionally rich in comparison to the other standard proof Australians I had on the go that day. It’s like a crisp sweet riesling. Red ripe grapefruit, blood oranges going off; dark chocolate, cherries, plums, raisins, cakes and gingersnaps, eclairs, whipped cream over irish coffee, plus a little salt butter and cinnamon. Really quite a lovely nose. 

On the palate the rum feels somewhat thinner and yet also sweeter, than the nose, but retains much of the allure of the way it started out. Honey, coconut shavings, chocolate oranges,  Also light fruits, molasses, caramel, vanilla, herbs, crushed almonds and cinnamon, plus (yes, we’re not done yet) a rich key lime pie and brown sugar. There’s a touch of cheesecake, tarts and, nougat here, but in the main, it’s the fruits that have it. It suffers – if the word could be used – from a thin, short, faint but easygoing finish that has mostly vanilla, coconut shavings, light fruits and a touch of that pie again. It is by far the weakest aspect of what is otherwise quite a decent product.

Overall, I liked the nose most of all, but it was a shallow downhill coast to a somewhat one-dimensional conclusion after that. As I have observed before with the Americans and their desire to wring the most out of their stills by producing everything they can on it, I wonder whether the making of all these different things dilutes the clear-eyed focus on rum somewhat (I’m selfish that way) and that’s why the high bar the opening aromas present can’t be maintained. Dunder and muck pits do help make up for shortcomings in this area, however, and this is why the score is incrementally better than other previously-reviewed rums in this age and strength range. Yet I submit that there’s room for improvement, and one day, if they continue along this path, the potential that the Double Barrel rum only suggests right now will become a true reality. I sure hope so.

(#905)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • As with all the reviewed Australian rums from the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special acknowledgement of Mr. And Mrs. Rum’s kindness in sending me a complete set free of charge. Thanks, as always.
  • This is Batch #3 according to the advent calendar notes
Apr 072022
 

Photo (c) Mt. Uncle / FNQ Rum Co. Website

Mt. Uncle Distillery is one of the older distilleries of the New Australian rum renaissance we are living through, founded more than twenty years ago, in 2001. Initially it concentrated on fruit liqueurs and spirits, which were based on ingredients conveniently found on the property and the surrounding Atherton tablelands of North Queensland where the distillery was established. Over the years Mt. Uncle branched out to produce gins, whiskies, liqueurs, vodka, and a small range of (you guessed it) rums. It is, as it likes to say, the first (and still only) distillery in northern Queensland and wears that label proudly.

As the company became better known for its gins – there are currently five different kinds – it decided to split off the rum business under its own brand, titled the FNQ Rum Company (the letters stand for Far North Queensland), perhaps in an effort to give those spirits their own distinct character — I’m surprised they would want to distance an evocative title like Mt. Uncle from their products, but never mind, that’s just me. So far they make only three rums, the Platinum (a white, not listed on their rum website), the Iridium Gold (a five year old rum) and the Iridium X (a ten year old limited edition), but the caveat is that there really is not very much detail to be had on either of the main websites, as to how these rums are made, from what and with what.

According to the Australian Advent Calendar notes on Instagram helpfully provided by Mrs and Mrs Rum, the base source of the distillate is sugar cane syrup (where in turn that came from is not mentioned, though the BBC notes it as being from a nearby sugar factory, which suggests the Tableland Mill), a fourteen day fermentation period with a commercial yeast, and finally, the resultant is aged in reconditioned ex-red-wine hogshead 1 casks with a heavy toast. Okay, but what of the still? One source makes reference to “Helga” a 1500-liter still made by the German firm of Arnold Holstein, without stating what kind it is. But since the Iridium we are looking at today won the “World’s Best Pot Still” rum award at the 2021 World Rum Awards and way down on the company FB page there’s a picture of a pot still, I guess we can stop there.

So we have a 40% pot still rum from northern Queensland, based on sugar cane syrup, no additives, no messing around, five years aged in charred barrels, living room strength. Is it any good for those seeking the Next Big Thing? It won “Best Pot Still Rum” at the 2021 World Rum Awards, so it should be a cut above, right?

Yes and no. The rum does present a really nice initial nose of crisp, light fruits — strawberries and ripe gooseberries with all the tartness this implies.  For a rum with its origins in rendered cane juice, this is not a surprise – what is intriguing is that it really presents as both a crisp agricole-style rum and a funky unaged Jamaican, which, as it opens, adds in a deeper note of a young, rough-’n’-raw Versailles rum. There’s some licorice, toffee, damp sawdust and wood chips in a sawmill. A bit of honey, a pinch of cinnamon…but that was pretty much all.

The taste is also good…at the start. Salty, light, traces of cinnamon, sugar cane sap, vanilla, red grapes and fudge; this fades quickly, though and is replaced by more licorice, vanilla, light oak, and a briefest hint of flowers and light fruits, and then it just…dies. The finish is short and breathy and light, a touchy rummy – toffee, brine, grapes – and vanishes faster than the Little Caner when he hears the word “chores”.

My personal opinion is that the Iridium Gold is hampered by two issues: one, it doesn’t seem to be sure whether it wants to be an agricole-style rum, or something more normal and familiar to rum drinkers (which is to say, closer to a molasses-based profile) – it has aspects of both on both nose and palate, and doesn’t do either justice, really. 

Secondly, I think there’s a lot going on in this rum that a higher strength would have showcased more seriously, so I don’t get the 40% strength which could have been jacked up to 43% or even 46% without sacrificing anything. Because I’m at a loss to understand where the flavours went, or why: it’s a pot still rum, relatively young, its trousers should have quite a bit more than just its hands in them, however raw or rambunctious. Were the cuts made at too high a strength and the congeners wiped out?  Were the barrels too inactive, hence requiring that heavy charring that was spoken of? Was the rum filtered before ageing? This is where a better website and better disclosure would have helped me understand more of why the rum seemed so lacklustre and ceased to enthuse, after starting with such promise. Overall, although I really wanted to be, I’m not really that chuffed with this one.

(#897)(79/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Mt. Uncle is clearly not willing to just produce standard stuff that everyone else does. They have expanded beyond gins and rums, and into whiskey and vodka and agave spirits (as of 2022).
  • Iridium is a very hard, brittle, silvery metal akin to platinum, and second densest metal on earth (after osmium), as well as one of the rarest. Its usefulness and commercial applications stem from its high melting point and anticorrosive properties at high temperatures. It is unclear what relevance the title has to rum, even metaphorically, since it’s not rare, hard, silvery or anti-corrosive. It does have a real ‘cool factor’ based just on how it sounds, however, so maybe that’s it.
  • The FNQ website is bare of most details I would expect to find in a site dedicated to two rums (even though there are actually three), and the core Mt. Uncle site didn’t have much more. In years to come, I hope they expand their background materials for the benefit of the geek squad or the simply curious.
  • As with all the reviewed Australian rums from the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and doff of the deerstalker to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks, as always.
Mar 312022
 

JimmyRum, if you remember, is that cheeky little rum distillery perched down south of Down Under in Dromana, a small community just south of Melbourne. Founded in 2018 after several years of prep work, it has a large hybrid column still bolted to the floor of a structure on a picturesque property (which includes a cafe), a light and breezy sort of website, and an owner, James McPherson, who was a marine engineer before he found his true calling, doesn’t take life too seriously, and just likes rum.

The first product I tried from JimmyRum was the Silver 40%, which I liked — though admittedly, the stronger “Navy” version intrigued me rather more, as did the various “Distiller’s Specials” like the Queen’s Cut, Oaked Plus or Cane and Grain, which were a bit more aged and also released at higher proof points. But the Silver was intriguing, because while not yet on a level with unaged agricole style rums which are almost like baselines, it was better than the anonymous filtered white backbar staples too many still think of whenever white rums are mentioned.

JimmyRum, then, does have the aforementioned special aged products, and that brings us to the “Rum Rum” line of their stable. This is a new series which focuses on ageing, cask strength and single barrel rum releases, and will likely form a part of the Distiller’s Specials unless it is felt to be distinct from those. “Barrel 12” is such a single barrel release, provided especially for Mr & Mrs Rum’s 2021 advent calendar, and so is not part of a standard commercial release; however other barrel editions of the Rum Rum series are slated to be released later in 2022, so think of this as an early review standing in for others to come. It’s a pot still rum based on molasses, aged for three years in an ex-bourbon, 200-liter American oak cask (#12, no surprise). The barrel was initially filled with new make distillate at 65.25%, before being reduced to 53% for the Calendar.

Given these very standard specs – molasses origin, pot still, American oak, a few years’ ageing – the opening salvo of the nose comes as something of a surprise. For one, it’s light and sharp and very crisp on the nose, in a way that’s reminiscent of both a young standard strength mixing rum, or even a vieux agricole. The light fruit, herbal and clean white wine aromas bend one’s thought in that direction, yet there are aspects that bend it right back again: brine, olives, veggie soup and sweet soya, fresh bread hot from the oven and then a series of notes that recall very ripe fruits right on the edge of going off emerge – guavas, mangoes, grapes, apples, apricots.

At 53% ABV, the palate is expected to be solid, and it is. The flavours are spicy, crisp, clean and coat the mouth with the sensations of light, ripe, soft, juicy fruits: white grapes, yellow Thai mangoes, kiwi fruits, sapodillas, peaches in syrup, and dark cherries. This might ordinarily seem to thick or cloying for real enjoyment, but the sweet is kept down, and for kick there’s a twist of lemongrass and red grapefruits and some oversalted mango pickle, just to keep you off balance. The finish is quite straightforward and wraps things up with a medium long ending that has flashes of a very dry red wine, more red grapefruit, a touch of chocolate oranges and a last sprig of mint.

Overall, this is a pretty good rum indeed. The nose is interesting as all get-out and the flavours pop nicely when sipped – there’s quite a bit going on under the hood here. JimmyRum’s Silver was interesting, tasted well, showed potential and I enjoyed it — it just needed more oomph to showcase its profile more clearly, the way the Barrel 12 effectively did here (Killik did that and produced an outstanding white overproof rum, if you recall). Stronger rums provide a more intense and interesting drinking experience and while you can always dilute a high proof rum, it’s not quite so easy to do that in reverse when you want to dial up a mild one.

So I enjoyed the rum and think it’s a good get: however, it’s impossible to gauge JimmyRum’s success with the Barrel 12 because it was sampled out for distribution in the Calendar and therefore is not for sale to a larger public who can then post their reactions (positive or negative).  But I believe that were it to be out there commanding shelf space, it would sell well, be deemed a success, and people would be asking for the inevitable older versions that will be released in the years to come. That’s a sign of a good rum of any age. 

