Nov 272022
 

I view L’Esprit’s unaged still-strength white rums the way I regard Mrs. Canerwith besotted love not unmixed with a little dread. Treat her right and there’s no end of the amazing wonders and complexities that will be provided; drink carelessly and you’ll be belted into next week. Seeing the stats, is clear to see why: the rum is distilled in 2019 in Jamaica, and taken at 85.6% as it dripped and smoked and frothed off the still, then released without any ageing into the wild, unfiltered and unadded-to, and completely, fiercely, joyously untamed. You get the nervous feeling that when you drink it, you can sense the Grim Reaper on your shoulder clearing his throat.

So you can understand both my awe and my trepidation. On the outside, as a white rum, it looks meek and demure (another similarity it shares with my better half), but hard experience with L’Esprit’s recent outturns of this kind have taught me some measure of caution. The initial sniff showed why this was a good idea: it was a wild storm of competing, fighting, angry tastes from all over the map, starting with coconut milk with a touch of gaminess, vanilla, and flambeed bananas drizzled with hot bitter caramel syrup. As if unsatisfied, it moved on to rubber and tar on a hot day. Glue, solvent, acetones, and behind it all, the rank meatiness of a midden heap, brine and hogo gone wild, into which somebody spilled a bucket of used engine oil. If there were any fruits around, they were blattened flat by this huge wave of rumstink, and yet, for all that this reads like some kind of crazy, it’s still somewhat better and more interestingly assembled than the Long Pond TECA.

And at that strength, when sipped, well, it provided all the acres of hurt one can expect from that huge pail of proof. It was hot, spicy, initially reeking of stripped out gears and a burnt clutch on an old Land Roverthis was brief and dissipated swiftly, being replaced by ethanol, medicinals, a tart sort of sweetness (yoghurt, citrus, green apples, grapes, strawberries) and sourness (miso soup, Thai sweet chili, soya)…and then it really got going. There was the bitter clarity of licking a copper penny. It tasted of hot and very strong unsweetened black tea, on the good side of being bitter. And then it got more creamy and spicy and warm at the back end, before relaxing into a finish that was long, sweet, salty, sour, bitteras if all taste receptors got switched back on at oncecoughing up citrus, juniper, quinine and mineral water to go with the pears and green apples that closed the show.

Damn, but this was one serious rum. It’s just this side of excessive, and is the sort of thing a resident of Trenchtown would splash on before heading to the local rum shop for a duck curry and a brawl. The tastes are completely off the scale, they’re all over the place like a half-drawn roadmap leading to an undiscovered country and it’s a small miracle that they work together as well as they do. And admittedly, it’s too fierce on the attack: the lips are numbed, the tongue paralyzed, the taste buds burnt out in a bright flash of heated sulphur and brimstone, and this will not be a rum that finds favour with many except Los Extremos who inhale this kind of thing with their morning wheaties.

And yet, and yet…it’s not entirely a bad product : once it settles down it’s a really quite interesting piece of work, in spite of its undiluted demon-piss vibe. What it does, better than most with similar specs, is unashamedly channel trashy 1980s Ahnuld, Sly, Chuck and Dolph Lundgren action movies of the sort we remember fondly today. It drops massive taste bombs, huge sharp congeners, sweat, harsh language and liquid gelignite left right and centre the way those stars dropped one liners and cool kills. I’m not sure that’s a description or a profile that’ll appeal to everyone, but for those who are willing to park their doubts, I think L’Esprit’s Jamaican white brawler is simply one to beware of, treat with respect…and maybe, once one adjusts to its fierce character, even to love.

(#954)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • It’s not stated but as far as I know, it’s Worthy Park distillate.
  • “Cuvée Daniel” refers to (L’Esprit’s owner and founder) Tristan Prodhomme’s second son; the Diamond “Cuvée Edgar” MPM unaged white referred to his first. He made these rums to commemorate them, which I think is a sweet gesture.
  • As always, I must commend the sleek little sample bottles L’Esprit favours, which fit nicely into a presentation box and are just cool as all get out.
  • Pot Still, 279-bottle outturn. Rested between July 2019 to October 2020 in inert tanks.
Nov 232022
 

Rumaniacs Review #141 | 0953

For a distillery whose founder had a not inconsiderable impact on craft distilling in the state of New York, it’s a shame they stuck with a product that has no end of local competition and is at best reviewed with occasional praise, mostly indifference and sometimes outright disdain: whiskey. And yet they produced a rum or two at one time; and one of them, this rum, while no great shakes, suggested that they had potential and to spare had they stuck with it. Maybe.