(#895)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and tilt of the tammie to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. I know you’re tired of reading this, but thanks as always to you both.
  • There are no bottle photographs of this rum available at this time.
  • Some more technical details: Molasses sourced from Sunshine Sugar NSW (Manildra group), one of the last fully Australian owned Sugar producers in Australia. Yeast and fermentation: done in 2 x 5000ltr fermenters and are temperature controlled to less than 25ºC with an initial Brix of approx 19.
Mar 282022
 

Rum and rhum aficionados are no strangers to Depaz, the distillery on Martinique now owned by Bardinet-La Martiniquaise. The sugar factory and (later) distillery had once been a family operation  — the Depaz family from Livorno in Italy had been part of Martinique society since the 1700s — and was in existence even before its destruction by the eruption of Mt. Pelee in 1902. The estate’s modern history can truly be said to have begun with the reconstruction of the distillery in 1917; their immediate success at rum-making could be inferred from their winning of medals at the Marseille expos of 1922, 1927 and 1931, at a time when French island rhums were hardly very well known (even Bally only started making the good stuff around 1924). In 1989 the head of the family at the time, André Depaz, allowed a long time customer and distributor, the Bardinet Group, to take over Depaz, and in 1993 La Martiniquaise, another major spirits conglomerate who already owned Dillon, bought a controlling interest in Bardinet, and so remains the current owner.

The technical specs for this rhum are quite normal: cane juice source, column still distillate, a blend of rhums aged three years or more, 45%. Although these core stats have changed very little over the decades, I have to be honest and admit  I’d be interested to see what some 1960s or 1940s versions taste like and how they compare (like Olivier did, here). Because there’s little to find fault with in this rhum.  It presents an opening nose that is very nice, almost delicate, redolent of vanilla, flowers, white fruit plus watermelon and cane juice and sugar water. The almost quintessential agricole profile, yet even the relatively brief ageing period allows deeper notes ot be discerned — caramel, peaches, peas, brown sugar, that kind of thing. Stays light and clean, adding some saline and bananas at the back end. 

That’s quite an intro from a rhum positioned as entry level, not costing too much, and quite young. Admittedly, the palate is not quite up to that level, but it’s not too shabby either: it presents a bit rough and sharp and spicy at the beginning, until it settles down, and then it becomes softer and warmer, like a scratchy old blanket you use on the sofa while watching TV.  Sweet caramel, coconut shavings, vanilla, sugar cane juice, pears, apples, very ripe cherries and black grapes, are all noticeable right bout of the gate. The edges have not been entirely rounded off with some further ageing or blending, so much of the young and frisky nature of the rhum comes through, like a half-grown long-haired mutt that hasn’t quite adjusted to its strength.  The finish is sharpish, medium long, mostly sugar water, citrus, herbs, toffee, some fruits and a light hint of lemon grass. 

Depaz’s rhums have always been available in France, but there were few reviews around even from the old stalwarts of the online reviewing ecosystem from that country, perhaps because people tended to go for the more upscale editions like the distillery’s millesimes and indie bottlings rather than the “standard” line which this is — yet for the budget-minded cognoscenti, Depaz’s starters of the blanc, the XO and the Vieux are actually really quite good and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.  Fortunately, even for those who don’t want to spring for the full 700ml, gift sets in smaller sizes are available for the penny pinchers among us, such as the one I bought.

And I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have dropped a bit more coin on the whole bottle, because overall, although I feel it’s a rum better served in a Ti punch than on its own, it isn’t so bad that it can’t be had neat. It’s subtle and more complex than it appears at first sight, moves at an angle to the full-out grassy-herbal profile of a recognizable agricole, yet succeeds remarkably well – it explains why the aged offerings are so highly regarded and sought after, because if something this young can be made so well and taste so good, then what must they be like? To some extent, trying this rum is an affordable answer to that question.

(#894)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • You will observe that no controversy has ever been attached to the name of this rhum.
  • As with most other distilleries on the island, Depaz adheres to the AOC regulations so one can drink their rums with confidence that there’s been no mucking around with anything dodgy.
  • Other reviews one can find are the Fat Rum Pirate’s 2020 review (four stars), Rumtastic’s 2019 ambivalent and unscored review and Single Cask Rum’s evaluation from 2019 (85 points).
Mar 232022
 

Photo (c) Husk Distillers

Of the New Australian distilleries that have emerged in the last ten years, Husk may be one of the older ones.  Its inspiration dates back to 2009 when the founder, Paul Messenger, was vacationing in the Caribbean; while on Martinique, he was blown away by agricole rhums and spent the next few years establishing a small distillery in northern New South Wales (about 120km SE of Brisbane) which was named “Husk” when it opened in 2012. Its uniqueness was and remains that it uses its own estate-grown sugar cane to make rum from juice, not molasses, and is a field-to-bottle integrated producer unbeholden to any external processing outfit for supplies of cane, syrup, juice or molasses. Initially they used a pot still but as their popularity grew it was replaced with a hybrid pot-column still (the old still remains at the entrance to the distillery).

As is standard practice in Australia, while rums wait two years to age before being called “rum”, other spirits are made to fill the gap and provide cash flow – in this case there was a gin called “Ink”, and a set of “Cane Spirits” products which were initially a pair of unaged agricole-style rums at two strengths, plus a botanical and a spiced. These continue to be made and pay the bills but there were and are others: in 2015 a “virgin cane rum,” came out, limited to 300 bottles; in 2016 a 3YO aged rum was released (the “1866 Tumbulgum”); in 2018 a 5 YO (“Triple Oak”) – all were cane juice rums and these days both are hard to find any longer. In 2021 they issued “The Lost Blend” virgin cane aged rum with “subtropical ageing” (coming soon to the review site near you) and in the spiced category, they have periodic releases of the spiced rum we are looking at today, which they call “Bam Bam” (for obscure reasons of their own that may or may not be related to a children’s cartoon, but then, they do say they make better rums than jokes).

The rum clocks in at standard strength (40%) and is, as far as I am aware, a pot still cane juice product, aged for 3 years in oak (not sure what kind or from where it came) and added spices of wattleseed, ginger, orange, cinnamon, golden berry, vanilla and sea salt. I should point out here that all of this was unknown to me when I tasted the sample — the labels on the advent calendar didn’t mention it at all.

So…the nose.  Initially redolent of ripe, fleshy fruits — apricots, peaches, bananas, overripe mangoes and dark cherries — into which are mixed crushed walnuts, pistachios and sweet Danish cookies plus a drop or two of vanilla. It’s soft and decidedly sweet with a creamy aroma resembling a lemon meringue pie topped with whipped cream, then dusted with cinnamon…and a twist of ginger off a sushi plate.

The taste maintains that gentle sweetness which so recalled a well done sweet pastry. There was cream cheese, butter, cookies and white chocolate, plus some breakfast-cereal notes and mild chocolate.  A few fruits drift in and out the of the profile from time to time, a touch of lime, an apricot, raisins, a ripe apple or two. And with some patience, baking spices like cinnamon and nutmeg are noticeable, but it’s all rather faint and very light, leading to a short and quickly concluded finish with orange peel, vanilla, brown sugar, and that tantalising hint of cake batter that evokes a strong nostalgic memories of fighting with my brother for the privilege of finger-licking the bowl of cake mix after Ma Caner was done with it.

Overall, it’s a peculiar rum because there’s little about it that shouts “rum” at all (on their marketing material they claim the opposite, so your own mileage may vary). My own take is that it’s alcohol, it has some interesting non-rum flavours, it will get you drunk if you take enough of it and it has lovely creamy and cereal-y notes that I like.  But overall it’s too thin (a function of the 40%) too easy, the spices kind of overwhelm after a while and it seems like a light rum with little greater purpose in life than to jazz up a mixed drink someplace. That’s not enough to sink it, or refuse it when offered, just not enough for me to run out and get one immediately.

(#893)(80/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and a chuck of the chullo to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks, as always, to you both.
  • Husk refers to its rums as “agricoles” (see promo poster above) but incorrectly in my view, as this is a term that by convention, common usage and EU regulation refers to cane juice rhums made in specific countries (Madeira, Reunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique). A re-labelling or rebranding might have to be done at some point if the EU market is to be accessed. Personally, I think they should do so anyway. Nothing wrong with “agricole-style” or “cane juice rhum” or some other such variation, and that keeps things neat and tidy (my personal opinion only).
  • Long time readers will know I am not a great fan of spiced or infused rums and this preference (or lack thereof) of mine must be factored into the review. The tastes are as they are, but my interpretation of how they work will be different from that of anther person who likes such products more than I do. Mrs. Caner, by the way, really enjoyed it.
Feb 242022
 

Photo (c) Killik Handcrafted


Note: Although the bottle label does not refer to the product as “rum” – which suggests that under Australian law it cannot be so called because it is aged less than two years – I am referring to it as such given the fact that under rules elsewhere in the world (and my own common sense) all of its production criteria make it one.


Killik Handcrafted Rum is a small distillery in southern Australia that shares several similarities with its neighbour in Melbourne, JimmyRum, and, in fact, with several others that will form part of this small series of Australian rums.  For one, it is of recent vintage, having been envisioned, established and brought to operation in 2019 by a family team (Ben and Callan Pratt); makes gin and cocktails to help cover costs until the rum stuff gets a head of steam; and has an attached cafe to the distillery which gets the urban customers rolling in for a bite to eat to go with the tasting menu. The distillery compound in a picturesque section of eastern Melbourne just by Sherbrooke Forest makes for a good location to entice day-trippers and tourists who stop by for a snack and a cocktail.

What distinguishes the small distillery from others — who also have a good location, also established an on-site restaurant-cum-cafe and also had to come up with imaginative approaches to survive doing lockdowns —  is its stated focus on recreating a high-ester, hogo-laden series of rums. This they do (according to their website) primarily by using “a wild fermentation process” that I can only assume is by utilisation of a non commercial yeast strain or wild yeast itself.  Whether they actually follow what high-ester Jamaican rum makers do – use muck to supercharge ester fermentation – cannot be gleaned from that website, which is actually not very helpful about much and doesn’t even mention what kind of still they use or whether they start off with molasses or cane juice.

However, Mr. and Mrs. Rum’s daily instagram notes in December 2021 fill in the pieces: the company uses molasses, and yes, they do add in dunder at various stages of the ferment; the still is a 1000-liter hybrid with option for four plates, six plates, or pot distillation; and they source barrels from a local cooperage.  All that leads us into the three rums they make: the silver, the silver overproof and the one we’re looking at today, the “Gold” which was aged in Chardonnay casks (for less than two years, hence the qualifier about calling it a “rum”) and is noted as being a high ester rum with a strength of 42% ABV but with no reference to whether it is from pot or column still, or a blend. Honestly, I wish this kind of thing was better explained and laid out for the genuinely curious (and these days, that’s most of us).

Clearly the Gold is made for a market that is timorous in its tastes, because 42% is not, I suggest, enough to showcase serious hogo action (though it does dampen it down enough so that the uninitiated would not to leave the premises traumatised, tearful and trembling). The first aromas are a testament to that: paint, plasticine, rubber overlaid with the forest green scent of damp rotting logs covered with moss and Fisherman’s Friend cherry bonbons. That may not sound like something you’d want to bring home to Mommy, but it really is not too shabby, and in any case, be of good cheer, for there’s more and better coming. As the initial sharply fruity and offbeat aromas dissipate, they are replaced by vanilla, sweet Danish cookies, caramel, toffee, nougat, nuts and honey – not too strong, quite straightforward here, and good enough for Government work.

The palate stays with this easygoing motif and lets the aggro of the initial nose go its own way (which I submit is our loss); there’s some initial brine and olives, a faint lingering memory of rubber, and then a small bowl of fruit is opened up: pears, melons, papaya, a touch of strawberries and tart mangos, and a pimento infused bitter chocolate or two for kick. There’s some caramel and sweet dark grapes coiling around behind it all, and the whole experience wraps up in a short, breathy finish with just the memory of some fruits, a bit of tart but creamy yoghurt, and that’s all she wrote.

So, how to rate it? Now, I ran it through my glass blind and didn’t know anything about it before beginning, so I went in with no preconceived notions and came to the conclusion I did based purely on the tasting and a knowledge of the strength; and the score it was given reflected a better-than-average sort of quality, because all this high-ester hogo business was not on my radar and I discovered it for myself.  Would I have rated it higher had I known it was daring to be a Jamaican, or lower for not being one? Maybe, but that’s why I taste and score first and research later wherever possible, and not the other way ‘round. 

Short version, the rum feels like an entry-level product, with the esters evident, dissipating fast, and not making enough of a statement. While the rum’s tastes – especially the first ones – are interesting, they lack force, complexity, integration. And yet for all that, the Killik Gold is not a fall-down fail.  It’s merely a rum that starts well, is minimally aged, and in the early stages of being something else, something in the producers’ minds which has yet to snap more clearly and more distinctively into focus. In five years Killik will probably have something really fascinating for us to try: here though, we’re being given an early essay in the craft, a rum that suggests rather more exciting potential than it currently manages to deliver. 

(#887)(78/100)  ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and a finger-tap to the fedora to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks again to you both.
  • The website entry for this rum notes it as being aged 12 months in Chardonnay casks, nothing else.
  • At first I thought the logo represented an aboriginal motif similar to the Canadian First Nations’  Inukshuk (a marker made from carefully placed stones), but Killik’s “About” page showed that the name  and the logo they chose was no accident and actually related to shipping: “The name “Killik” is derived from the word “killick”, being an old anchor handcrafted by encasing stone in a wooden frame. To us, Killik represents strength and stability, while taking a nod to the classic archetype of bottles of rum making their way around the Caribbean on old rustic ships.” After reading around some more, I found out that a killick was also a slang term for a sailor first class (or “leading seaman” – the term has been retired) in the Royal Canadian Navy. The discontinued old style insignia for this rank used to be a ‘fouled’ anchor – an anchor with a length of rope twisted around it). Both term and insignia continue to be used in other navies, including the British, from whence it probably originated.
Feb 142022
 

Photo © NISHIHIRA-SYUZO Co., Ltd

It was to examine this almost-rum (and others like it that will inevitably come) that the detailed treatise on Japanese kokuto shochu had to be written, because without it the review would have lost much of its context and the shochu’s offbeat profile would not have been properly understood.

In brief, shochu is a type of Japanese distilled spirit made from various ingredients, where a two-phase fermentation process using a mold is de rigueur: one to convert starches to sugars and another to convert those sugars to low-proof alcohol, which is then distilled using pot stills. Kokuto shochu is one kind of several different popular varieties, distinguished by being made from unrefined brown sugar (as opposed to sweet potatoes, e.g.) and following the dual-fermentation process. To some this might disqualify it from being a true “rum” but I chose to say it’s one in all but name. It’s made from sugar cane, and in the house of the Father are many rooms, and that’s what counts.

Although we talk a lot about agricoles being grassy, herbal and vegetal, I don’t think I’ve ever had a rum (for that’s what this is, more or less) that took it to the extremes of actually channeling real vegetables — and some rotting ones — the way the Tomoet Moi did. I mean, this really was akin to an alcoholic veggie soup – complete with parsley, cilantro, carrots, balsamic vinegar, brine, olives and the weird aroma of damp decomposing cloth in an abandoned barn somewhere and only a casual nod to fruits or sweet of any kind. After it settles down, it reminds me of a cane vinegar, with that same slightly sweetly sour note to it that makes it so distinctive, poured over a bowl of sliced yellow mangoes spiced with sweet peppers and salt.  I know that sounds peculiar, but take it from me…it works. You just have to stick with it.

Still, even after opening up and after the initial assault on your schnozz has been beaten back, the residual notes of vegetables left to rot in a midden remain faintly there, lending a piquancy to all that you subsequently taste. And what a taste that is: vanilla, cane juice, sweet acetones, nail polish, sugar water and the pungency of diluted turpentine (usually that comes on the nose, but not with this drink). Fanta and Sprite, a touch of orange citrus, cloves passion fruit, cranberry juice and sweet peppers, and if the spoiled bananas and apricots at the back end don’t leave, well, they don’t upset the fruit cart either and for all this to be going on at 40% is no mean achievement. Finally, it kind of relaxes, gets easier and more watery-sweet and then concludes with a short, mild, fruity, floral, sweet and biting finish that is far from unpleasant.

That’s the one….

Clearly, the method of fermentation which kokuto shochu utilizes, combined with the pot still distillation, creates a profile that would give the incautious serious pause, and I now suspect there was probably something of a shochu element in the Seven Seas Japanese rum by which I was so nonplussed in 2018. It was different in the same way this is, with a strong element of rot and brine and seemingly off-putting elements to it, yet where Seven Seas failed (to me, at any rate) Tomoet Moi came together and really became something worth trying…several times. 

As John Go wrote in his own review of the spirit, it really needs time to open up and breathe.  Impatience and a fast guzzle have no place here, and in fact, it rewards keeping it in the glass for an extended period. The sweet, salt, sour and umami aspects of the profile come together in a fascinating synthesis, which, while unfamiliar and perhaps not to everyone’s taste, is sweetly pungent, original and distinctive and never overbearing — and those are the characteristics of any good spirit, I think. Admittedly I started out by being knocked back on my heels…but stuck around, started to enjoy it, and finally, at the finish, stayed to bemusedly and almost wonderingly applaud. 

(#884)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • Thanks as always to John Go who spotted me the sample. He’s a treasure trove of juice from Asia.  I had no idea what it was and tasted it completely blind, because John steadfastly refuses to label the samples he sends me, and just numbers them.
  • The spirit is aged for two years in oak casks, filtered to white and bottled at 40%. 

Brief company background

For historical reasons (now backed up by GI protection) kokuto shochu is only — and can only be — made in the Amami Islands which are situated south of the Kyushu and north of Okinawa. There has been a long history of sugar cane cultivation and (sometimes illegal) distillation here, just as there was on Okinawa.

The firm that makes the Tomoet Moi is Nishihira Shuzo Ltd (shuzo is a Japanese word meaning an alcohol producing company), a family-owned and -run sake brewery and distillery that has been in business since 1875, when they were granted an awamori-making license for Shuri (in Okinawa) in that year. In 1927 a new distillery was established by Tomi Nishihara, the first head distiller (or toji) in the Amami island of Kikaijima, and has remained a small enterprise there ever since: the warehouse was destroyed by air raids at the end of the war, the distillery moved to Amami’s main island, and it is currently run by his great-granddaughter Serena.  The company employs seven people, which is six more than Nine Leaves has, if you recall. 

Just about all production is sold and consumed in Japan, which is hardly unusual. Their standard product is the Sango (an unaged, traditional shochu for the mainstream) and Kona (and oak-barrel slightly-aged shochu for the younger crowd). In 2019 Serena Nishihara created the Tomoet Moi as a more upscale aged offering, breaking with tradition by naming it, in a play on the words “Tomorrow”, “Tomi” and the French words “toi et moi”, which is as good an example of layered meanings in eastern culture as you could ask for.


 

Jan 202022
 

For years, Bundaberg was considered the Australian rum, synonymous with the country, emblematic of its distilling ethos, loved and hated in equal measure for its peculiar and offbeat profile (including by Australians). Yet in 2022 its star has lost some twinkle, it rarely comes up in conversation outside Queensland (where it sells like crazy), and another distillery has emerged to take the laurels of the international scene – Beenleigh. 

Scouring through my previous notes about Beenleigh (see historical section below), it seems that even though VOK Beverages got a controlling interest in the enterprise back in 2003, they contented themselves with providing bulk rum to Europe (beginning with distillates from 2006 shipped in 2007) and servicing the local market. They were clearly paying some attention to market trends, however, because slowly their international recognition got bigger as indies began releasing Beenleigh rum under their own labels to pretty good reviews, and you could just imagine the glee of Wayne Stewart, Beenleigh’s acclaimed Master Blender (he’s been in that position since 1980, some 41 years, which is pretty much as long as Joy Spence over in Appleton), who knew how good his juice was and finally saw it get some well deserved recognition. Bringing in an engaging, technically astute, social-media savvy gent like Steve Magarry onboard as Distillery Production Manager didn’t hurt at all either. 

And yet, as of this writing, almost the only rums from Beenleigh that are widely seen, are those from the independents like SBS, Rum Artesanal, TCRL, Velier, Valinch & Mallet, L’Esprit and others. Beenleigh itself is not well represented outside Australia yet, either in the EU or in North America (perhaps because they’re too focused on chasing down Bundaberg in the young-aged volume segment, who knows?) In that sense it’s a pity that the one Beenleigh rum in the 2021 Australian Advent calendar I managed to obtain, was one of their weakest — not the five or ten year old, not the barrel aged or port-barrel-infused, which are all at standard strength or a bit stronger…but the three year old white underproof bottled at 37.5%, which is part of the standard lineup.

The website provides a plethora of information about the product: molasses based, 3-4 days’ fermentation, pot-column still blend, matured in (variously) kauri (local pine) vats and brandy vats for the requisite three years before being undergoing carbon filtration.  The product specs state 0% dosage, and I’ve been told it has some flavourant, just a bit, which is slated to be eliminated in years to come. Then it’s all diluted slowly down from ~78% ABV to 37.5% — which means you get a very smooth and light sipping rum that doesn’t hurt, or a relatively quiet cocktail ingredient that doesn’t overpower. It’s like an Australian version of the Plantation 3 Star, a similarly anonymous product that some people have an obscure love affair with and prefer for precisely those attributes.

This is a rum that is light enough that letting it stand for a few minutes to open in a covered glass is almost a requirement. A deep sniff reveals a very sugar cane forward scent, redolent of sweet and delicate flowers, vanilla, sugar water and a sort of mixture of tinned sweet corn and peas, a touch of lemon peel and more than a hint of nail polish, acetone and glue. Going back a half hour later and I can sense a raspberry or two, some bubble gum and a bare hint of caramel and molasses but beyond that, not anything I can point to as a measure of its distinctiveness.  Even the alcohol is barely discernible.

It is thin, sweet and piquant to taste, smooth as expected (which in this context means very little alcohol bite), with initial notes of white guavas, unripe green pears, figs, green peas (!!), ginnips, and again, some lemon peel and vanilla.  A bit of toffee, some molasses lurk in the background, but stay there throughout. It really doesn’t present much to the taster’s buds or even as a challenge, largely because of the low ABV.  It is sweet though, and that does make it go down easy, with a short, light finish that presents some red grapefruit, grapes, unripe pears and a mint chocolate. 