This is a pot still, blackstrap molasses based rum (for what it’s worth, blackstrap molasses is the kind that has the most sugar already removed from it and is characterized by an almost bitter taste and thick consistency; it’s also the cheapest). The age is unknown but I think it’s around 2-3 years old, and my perhaps unfounded supposition is that after William Grant injected some capital into the company in 2010 (see historical details below), they wanted to add to the portfolio, and made this 1,000-bottle rum in 2012 to commemorate the Roggen brothers who were Huegenot dry-goods merchants and spirits dealers in the area back in the day. There was also a Hudson River Rum at 46% made at around the same time, and these two products are the only rums I think the company ever made.

ColourAmber

Strength – 40% ABV

NoseYou can still taste some molasses, brown sugar and licorice here, also some sweet fruit which remains, faint, dull and relatively unadventurous. Cherries, orange peel, caramel, some vanilla. It’s paint by the numbers time. Not bad…just not exciting.

PalateVanilla, some apples and raisins, a little licorice and bitterness, and a twang of brine. Brown sugar, caramel, molasses, unsweetened chocolate, and that’s stretching. Essentially, there’s not much going on here. It’s not precisely rough or uninviting, yet the sharpness and youth makes it a drink to have with some care.

FinishHardly anything to report on. Vanilla, some very light fruit, toffee, licorice. That’s about it.

ThoughtsRoggen’s, for all its positive marketing and enthusiastic blurbs on various online stores where it remains to be found (which by itself should tell you something since it was made in 2012), is a rum stuck in time, the sort popular ten years or more ago: punchy if you have it first thing in the morning, but hardly new and or different. It’s a drowsy sort of everyman’s hooch that you could care less about while drinking it, and forget a half hour after it’s done: not because it’s vile, or even poorly madeI have to acknowledge the competency of the distillery in not making an unmitigated disasterbut simply that while the rum is not entirely boring, it’s neither more nor less than just a lot of nothing much in particular.

(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • My thanks to Jazz and Indy Anand of Skylark Spirits, at whose house in London I pilfered the bottle and did the review notes earlier this year. This is not a brand in their distribution portfolio, but something I think Jazz picked up on one of his trips to the States.
  • The historical society of New Paltz was involved in making the rum, which I think is some kind of commemorative or promotional bottling, hence the limited outturn of 1,000 bottles.

Historical background

So, the company story, then, if this intrigues you. Tuthilltown Distillery was founded in the upstate-NY township colloquially known by that name (after a Mr. Tuthill who founded a grist mill there in 1788), but is formally called Gardiner. It was itself established by fleeing Huguenots who settled in the area in the mid-1600s and also established a small town slightly to the north called New Paltz. It was a thriving town by the mid-1700s, and it is useful to know that a pair of Swiss brothersFrancoise Pierre Roggen and Johann Jacob Roggenemigrated there in 1749 and became merchants of some note.

In the current century, Ralph Erenzo, a retired professional rock climber, acquired a property of 36 acres there in 2001, intending to build a B&B, but this never came to fruition because locals kept denying the construction permits. However, Ralph discovered an obscure 2000 law on the books that allowed local micro-distilling at a greatly reduced licensing rate ($1,500, from a previous sum of $65,000) — so long as production was less than 35,000 gallons a year. And so in 2003, with an engineer called Brian Lee (who had come to him looking to use his facilities to make artisanal flour) he shifted to booze, and founded Tuthilltown Spirits by converting one of the mill granaries to a micro-distillery. It was the first new distillery built in New York since Prohibition. Two and a half years later, they produced their first batches of vodka from scraps collected at a local apple slicing plant, and had plans for whiskies. 1

As all good Americans micros do, the distillery went all-in on any distillable booze they could: eau de vie, brandy, absinthe, infusions, vodka, rye, bourbon, gin, and, of course, rum, you know the drill. But it was whiskey that commanded their attention and much like Amrut did, knowing the quality of their product, they did small bar tastings in Paris (yes, Paris) and got a distribution deal with la Maison du Whiskey, aside from whatever small sales they had in-state. This in turn brought them to the attention of William Grant & Sons out of Scotland, who bought the brand (but not the product) in 2010 and injected some much-appreciated capital into the company to improve infrastructure, marketing and distribution; in 2017 they bought the entire thing. At this point they dispensed with all the other spirits and switched entirely to the branded Hudson Whiskey and its variations. And this is why the website for Tuthilltown is dead, while Hudson Whiskey’s is alive and well and why no reference on the latter site will even mention that they once were a smorgasbord of all things intoxicating, including rums.