Overall, this is not a rum that I personally go for, since my own preference is for stronger rums with more clearly defined tastes; and as I’m not a cocktail expert or a regular mixer (for which this rum is explicitly made), the rum doesn’t do much for me in that department either…but it will for other people who like an easygoing hot weather sipper and dial into those coordinates more than I do. The rum succeeds, as far as that goes, quietly and in its own way, because it does have a touch of bite — an edge, if you will, perhaps imparted by those old, old heritage local kauri pine vats — that stops it from simply being some milquetoast yawn-through tossed off to populate the low end of the portfolio. It’s a drowsing tabby with a hint of claws, good for any piss up or barbie you care to attend…as long as you’re not asking anything too special.

(#877)(76/100) ⭐⭐½


Historical Notes

Beenleigh, located on the east coast of Australia just south of Brisbane, holds the arguable distinction of being the country’s oldest registered distillery (the implication of course being that a whole raft of well known but unregistered moonshineries existed way before that). The land was bought in 1865 by two Englishmen who wanted to grow cotton, since prices were high with the end of the US civil war and the abolition of slavery that powered the cotton growing southern states. Company legend has it that sugar proved to be more lucrative than cotton and so this was in fact what was planted.  In 1883 the S.S. Walrus, a floating sugar mill (which had a distilling license, granted in 1869 and withdrawn in 1872) that plied the Logan and Albert rivers and processed the cane of local landowners, washed ashore at Beenleigh, empty except for the illicit pot still on board, which was purchased by Beenleigh – they obtained a distilling license the very next year. 

Through various vicissitudes such as boom and bust in sugar prices, floods that washed away distillery and rum stock, technological advances and many changes in ownership, the distillery doggedly continued operating, with only occasional closures. It upgraded its equipment, installed large vats of local (“kauri”) pine and organized railway shipments to bring molasses from other areas. In 1936 the distillery was described as having its own wharf, power plant, a cooper’s shop and all necessary facilities to make it a self-contained producer of rum. Some have been replaced or let go over time but the original pot still, called “The Old Copper”, remains in a red structure affectionately named “The Big Red Shed”) and is a prized possession.

Beenleigh’s modern history can almost be seen as a constant fight to survive against the more professionally managed Bundaberg distillery up the road (they are 365km north of Brisbane). Bundie has had far fewer changes in ownership, is part of the international spirits conglomerate Diageo, has a much larger portfolio of products and its marketing is second to none (as its recognition factor). Much of that continuity of tradition and expertise by owners is missing in Beenleigh, as is a truly long term strategic outlook for where the rum market is heading – it can’t always and only be about low-cost, low-aged, low-priced rums that sell in high volumes with minimal margins. That provides cash flow, but stifles the innovation into the higher-proofed premium market segment which the indies colonize so well. Beenleigh could probably take a look at Foursquare to see how one distillery with some vision could have the best of all worlds – bulks sales, low cost volume drivers, and high-priced premium limited editions, all at the same time. It’ll be interesting to see where this all goes, in the years to come.


Other notes

  • A very special shout out and tip of the trilby to Mr. And Mrs. Rum of Australia (by way of Mauritius). The Australian advent calendar they created in 2021 was unavailable for purchase outside of Oz, but when they heard of my interest, they sent me a complete set free of charge. After years of grumbling about how impossible it was to get to review any rums from Down Under, the reviews deriving from those samples will fill a huge gap on the site. Thanks again to you both.

 

Jan 122022
 

Over the last years, one of the inescapable conclusions I’ve come to is that rums that dare to be different or faithfully rep their terroire without reference to others, will always and only get niche acknowledgement from that sliver of the rumisphere that knows and understands the varieties of rum and is not reluctant to try something on the blank edges of the map. Wider acceptance by the larger mass of the rum buying public, though…that may be harder.

This is perhaps why some of the more artisanal cane derived spirits of the day – aguardientes, grogues, clairins, charandas, kokuto shochu, even cachaças – struggle to find mainstream acceptance outside their limited areas of origin.  It’s no accident that perhaps the most popular and well-known of the Japanese rum makers, Nine Leaves, holds the distinction of being popular and well-known not just because of good marketing, but because Takeuchi-san’s rums are the most approachable to a “western” palate, in a way the country’s other sugar cane spirits are not.

I begin with this comment because a similar train of thought went through my mind as I tried what I honestly believe to be one of the best of the Brazilian company Novo Fogo’s lineup, the pot-still distilled “Tanager” cachaça.  Originally they labelled it a “cane juice spirit” but current labels all have the word “cachaça” there, and it is the first of their “Two Woods” series, released in 2017 and afterwards1. The ageing is still rather short: one year in Four Roses ex-bourbon barrels and three further months in arariba (Brazilian zebrawood) barrels, which they claim is what gives it the spirit that characteristic brown-red colour. As to why they named it after a bird, well, who knows (and frankly, who cares? – it’s a nice word, a nice name, and others have used stranger titles).

The woods have had a really interesting impact on the cachaça and changed it quite a bit.  The nose, for example is lovely: nutty, salty and a touch tannic, redolent of cane juice, herbs, wet green grass, moss and a delicate line of strawberries and peaches. There’s a sort of damp earthiness to it, mixed up with spices like tumeric and cinnamon that I particularly liked.

The taste is less successful, perhaps because the slightly sharper attack of the zebrawood is more pronounced here, ameliorated by the relatively low proof point of 42%.  It’s tannic, but also salty, fruity, loam-y and sweet, and there is that characteristic grassy and sugar cane sap profile of a cachaca, plus some vanilla and sweetly tart pears and white guavas. Cinnamon, cardamom, and cumin round things off in a pleasant, low key finish that just escapes being bitter and becomes, through some odd alchemy, crisply refreshing, like a lemon-mint drink.

Cachaças are, of course, meant to be drunk in a caipirinha, but Novo Fogo is aiming for a different market than the huge internal one of Brazil. The rum tastes like an agricole bent ninety degrees away from true, flavourful and interesting, but not so off the map as to be unapproachable. What’s also important is that the short ageing in that combination of woods has produced a rum that is closer than almost any cachaça I’ve ever tried to a profile that is recognizably a “regular rum”….if not completely.  

Therein lies its intriguing and beguiling nature, and therein lies my appreciation for what it is. It may, in the end, be this and the others in the line that espouse a philosophy of finishing rather than ageing in local woods, that will allow Novo Fogo’s cachaças to appeal to a much greater audience than just the aficionados and deep divers who thus far have been its most faithful adherents. I wish them luck,

(#876)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • The producer was originally a small distillery from Morretes, which is located in the south of Brazil, founded in 2004 by Fulgencio Torres Viruel (known simply as “Torres”) and master distiller Agenor Maccari (“Dr. Cachaça”), and in 2010 the Novo Fogo brand was launched after entrepreneurs Dragos and Emily Axinte partnered up to produce it. Most of the press you will find dates from 2015 which was the date that these four people acquired the facilities of Agroecologia Marumbi SA, a USDA organic certified distillery. This allowed an increase in production which in turn led to exports to North America and Europe around 2017.
  • Ever since its introduction to the festival and bartending circuit in that year, the brand has been gaining in recognition, taking its place alongside old-staple cachaças like Leblon, Jamel, Pitu, Avua and Yaguara. Its ever-increasing brand-awareness is tied to their organic and environmentally friendly production processes and stated commitment to sustainable production.
  • Novo Fogo cachaça is derived from sugar cane grown without herbicides or pesticides, and the organic nature of the operations is a major point of their process. The cane is manually harvested and taken to an onsite press that extracts the pure juice, with the leftover bagasse recycled as fuel and fertilizer. Fermentation takes around 24 hours using wild yeast and the 7%-9% wine is then passed through a copper pot still. The resultant spirit is either rested in stainless steel tanks or put to age in American oak casks, though smaller quantities are aged in barrels made of local woods for various other expressions.
  • One wonders, given all these stats, whether the Habitation Velier series will ever come knocking to take a few barrels – it seems to press all their buttons and they could sure do worse.
  • There’s more company background in their very well-designed website.
Oct 142021
 

“Cavalier” was once the brand name of rums released by the Antigua Distillery on the island of the same name. Even the predecessor to the famed-but-faded English Harbour 1981 25 Year Old 1 was originally a Cavalier branded rum, and a very good one, too…for its time, anyway. But somewhere in the ‘aughts the English Harbour brand was created to be the basket for more upscale, upmarket rums – starting with the five year old and moving up in age – and the Cavalier moniker was left for the company’s “entry level” gold and white and 151 rums….which of course meant the bar scene.

There is nothing particularly exceptional about the production process here: made from molasses, fermented with a commercial strain of yeast over a period of days to a solution of 7% ABV which is then run through a columnar still and drawn off at a strength of around 90-95% ABV, tested and then barreled. In this, then, the process is more akin to Spanish heritage style rum making, where, although some aromatic compounds make it past the distillation process, the real emphasis is on the barrel strategy and wood management that make up the final product.  Antigua Distillery uses charred 200-liter American ex-bourbon barrels to which a handful of oak chips are added to boost the profile and after the appropriate time (and depending on which rum is being made), the desired aged rum from selected casks is blended in a large oak vat and diluted over a period of weeks to the final, bottled result.

From the preceding details, that result is not difficult to predict: it will likely be light, slightly sweet and have some fruity elements to it, balanced off with some salt or sour.  That was the way the 1981, the 10 YO, the 5 YO, even the puncheon all tasted, with greater or lesser quality (and success). And indeed, that’s what you get with the current white rum, bottled at 43%: on the nose, it’s very crisp and clean, and resembles a dialled down version of the 65% puncheon’s violence.  Raspberries, red currants and strawberries provide the major fruity elements, backed up by very ripe gooseberries and watery pears, and offset by a trace of vanilla, salt, brine, olives, and some varnish.

The palate is more intriguing: dusty cardboard and decaying sheetrock, light glue, varnish. This is contrasted, as the nose had been, by much of the same fruitiness (pears, guavas, strawberry bubble gum) and saltiness (brine, anchovies, sweet soya sauce), plus a bit of vanilla. Not a whole lot beyond these primary tastes. Even the finish displays that solid simplicity: some sweet, some salt, some vegetable soup, ho hum. Overall, there’s not a whole lot going on here, and the rum is really a straightforward kind of drink, without much in the way of a subtlety of flavour, or any intensity in what you do get.

Current label design

What the rum lacks is a certain amount of heft, and this is why, to my mind, the puncheon, for all its strength, is really the better rum. The Cavalier White is aged two years, filtered to clear, and then takes its place right where it is aimed at – the back bar shelf for cheap mixers, alongside Lamb’s and Bacardi whites and all those other anonymous bland cocktail feeders.  That doesn’t make it a bad rum, precisely, just an uninspiring one: a rum whose makers never cared to let off the leash, so it could be more than the sum of is age and colour. 

(#858)(76/100)


Other notes

  • My mediocre assessment notwithstanding, for those whose attentions and purchases remain limited to Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados and a few favoured indies, I’d strongly recommend taking the time to try a few of Antigua’s rums, even from the starter kit.  They’re familiar enough to be comforting, good enough to surprise, and different enough to warrant more attention.  Their newer rums with finishes and higher proof points are particularly worth checking out.
  • The mini on which the review is based comes from the early 2000s, but I’ve been told that batch variation aside, the rum is the same to this day; just the bottle label design has changed – and this is why I decided to not class it as a Rumaniacs entry. The 43% strength implies it was made for sale in Europe, not America.
Oct 042021
 

Rumaniacs Review #127 | 0855

To be clear, there remains a Westerhall White Jack rum in current production.  It’s not this one. It has been suggested that it’s the same as the Jack Iron rum, just made into a white. That’s a harder call, but I doubt that too, because there’s a bit more complexity to this one than the Jack Iron where the reverse might have been expected. 

In any case, this version has been discontinued. Even by 2015 when The Fat Rum Pirate penned one of the only reviews of this 70% white Grenadian overproof, it had already undergone reformulation and rebranding that led to a sexier bottle and a one-degree proof reduction in strength. The current stylish ice-blue-and-white bottle is rated 69%, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that this was done to go head to head with the much better known and well-regarded Clarke’s Court White Overproof or Rivers Antoine white popskulls which were also at that strength, and perhaps also to steal a point or two of market share the pack leader, the Wray and Nephew 63% version (although good luck with that, ‘cause in my view they had and have nothing to worry about).  Then again, it might also have been to make it more easily transportable on airlines ferrying tourists in and out, who often cap their spirit strength allowances at 70% ABV.

Old and new variants of the White Jack. The one reviewed here is the bottle on the left.

That said, it’s useful to know that Westerhall in Grenada is no longer a distillery: though a distillery did exist since the mid-1800s, it was all about the bulk export market — Westerhall’s own brand, Rum Sipper Strong, was created to service the islanders’ demand only in the early 1970s.  It took another decade and a half or so, before the Westerhall Plantation Rum 1 was formulated specifically for export – however, the sales couldn’t have been strong enough to justify the distillery, because by 1996 Westerhall ceased distillation completely and started buying bulk rum itself (mostly from Trinidad’s Angostura), leaving its distillery to rust – it was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and the ruins can be seen to this day on the grounds

Colour – White (from filtration)

Age – Unknown; suggested to be unaged but I doubt it – like many early white rums were, it’s likely lightly aged, a year or so, and then filtered to clarity (unaged rum is already clear). 

Strength 70% ABV

Nose – Initially there’s a certain heavy meatiness, like yeasty bread dipped into a thick split pea soup; salt, brine, olives, fresh bell peppers.  Also citrus and herbs, grass, sugar water – there’s an element of cane juice here that is completely unexpected.  Surprisingly it develops very nicely, with some estery background notes and sharp fruitiness of strawberries and bananas.

Palate – Very intense, unsurprising at the strength. Nuts, cream, butter, quite creamy, and tasting both of sweet and salt; lemon zest, apples, bananas, red currants and some spices – cumin and cardamom.  There’s more but the strength kind of eviscerates any subtler notes and this is what you’re left with

Finish – You wouldn’t think there’s more than a hot last of spicy fumes, but actually, it’s not bad: toast and cream cheese, chives, olives which gradually transmutes into a nice sweetness of green grapes, bananas and some other indeterminate fruits.

Thoughts – No competitor to the more aggressive, individualistic, funkier and all-out better J. Wray.  It’s a column-still, barely-aged rum, with all that implies, and strong enough to cure all that ails you (from a broken heart to your stalled jalopy, it’s rumoured) — and it’s surprising that as much taste has come through as it has. Not entirely a bad rum, just not one of much real character, and best for its intended purpose, a mix of some kind.

(78/100)

Sep 162021
 

Last time around we discussed a Brazilian cachaça from the environmentally astute company Novo Fogo which they called “Chameleon” — it was aged about a year and meant to quietly blend in to the various mixes for which it was destined (hence the name). I felt it succeeded reasonably well on its own grounds, and the next step up the food chain, the “Barrel Aged” version that is the subject of today’s review, also follows in that tradition — though in my opinion, less successfully.

The details are pretty much the same with respect to the company (I’ve added it below the review to save needless repetition). Novo Fogo is based in the southern state of Paraná in Brazil, has a strong organic and environmental ethos, and makes a trio of cachaças ranging from the “Silver” to this young barrel aged iteration: the three are the more accessible, more familiar portion of their range because they are aged — when they are aged at all — in American ex-bourbon barrels: these are sourced from the Haven Hill distillery in this instance, taken apart, sanded and charred. 1

That combo of charring the American ex-bourbon barrels and longer ageing within them, has resulted in the most rum-like cachaça I’ve ever tried. None of the slightly bitter, off-kilter amburana aromas here, no sharp juddering teak notes. Instead, initial scents of vanilla, minerals and cold campfire ashes combine uneasily with more “traditional” caramel, brown sugar, and soft fruits. One can sense the brininess, olives and more pungent hints of a pot still distillate that processed a cane juice wash, but dialled way down and wafting away before one can properly come to grips with it. It’s 40% ABV and that’s part of it, of course, because the 43% Chameleon showed more character, even though it was younger.

The palate is better: it’s tasty on its own terms, and interesting, but ultimately a weak tea that once again fails to provide anything we have not already had from various lightly aged añejos, ambres or gold rums. Biscuits, cereal, whipped cream, plus sugar water and a few spices. A soft hint of peaches, maybe cherries. The few rummy flavours the nose had promised have headed for the hills like the Road Runner, leaving nothing behind but a thin dissipating dust cloud which promises all sorts of nice goodies – black tea, fruit loops cereal, a flash of orange peel, spices and herbs – and leaves your palate twitching…but there’s no follow-through and they dissipate quickly. The finish is pretty much more of the same: short, clean, light, mostly sugar cane sap and frassy, herbal notes. Nothing specific, nothing to remember, nothing that stands out, and all gone too quick.

Aged cachaças are somewhat less popular and perhaps less well known. This is hardly surprising, since the purpose of a serious cachaça is to boost a caipirinha, and the wilder the profile of the cachaça, the better the caipirinha is supposed to be. That sort of crazy comes best from unaged spirits, as evidenced by the strong blancs making better ti’ punches in the French islands.

None of that off-the-reservation individuality is in evidence here. The barrel-aged cachaca Novo Fogo made seems almost shy, as if embarrassed to display anything so vulgar as an actual character. It is touted as a step up from its cousin (possibly based on the fallacy that more age = better rum), but smells muted and muffled, with most of the interesting stuff bleached out…and then whatever remains has agreed to a non aggression pact. While rum-like enough to appeal to someone looking into the standard-strength Brazilian spirits market to see what the fuss is all about, I feel it lacks the decent low-level complexity which marked the Chameleon. In this case, the cheaper product gets my money.

(#851)(78/100)


Other notes

  • The producer was originally a small distillery from Morretes, which is located in the south of Brazil, founded in 2004 by Fulgencio Torres Viruel (known simply as “Torres”) and master distiller Agenor Maccari (“Dr. Cachaça”), and in 2010 the Novo Fogo brand was launched after entrepreneurs Dragos and Emily Axinte partnered up to produce it. Most of the press you will find dates from 2015 which was the date that these four people acquired the facilities of Agroecologia Marumbi SA, a USDA organic certified distillery. This allowed an increase in production which in turn led to exports to North America and Europe around 2017.
  • Ever since its introduction to the festival and bartending circuit in that year, the brand has been gaining in recognition, taking its place alongside old-staple-cachaças like Leblon, Pitu, Avua and Yaguara. Its ever-increasing brand-awareness is tied to their organic and environmentally friendly production processes and stated commitment to sustainable production.
  • Novo Fogo cachaça is derived from sugar cane grown without herbicides or pesticides, and the organic nature of the operations is a major point of their process. The cane is manually harvested and taken to an onsite press that extracts the pure juice, with the leftover bagasse recycled as fuel and fertilizer. Fermentation takes around 24 hours using wild yeast and the 7%-9% wine is then passed through a copper pot still. The resultant spirit is either rested in stainless steel tanks or put to age in American oak casks, though smaller quantities are aged in barrels made of local woods for various other expressions.
Sep 092021
 

In 2017 I wrote about a cachaça I had tried in Toronto from a Brazilian company named Novo Fogo, which means “New Fire” in Portuguese. That was an unaged, one-year-rested “Silver” cachaça that I liked quite a bit, and in doing my research after the fact, I discovered the company also had a number of other such spirits in the portfolio, resolved to try what I could, and subsequently scouted them out in the years that followed.

This cachaça, then, is the next one up the ladder for Novo Fogo.  It is a blend of both aged and unaged spirits, derived from (of course) cane juice and departs from more traditional Brazilian cachaças in two interesting ways: it is made on a pot still (as opposed to the much more common column still spirits that dominate the industry); and it was aged for one year in American oak, not local woods like Amburana (which make Brazilian spirits so different to the palate conditioned by years of molasses-based rums or aged agricoles from the French islands).  What this does is provide the drinker with the best of three worlds: the terroire of Brazil’s southern province of Paraná (the distillery is located there, not Minas Gerais where the most traditional cachacas are made) coupled with a more familiar aged profile based on American oak… which in turn saves the more endangered Brazilian barrel woods from overharvesting. 

The question is whether that translates into a cane juice spirit that we who cut our teeth on French island agricoles could both relate to and enjoy for its own character.  The initial nose of the 43% cachaça does indeed smell promising: it is so green it squeaks going into a turn. It’s freshly cut green grass, steamed vegetables and palm fronds….if they were liquid. It smells herbal, of sugar water and citrus peel and kitchen spices, and yet also briny and solid — a bucket of salt beef mixing it up with sharp tannic and woodsy notes, and not too many sweet fleshy fruits. 

The taste moves right along from there.  Grassy and green tea flavours are prominent at first, but other sweet notes develop over time as well: light honey, caramel, vanilla, peas.  After opening up, the fruits that seemed to be missing from the nose turn up here: watermelon, pears, white guavas, even sweet peas and steamed corn, mixed up with some soya, lemongrass and parsley in a mild vegetable soup.  It leads to a quiet and short finish mostly characterized by grassy notes and some sweetish, very mild fruits. 

Novo Fogo’s one year old cachaça is an interesting variation on rhums we know. The sweet, herbal notes are not out to lunch or abnormal, and the use of the American oak has helped maintain a lightly-aged profile that other cachacas with more aggressive use of native woods might not (as Delicana showed here and here, it can be a bit hit and miss). Overall, the whole experience is somewhat removed from that of young or unaged agricoles generally, which is as it should be, since we’re not talking about a French island rhum, or a cane juice spirit made in the Indian Ocean islands with the esters dialled up to “11”. The ancestry is, however, quite clear, and anyone who has had even a passing familiarity with agricoles will find much that is recognizable and enjoyable with the “Chameleon”, especially at that approachable strength of 43%.  

That might be the secret behind the name: it is a rhum – a cachaça – made in Brazil, but hews so close to the profile we know that it might in fact be taken for something else.  Only the sly off-kilter notes and occasional divergences are there to tell you it’s not, and I submit that those differences are what make it interesting, and worth taking a chance on…as long as you don’t mind going off the beaten track a bit.

(#849)(81/100)


Other notes

  • The producer was originally a small distillery from Morretes, which is located in the south of Brazil, founded in 2004 by Fulgencio Torres Viruel (known simply as “Torres”) and master distiller Agenor Maccari (“Dr. Cachaça”), and in 2010 the Novo Fogo brand was launched after entrepreneurs Dragos and Emily Axinte partnered up to produce it. Most of the press you will find dates from 2015 which was the date that these four people acquired the facilities of Agroecologia Marumbi SA, a USDA organic certified distillery. This allowed an increase in production which in turn led to exports to North America and Europe around 2017.
  • Ever since its introduction to the festival and bartending circuit in that year, the brand has been gaining in recognition, taking its place alongside old-staple-cachaças like Leblon, Pitu, Avua and Yaguara. Its ever-increasing brand-awareness is tied to their organic and environmentally friendly production processes and stated commitment to sustainable production.
  • Novo Fogo cachaça is derived from sugar cane grown without herbicides or pesticides, and the organic nature of the operations is a major point of their process. The cane is manually harvested and taken to an onsite press that extracts the pure juice, with the leftover bagasse recycled as fuel and fertilizer. Fermentation takes around 24 hours using wild yeast and the 7%-9% wine is then passed through a copper pot still. The resultant spirit is either rested in stainless steel tanks or put to age in American oak casks, though smaller quantities are aged in barrels made of local woods for various other expressions.
  • I reached out to Novo Fogo, curious to find out more about the name, and Luke McKinley responded from the Seattle office and replied “We gave Chameleon its name because it’s a versatile cachaça that can “blend in” to a variety of cocktails. At just 1 year of age, it retains the sugarcane funk of our unaged Silver Cachaça, but picks up enough characteristics from the American oak ex-bourbon barrels to work in stirred, spirituous cocktails.”

 

Jul 262021
 

Having gone through their aged expressions, millesimes, and young blends from the Poisson-Pere Labat distillery on Marie Galante over the last few years, it is my considered opinion that when it comes to the best intersection of value for money, the surprise standout is not either the 3 year old or the 8 year old (which, since they sit smack in the middle tend to be shoo-ins for the honours of this series), or any of the more upscale millesimes (though those are quite good) but the rather unremarked and seemingly unremarkable two year old called the Doré, which I can only assume means “golden” in French. Certainly its light golden colour explains the name, though one could equally wonder why they didn’t just call it an Ambré, as most others do.

Rhums with names, that are not “premium” – by which I mean “highly priced” in this context – tend to be blends which stay constant for extended periods.  The Doré is considered one of the youthful “Elevés sous bois” (‘aged in wood’) series of rums from Poisson, accompanied by the “Soleil” (Sun) 59º and 55º both of which are aged for six months: they are all supposedly a rung underneath the quality ladder of the 3 YO and 8 YO, and the millesimes and premium editions above that.

But I disagree, and think it is something of an unappreciated little gem that defines Poisson and Marie Galante — as well as Bielle or Capovilla or Bellevue, the other distilleries on the island.  Let me walk you through the tasting of the rhum, to explain.

The nose, to put it simply, was just plain lovely.  It was crisp, creamy and citrusy, like a well made lemon meringue pie fresh out of the oven.  It smelled of ripe peaches, yoghurt, ripe Thai mangoes, red grapefruit and oranges, and the acidic, tart elements were nicely balanced off by softer, more earthy tones. Even for a rhum whose youngest components were 18 months old, there was no harsh stinging notes, no roughness or jagged edges flaying the inside of one’s nose.  In fact, the whole experience suggested a rhum much lighter than the 50% it was actually bottled at.

The taste was reminiscent of that dry, crisp Riesling I remarked on with the 8 YO. That one was gentler and smoother as a consequence of the 42% strength.  Here this was transmuted into firmness, a certain tough clarity, and made the wine feel jacked up and boosted (but in a good way). It was a veritable fruit smorgasbord – apples, pears, cashews, guavas, star-apple, passion fruit, peaches all tramped across the stage at one point or another.  And then there was the herbal grassiness of citrus peel, green grass after a rain on a hot day, cinnamon, a trace of coffee and bitter chocolate…I mean, what on earth gives a two year old rum the right to taste this fine? Even the finish didn’t drop the ball – it was long, fruity, and brought everything to a fitting conclusion of crushed walnuts and almonds, lemon zest, ripe fruits and even that pie we smelled at the inception made a small bow.

I don’t know about you, but I felt this rum to be a quiet little stunner and it remains one of those favourites of mine that stays in the memory and keeps being bought, in a way its cheaper and more expensive cousins up and down the line do not. It samples really well, has a good proof point for what it is, and while it is understood that it’s is made to be a mixing drink, I feel it transcends such workmanlike blue-collar origins and somehow excels at being a downright tasty sipping drink also. And it’s nicely affordable as well being in the less-than-premium segment of Poisson-Labat’s range

What it doesn’t have, is widespread acknowledgement, or awareness by the larger rum-drinking public. It’s crowded out by more popular and better known distilleries like Bielle, Damoiseau, Saint James, Neisson, Bally, and is perhaps perceived to be on the level of the smaller and equally little-known outfits like Bologne, Severin or Montebello. 

In a recent interview on the subject of Key Rums, I remarked that that when it comes to a large country with lots of distilleries, how does one pick just one? Admittedly, Marie Galante has only four (a far cry from the 500 or so in Haiti or the thousands in Brazil), but when it is lumped together with those of Guadeloupe, the problem remains…which one to chose?  The smallness of some of these distilleries makes their rhums fail the criterion of being known, talked about and coming up in the literature.  It’s  particularly problematic considering that for too much of the rum drinking world, agricoles barely register at all, let alone get seriously discussed. I submit that this is a mistake and it’s long past time that the blinkers came off.  We should recognize that cane juice rhums, whatever their sources – and perhaps especially those from the tiny distilleries –  are deserving of greater acknowledgement and respect than they get from outside Europe or the cognoscenti. 

And that being the case, I pick another one here, from the small island of Marie Galante; and have to state flat out that even though you may not aware of it, for the intersection of taste, availability, longevity, age and all round taste, the Dore really is rather remarkable precisely because it doesn’t seem to be anything of the kind.  The Soleil 59º and 55º show their youth in their rough edges and wildly untamed exuberance, and so to some extent do the unaged blancs, though they are really fine in their own bailiwick. The older mid-range 3 YO and 8 YO expressions are too weak to be serious contenders as they fall flat or fly away if one doesn’t pay close attention, and the high-end millesimes are too pricey. The Dore somehow, against all odds, even young as it is, finds its niche with effortless ease, shows its quality and retains its place in the mind…and is, I believe, completely worthy of inclusion in this series as a result.

(#839)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • For those who want more detailed background information, the company biography of Velier and the brief history of Pere Labat are both in the “Makers” section of this website.
Jul 122021
 

With all the publicity and attendant pictures, conversations, comments, posts and other media razzamatazz attendant on the big agricole makers of the French Caribbean islands, we sometimes overlook the smaller rhum makers there. Like their more famous siblings, they have also been around for decades and centuries and although they remain not so well known, not so warmly endorsed and not so widely trumpeted, they quietly chug along year in and year out, and make their own juice…maybe unheralded and unsung, but a boss drink by any standard.

One of these places is Distillerie Poisson-Père Labat on Guadeloupe’s southern island of Marie Galante, named after the 17th century Dominican friar who modernized sugar making technology in the French islands (he was the proprietor of the Domaine de Fonds-Saint-Jacques on Martinique and owned slaves there, which leads to a complex and problematic legacy).  The small distillery is on the extreme west of Marie Galante, balancing off Bellevue in the east and Bielle and Capovilla in the centre, and I’m going to review four of their lesser known rhums over the next week or so.

Suffice to say, Labat has been in operation since 1916 as a distillery making rhum agricole (and as a sugar estate before that, since the 1860s – it supplied a local factory nearby) and continues to distill its cane juice on a copper column still brought in from Barbados in 1934.  Their rhums range from white (Labat 59º, 55º, 50º and 40º and a monster of 70.7º) to “Ambre” and “Boise” lightly aged from 6-18 months, and older versions aged 2, 3 and 8 years, and the top end millesimes and fancy pants editions aged more than ten.

The three year old reviewed first does not, then, provide any mysteries: it straddles the divide between the young ambre and boise rhums, and those of the more upscale aged expressions without any sort of attempt at exceptionalism, like its 2 YO cousin the L’Or. At 42% ABV it is less a Ti-Punch ingredient than something for tourists and those who like a young rums without fireworks to gently juice up a cocktail or something. 

(c) Poisson-Pere Labat (Publicity photo) New Version 45% ABV

Yet there’s more going on here than immediately seems to be the case with a strength that low.  It’s got a nose that is soft and herbaceous, redolent of acetones, varnish and more than a touch of turpentine and sugar water. It has the crispness of freshly aired laundry snapping on the line in the breeze of a hot summer day, tart white fruits (pears and guavas), bubble gum, plus the quick snap of lemon zest, and perhaps some crushed nuts. That’s really a lot of nose for a rhum so relatively anemic. I’ve made grumpy comments about standard strength wispiness before, but there’s little to find fault with here – it’s simply a delightful rumlet to smell.

Admittedly, the palate doesn’t quite drop the ball, though there is some drop-off in intensity now. It is a light and quiet and soft rhum, warm and delicately tasty, never losing its clarity or clean taste.  This is all about precise watery fruits – watermelon, papaya, pears dripping juice, mingled niely with the tartness of a ripe soursop. There’s a touch of soda pop like Sprite and Fanta, sugar water, acetones, even the hint of some brininess (this stays very much in the background), before it all fades out into a very clear finish that’s mostly like Mike’s Hard Lemonade with some watermelon thrown in. It’s actually quite impressive.

It’s possible that this 3 YO is no longer made, since it doesn’t appear on the Labat website — not an infallible indicator, since several other rhums they make aren’t there either — and because it has almost completely disappeared from the online literature and conversation (I’ve sent a message to inquire). What I see is mostly about the 8 YO, the soleil, the 55º and the 70.7. That’s okay, those are good too, it’s just surprising to see something as well made as this almost-midrange rhum given such short shrift.

Never mind.  If you find it, it may be pricey, as all agricoles are, relative to a molasses based rum of equal age.  But I argue it’s well made, it’s tasty and for sure it’ll wake up the drink, a cocktail, a party (and maybe even you) at the same time. Plus, it can be had by itself – almost – and it won’t entirely disappoint taken neat. Not a top-tier rhum, it represents its own level quite nicely indeed and remains a rhum that does quite a bit more than you think it does. Like my wife, it doesn’t nag or jab or needle, only soothes and welcomes…and in rhum terms, that quality might well be priceless.

(#836)(83/100)


Other notes

  • There are two versions of the 3 YO; the discontinued 42% ABV described here, and the current 45% ABV version. The switchover happened around 2018, as far as I know.
  • A biography of the company is available, too long to be ncluded here
Sep 222020
 

Let’s start at the beginning.  Skotlander rum is not made in Scotland, but in Denmark, for the very good reason that the founder, Anders Skotlander, is a Dane with the name. Denmark has long been known (to me, at any rate) as home of some of the most rum-crazy people in Europe, and Anders decided to walk the walk by actually creating some of his own, in 2013. He purchased a Müller copper pot still, sourced sugar cane molasses and in 2014 released 1000 bottles of RUM I, a white, at 40%. It promptly won a gold medal at the Miami rum festival that year; and in 2015, where both RUM I and an infused RUM III were entered, the former won Best in Class White Rum, and the latter a gold for Premium White (alongside Plantation 3 and Nine Leaves Clear, which says something about the categorization of whites in those more loosely defined times). 

In the year since then, Anders Skotlander has pushed to stay not only relevant but original.  He has sourced molasses and cane juice from around South America, experimented with different barrels, has used unusual storage places (like a bunker, or a century old schooner) to chuck those barrels, and has expanded the range to include spiced and botanical rums, whites, aged rums, agricole rums and even high ester rums. He’s up to Skotlander 10 right now (a 59.5% blend) and the website provides an enormous amount of information for each. And the labels, informative as they are, are masterpieces of Scandinavian minimalism which make some Velier labels seem like over-decorated roccoco indulgences in comparison.

Rums made from scratch by some small new micro-distillery in a country other than the norm are often harbingers of future trends and can bring – alongside the founders’ enthusiasm – some interesting tastes to the table, even different spirits (<<cough>> ‘Murrica!!). But Skotlander, to their credit, didn’t mess around with ten different brandies, gins, vodkas, whiskies and what have you, and then pretended they were always into rum and we are now getting the ultimate pinnacle of their artsy voyage of discovery. Nah. These boys started with rum, bam! from eight o’clock, day one. 

Which, after this long preamble, brings us to the very interesting Skotlander RUM V Batch #1 (1400 sømil), a rum made from molasses sourced in Brazil which are fermented for thirty days (in Denmark), pot still distilled (also in Denmark), aged in four PX barrels onboard the schooner “Mira” for about a year during which it sailed 1400 nautical miles (get it?) and then 704 bottles were unleashed on an unsuspecting public in 2016 a muscular 61.6% ABV. 

At that proof point you can expect, and you get, serious intensity. The nose is really hot and spicy – clearly it spend the entire voyage happily  sharpening its fangs.  It is clean and snarly, presenting a profile nothing like a Cuban, Bajan, Mudland, or Jamaican rum.  It has fruits, yes, deep, dark orange and red-purple ones: black and red grapes, apples, unripe prunes and apricots, red grapefruits, though sorting them out is a near-impossibility. It also smells of smoke, dusty hay, a touch of vanilla and brown sugar, molasses, salted caramel – if I had to guess blind I’d say it resembles a pot-still, jacked-up St. Lucian or Saint James more than anything else.

After the near-hysterical clawing of the aromas, the palate calms down somewhat.  It remains sharp – at that strength, how could it not? – and drips with the winey, sherry-influenced flavours.  Red grapes, grapefruit again, tart apples.  There is also some caramel, candied oranges and truffles (!!), with crisp cider and citrus notes dominating…but not entirely successfully. Really, I wrote with some amused bewilderment, “…this is like a barely aged seriously overproofed agricole mixing it up with a Guyanese High Wine”.  It does have a lot going on — subsequent sips at the glass, with and without water, evidences stewed apples, fruit salad, watermelons, pineapples, strawberries, so a fair bit of esters in here. This is also evident on the close, which, while long and fragrant with candied oranges, salt caramel, smoke, vanilla and pineapples, lacks neat balance between the salt, sweeet, musky, crisp and tart elements.

I write a lot about “distinctiveness” and “uniqueness” in assessing both familiar and unfamiliar rum houses’ offerings. This has it – to an extent. You can sense an really cool and original product coming into focus, even as it takes care not to skate too far to the edges of what is known and understood. But it does kind of mash untidily together, and the complexity it could be showcasing more successfully gets lost, even muddled as it careens heedlessly from one profile to the next.  You could taste it several times and each time your interpretation would be slightly different, which in this case is both a recommendation and a cautionary heads-up. It’s a bold and interesting rum by my standards, however, and on that basis, even if I’m late to the party, I think I’ll keep my eye on the company, and go find me some more to try.

(#764)(82/100)


Other notes:

  • The Rum Renaissance gold medal awarded in 2014 was second prize (platinum is first), and was won for being “Best In Class” for white rum.  At the time white rums were not stratified between aged or unaged, filtered or not, pot or column, and there are no records how many other rums were judged in that category.  Still, for a rum not even in existence a year before, that’s not a bad showing given it was up against all other white rums, and not a subclass.
  • Skotlander V Batch #2 is slightly older, about two years, released around 2018, aged on the same schooner while it sailed for 2200 nautical miles.  The same emptied ex-sherry ex-Batch 1 barrels were reused. 
  • Here’s a chocolate-voiced promo video about Skotlander
  • Thanks to Gregers and Henrik, the Danes who twigged me on to this company and their rums.
Sep 062019
 

If Diplomatico’s Distillery Collection No.1 (the one from the kettle still) was a garden sprinkler trying to be a fire hose, then this one is no more than a quick leg-lift against the tree.  It is a decent enough rum for the style, but lacks any kind of serious chops to make it rise above its more famous and distinct Distillery Collection siblings, or even that perennial favourite of the tippling class, the Diplo Res Ex. And that makes its price-point and supposed street cred a dubious proposition at best.

The Distillery Collection is an attempt by Diplomatico to capitalize on their various stills, much as St. Lucia Distillers or DDL do. The rums also function — maybe — to deflect attention away from their traditionally added-to products of the line, or even to break into previously untapped and dismissed niche markets for the more discerning rum drinkers. Unlike the No.1 which comes from a pot still, the No.2 owes its origin to a straight-out French-made Barbet column still, which leads one to wonder what the purpose was, because what came out the other end wasn’t anything we haven’t had before.

I’m not kidding. The nose was lighter than the No.1 — no shocks there, though the ABV was the same in both, 47%. Some smokiness, light oak, salt caramel ice cream, tobacco, molasses and some brine but it lacks any kind of acidic bite of (say) citrus, and there is barely any of the fruitiness that would have made it better.  You’ll sense the vague sweetness of bananas, squash, papaya, melons – those neutral fruits which add little to the experience – maybe an apple starting to go, and will have to be content with that.

Unsurprisingly, the palate dials into those same coordinates: it’s warm, light, smooth, unaggressive, with the musky tastes of muscovado sugar, molasses, caramel, toffee, toblerone (the white kind). Then it falters, not because of these things, but because of the stuff that’s not there, the tart balancing notes, the sharper parts of the profile that are notable only for their lightness or complete absence – florals, fruits, oakiness.  Sometimes a reasonably robust proof point rescues or bolsters such deficiencies – not here. It all leads to a lacklustre finish of medium length which displays no closing notes one would hurry back to the glass to experience: it had some salt caramel, light and overripe fruit notes, some vanilla, and it was all quite light and – dare I say it? – indifferent.

Ivar de Laat, the Dutch-born FB-commentator who recently began his own site Rum Revelations, made an interesting comment on the No.1 and Diplomatico – that they were light rum makers and it would be too much to expect them to make big and bold rums without a massive internal cultural change…which he felt was unlikely given that such rums are their style, the one upon which their revenues rested. And “as long as it’s making them money, I don’t see why they should change it.” 

That’s the subtle trap of these rums, because if producers only make what sells, then there’d be ten times as many dosed rums out there (pure rums at high proof have to be really good to be sellers to succeed, because their prices are higher). We are being offered incremental change at a premium, but without real improvement or major difference. It’s cosmetic. In the case of the No.2, it’s plain boring. I could live with such a deficiency in the pot still No.1 which was at least interesting, if ultimately stopping short of being a rave recommendation.  But in a column still product being marketed with pizzazz and hooplah and a tantara of trumpets…naaah.  

So I give it 75, which is on the median between good and bad.  It’s a rum that tastes like one and technically can be had without a problem — it would be incorrect for me to penalize what is not a really crappy product, and which many will like (assuming they can afford it, or want to). Its true failure lies in the expectations it raises and the price it commands, without deserving either. When it comes to the loosening of my purse strings, then, like Bartleby, I think I’ll chose not to.

(#654)(75/100)

Sep 042019
 

Outside the independents who release from all points of the compass, the rums du jour are the New Jamaicans, the pot still Bajans, the wooden-still Guyanese, the fancy St Lucian still-experimentals, French island aged and unaged rums, new Asian whites, grogues and of course the clairins (and we’re all waiting for Renegade).  In the maelstrom of so many releases, Latin rums as a class are less popular than in their heydey, outside their countries of origin, and even I tend to view them with some impatience at times, wondering when they’re going to get back in the game with some sh*t-kicking romper-stomper of their own.

Although Diplomatico’s Reserva Exclusiva sells well and remains popular, the company’s online buzz as a whole has sagged in recent years. Efforts to revive the global awareness of the Diplo-brand with exclusive premiums like the Single Vintage or the Ambassador may have succeeded —  but the absence of any stories or articles or reviews or gleeful “I got this!” photos on social media suggests a rather more downbeat story for the company that was once known as Problemático. Their success is therefore hard to gauge in an increasingly crowded and informed marketplace spoiled for choice at every price point (and every additive point, the wit suggests).

Things took an interesting turn around 2017 when No.1 and No.2 versions of the “Distillery Collection” were trotted out with much fanfare. The purpose of the Collection was to showcase other stills they had – a “kettle” (sort of a boosted pot still, for release No.1), a Barbet continuous still (release No.2) and an undefined pot still (release No.3, released in April 2019). These stills, all of which were acquired the year the original company was founded, in 1959, were and are used to provide the distillates which are blended into their various commercial marques, and  until recently, such blends were all we got. One imagines that they took note of DDL’s killer app and the rush by Jamaica and St Lucia to work with the concept and decided to go beyond their blended range into something more specific. 

We’ll look at the No.1 today.  This derives from cane “honey” (which is just rendered cane juice), aged for six years in American oak, a 5000 bottle outturn of 47% ABV. The question of course, is whether it deserves the cachet of “premium” and the price it commands, and whether it displaces the perennial front runner, the DRE (marketed as ‘Botucal’ in Germany).

So, briefly, tasting notes, then.  Nose: started off promisingly with some pencil shavings, fresh and damp sawdust, followed by brine, good olive oil and leather.  These aromas were balanced off with overripe cherries, citrus, apples, ripe grapes, which in turn provided a backdrop for heavier, muskier notes of caramel, molasses and oatmeal cookies. So definitely a step away from the more standard fare, and the 47% ABV helped give the nose a firmness and coherence that a lesser proof would not have.

I also liked the palate — up to a point. It was warm and fragrant and yeasty as bread fresh out of the oven. One could taste vanilla, treacle, oatmeal with chocolate chips and butter, a nice creamy/cereal-y sort of amalgam, and fruits then popped up — light apples, pears, watermelon, raisins, that kind of thing — combining with a delicate citrus line, leading to a short, arm, inoffensive finish that was mostly vanilla, faint brine and fruity notes, all vanishing quite quickly.

Out of six Spanish/Latin-type rums I ran past each other that day when I had nothing better to do, this Diplomatico surprised me by scoring, in aggregate right up there with the Santiago de Cuba 25 YO.  That was unexpected, almost unprecedented given the disparity in ages. The strength had something to do with it (40% SdC vs 47% Diplo), but overall the Diplo No.1 – even within its limitations – is simply more intriguing, and more original, while the Santiago was, well, very much in the vein of much we had seen before (though quite well done, let me hasten to add).

In the past, I expressed hope for a more aggressive, rough-n-tough new rum to elevate the Latin rum category. This isn’t it. For all its new-age thinking, even 47% isn’t enough, and neither is the pot still, not entirely — because although the rum is admittedly different,  one gets the impression that the creators are still too in love with their softer Spanish rums to abandon their more soothing profiles entirely, go the whole hog and aim for a growly glute-flexing pot-still brute clocking in at 50% or greater. In trying to be all things to all people —  gain credit for something uniquely new while not pissing off the loyalists — they steered a middle course which allowed for a decent new rum to emerge….just not one that blew up the stage, the stills and everyone within a radius of fifty yards. And that’s a shame, because that’s what I wanted.

(#653)(83/100)

Jul 012019
 

M&G out of Cabo Verde, as noted in the review of their tasty little white, stands for Musica e Grogue, a hat tip to the love of island music and island rum that characterized the founders, Jean-Pierre Engelbach (with his fascinating involvement in the dramatic and musical arts over the decades), and Simão Évora, a local Cabo Verde grogue producer and music-devotee. Using one of the five grogue producers in the tiny village of Tarrafal (population = 450, stills = 5, a stat that fascinates everyone who’s ever read it) they produce two main products, the white, and a slightly more out-of-nappies version, the Velha which stands for “aged” in the local vernacular.

Essentially, the Velha is just their white grogue that’s been allowed to sleep a while longer.  It has the same 10-15 day natural fermentation of organic, cane-derived juice, and the same distillation in a fire-fed pot still, which is then collected and set to mature.  Now, back in 2017 they obtained eight oak barrels imported from a French winemaker from the Gaillac terroir (Brocol varietal), and not having a warehouse, proceeded to dig a cellar for them in the middle of the village (!!), and left the grogue to age there for 13 months, then bottled it in 2018 with an outturn of less than a thousand bottles — 604, to be exact — captured at a firm 44%.

With such a short ageing cycle we might be anticipating something a bit off the reservation, slightly tamed by the barrels and the sub-50% strength. Naah, not really. It smelled sweet and soft, of fanta and sprite and a bowl of red olives.  There was a whiff of anise and vanilla and oak and coffee grounds, and after some minutes, also raisins, dates, figs, and aromatic pipe tobacco, flowers and a sly little wine note set off by just a hint of lemon zest.

That was quite a medley on the nose, yet oddly the palate didn’t have quite have as many tunes playing. It was initially briny with those olives coming back, a little peanut brittle, salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, all held back.  What I liked was its general softness and ease of delivery – there was honey and cream, set off by a touch of citrus and tannics, all in a pleasant and understated sort of combination that had a surprisingly good balance that one would not always imagine a rhum so young could keep juggling as well as it it did.  Or as long. Even the finish, while simple, came together well – it gave up some short and aromatic notes, slightly woody and tannic, and balanced them out with soft fruits, pipe tobacco, coffee and vanilla, before exhaling gently on the way out. Nice.

Since I’ve started searching out and encountering these rums from Cabo Verde, I have been wondering about the dichotomy between how I had thought they would taste and how they actually tasted. That misconception – mine, at any rate – derived from an almost complete lack of familiarity with Cabo Verde grogues.  So far I’ve tried just a few, but those few have impressed me quite a bit.  While not yet world beaters, they show that the best new rums (or undiscovered old ones) are not always the biggest names or those with the loudest voices or even the best reputations, because we just don’t know enough about so many of them, even now. The M&G Velha and the Natural — quietly and cogently and without fuss — make the point that when these rums become available, it’s well worth giving them a try even if we never heard of them before,  just to see where else rums can go, how well they can be made, and how good they can taste.

(#637)(84/100)


Other notes

While the Velha and the white are the main products of the company, M&G also make a number of grogue-based punches at around 22-25 % ABV that are flavoured with local fruit.

Back label translation:

“This blonde rum comes from the terroir of Tarrafal of Mont Trigo on the island of Santo Antao (Cape Verde). For decades, our producers have been carrying on the tradition of making the Grogue, an artisanal rum with a surprising flavor, with tastes of fruit, cane and spices. Cultivated on a volcanic soil, without fertilizer or pesticide, the sugar cane benefits from dry tropical climate and good irrigation

It comes from a fair trade. Aged for more than a year in Bordeaux barrels available in our cellar, this grogue velha has acquired woody flavors that enhance the original taste and confer a beautiful roundness.

Exceptional cuvée limited to 604 bottles.”

Jun 172019
 

It’s remarkable how fast the SBS line of rums have exploded onto the rumconsciousness of the world. This is a series released by 1423, the same Danish outfit which made the really quite elegant 2008 Mauritius rum I wrote about with such love a while back, and has received enormously positive word of mouth on social media for the last year or so.  The only similar company I can call to mind that rose so quickly in the public’s esteem would be the Compagnie des Indes, which shared a similarly exacting (and excellent) sense of which barrels to choose and which rums to bottle.

Three things make Jamaica in general — and Worthy Park and Hampden in particular — the current belle du jour for rums.  One there’s the fairy tale story of old and noble rum houses in previously shabby circumstances rising phoenix-like from the ashes of near closure and bankruptcy, to establish their own brands and not just sell bulk.  Two, there’s that thing about pure rums, pot still rums, traditionally made, from lovingly maintained, decades-old equipment, eschewing anonymous blends. And three, there’s the ever-expanding circle of rum enthusiasts who simply can’t get enough of the dunder, the hogo, the rancio, that funky flavour for which the island is famous.

By that standard, this rum presses all the right buttons for Jamaican rum lovers.  It has much in common with both the Wild Tiger rum, and the NRJ series released by Velier last year, and some of the Habitation Velier rums before that.  It’s a Hampden rum, massively ester-laden at close the the bleeding max of 1600, thereby earning the marque of DOK (which actually stands for Dermot Owen Kelly-Lawson, a Hampden distiller who died in 1934). It’s unaged except for six months’ rest in PX barrels, and released at a firm but not obnoxious 59.7% ABV – more than good enough for Government work.

Now me, after the shattering experiences with the TECA and TECC (and to some extent the Wild Tiger), I approached it cautiously.  I spoke gently, kept my head bowed low, and did not make eye contact immediately. Maybe the PX casks’ ageing ameliorated the furious acid-sweet and rotting rancio of such high ester funk bombs, but I wasn’t taking any chances. It might have ninja knives hidden behind the demure facade of the minimalist labelling.

I needn’t have worried. The nose started off with the dust of old clothes cupboards with one too many mothballs, leavened with fruits, lots of fruits, all sweet and acidic and very sharp (a hallmark of the DOK, you might say).  Pineapples, yellow mangoes, ripe apricots and peaches, cashews, and soursop all duelled for bragging rights here. It’s what was underneath all those ripe and rotting and tear-inducing aromas that made it special – because after a while one could sense acetones, glue, nail polish, damp sawdust mixed in with white chocolate, sour cream, and vanilla in a nose that seemed to stretch from here to the horizon. I had this rum on the go for three hours, so pungent and rich were the smells coming from it, and it never faltered, never stopped.

And the palate was right up there too.  Not for this rum the thick odour of mouldering rancio which occasionally mars extreme high-ester rums – here the sherry influence tamed the flavours and gave it an extra dimension of texture which was very pleasant (and perhaps points the way forward for such rums in the future).  The tastes were excellent: sweet honey, dates and almonds, together with licorice, bitter chocolate, cumin, a dusting of nutmeg and lemon zest. As it opened up, the parade of fruits came banging through the door: dark grapes, five-finger, green apples, pineapples, unripe kiwi fruit, more soursop, more lemon zest…merde, was there anything that was not stuffed in here? As for the finish, really good – long, dry, hot, breathy.  Almost everything I had tasted and smelled came thundering down the slope to a rousing finale, with all the fruits and spices and ancillary notes coming together…a little unbalanced, true, a little sharp, yes, a shade “off” for sure, but still very much an original.

Summing up then. The SBS Jamaican 2018 is a Hampden rum, though this is nowhere mentioned on the label.  It’s a furiously crisp and elegant drink, a powerfully and sharply drawn rum underneath which one could always sense the fangs lying in wait, biding their time.  I noted that some of its tastes are a bit off, and one could definitely taste what must have been a much more pronounced hogo. The sherry notes are actually more background than dominant, and it was the right decision, I think, to make it a finish rather than a full out maturation as this provides roundness and filler, without burying the pungent profile of the original.

The other day I was asked which of the Jamaican high ester funky chickens I thought was best: the TECC, the Wild Tiger, or this SBS version.  After thinking about it, I’d have to say the Wild Tiger was rough and raw and ready and needed some further taming to become a standout – it scored decently, but trotted in third. The real difficulty came with the other two.  On balance I’d have to say the TECC had more character, more depth, more overall maturity…not entirely surprising given its age and who picked it. But right behind it, for different reasons, came the SBS Jamaica. I thought that even for its young age, it comported itself well.  It was tasty, it was funky to a fault, the PX gave it elegance and a nice background, and overall it was a drink that represented the profile of the high ester marques quite well.

DOK Jamaican rums that are identified and marketed as such are a recent phenomenon, and were previously not released at all (and if they were, it was hardly mentioned). They’ve quickly formed an audience all their own, and irrespective of the sneering dismissal of the marque by some distillers who persist in seeing them as flavouring agents not meant for drinking, this is pissing into the wind — because nothing will stop the dunderheads from getting their fix, as the rapid online sellout of the SBS’s 217 bottles demonstrated.  When one tastes a rum like this one, it’s not hard to understand the attraction. So what if it does not conform to what others say a Jamaican rum should be? Who cares about it being too hogo-centric? It’s distinctive to a fault, nicely finished, well assembled and an all-round good drink — and that may be the very mark of individuality to which many a DOK made in the future can and should aspire.

(#633)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • According to 1423, the rum was freshly distilled in 2018 and aged for six months in four 40 litre casks, then blended together, rested and issued outside the normal release cycle, in November 2018, as a sort of individual bottling.
  • All ageing done in Europe
  • A week after this review came out, Flo of Barrel aged Thoughts posted a comparison of six DOK rums including this one (in German), which is worth going through.