Opinion

The fact that it’s topical newsmagazines that provide the background to the distillery, the name, the history and the rum’s titlingI searched through quite a few archival documents and websites to find the details used aboveexplains something of my frustration with distilleries who have no sense of their own history or respect for what they have done in years gone by. Granted Tuthilltown is not rum focused, but surely a listing all the products they have made in their existence should be easily available somewhere. This indifference to their product development and past roster, even if discontinued is simply bewildering. I mean, they made it, they labelled it, they sold it, it’s part of who they are…why pretend it doesn’t exist?

I hasten to add that this is not an exclusively American phenomenonGod knows there are examples galore across the geographical spectrum, lie that Cadenhead VSG I almost thought was a ghost last year. Still, in contrast, take this counter-example: the Danish indie Rom Deluxe has a webpage devoted to their current releases, but they also have an archival section on their website where they list all their various older expressions made in years gone by. Labels, tech sheets, the lot. Given I can still find stuff from their earliest years knocking about on store shelves or collector’s basements, such material is a godsend when asking the inevitable question “what is this thing?” Quite a different mindset than so many others.

I’ve made a point of bringing up the issue of loss of current records (or having no records at all) for years and it’s the sort of subtle thing nobody really worries about, or notices…until they ask a question and realize that nobody ever wrote anything down, or recorded it and the info so readily available before, now only resides in derelict and near-inaccessible company archives, or on old web pages no longerlive”, or on some long-forgotten FB post. Rum databases like Rum Ratings and Rum-X help, for sure, but I think if companies themselves took some ownership of their releases and made sure the details were always available, then that would just help everyone out when they see an obscure bottle on a dusty shelf somewhere. Because without it, we’ll be floundering around ten years down the roadeven more than nowif steps are not taken now.


 

Nov 072022
 

By now it’s almost like an annual event at the beginning of each new rum-release season: Velier makes an announcement about a co-bottling or a new rum, or a whole new series, and the rumiverse goes politely batsh*t for a while. To be honest, I kind of look forward to see what they come up with myself, because you really can’t fault their originality, or their style. And the rums themselves are usually interesting, with an occasional gem popping up here and there.

Now, most independents go with the standard big Caribbean distilleries, keep the labels consistent, and stay within just a few clearly pre-established “ranges.” Not Velier. They go off on their own tangent, every time. There was the clairins in 2014, HV in 2015, the pair of Indian ocean rums in 2017, the Hampden launch in 2018 (and all its various sub-series like Great House and Endemic Birds et al, since then), the Barbosa grogue and Villa Paradisetto in 2019, Japoniani in 2020, andwell, I could go on. Each has its own label design aesthetic, and tries to be original in some small way. For the 2022 season, then, the pride of place along with the Papa Rouyos and twenty Saint James expressions was surely the Magnum Series No.1 featuring Elliot Erwitt’s black and white photos on the label.

The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the wordgreatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwittan American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but I don’t think they have direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.

So let’s get started with the first of the four, the Mount Gay, which could equally well be called the Last Last Last Ward. It is a pot still distillate laid down in 2007 when Frank Ward was still running the joint; the idea was to create a new and different brand called Mount Gilboa, and there have been some barrels that the Ward family kept after the takeover by Remy Cointreau, some of which were bottled as the Last Ward rums of the Habitation Velier line. The rum was triple distilled on double retort pot stills and aged in American white oak for 14 years (unlikely to be newthe influence would be too great, so my money is on ex-bourbon casks), after which a mere 600 bottles were squeezed out at 60% ABV.

What comes out at the other end after a near decade and a half is really kind of spectacular. The initial aromas are a perfumed symphony of sweet molasses, honey, and flambeed bananas in a luscious kind of mélange. A vein of sweet and creamy caramel coffee winds its way around rich scents of custard, coconut shavings and vanilla. This is offset by the tart muskiness of soft and almost-overripe fruits: pears, guavas, oranges, apples, grapes, black cherries. I enjoyed the hint of the spicescinnamon, cardamom, rosemaryand the whole thing displays a depth of complexity not to be sneezed at.

It tastes really good too. The 60% lands on the palate as solidly as a right-wing extremist’s denial of …well, anything. It’s deceptively soft, the impact doesn’t get there until later: initially it’s all mushy fruit and smoke and leather, with the barest bitter tang of oakiness. Vanilla, coconut shavings, those flambeed bananas again, plus light florals, a touch of smoke, and a creamy, tart yoghurt mixing it up with honey, caramel, and a dusting of cinnamon and cardamom. The finish is a gradual come down from these heightsit’s epically long, of course, and doesn’t feel like adding anything to the party, being content to sum up with light molasses, yoghurt, those ripe fruits, pineapples and spices.

Overall, I think the rum is great, and it reminds me a lot of the Habitation Velier Last Ward 2007 and 2009 rumswhich is hardly surprising since they come from the same batch of barrels squirrelled away all those years ago. They all have that sense of displaying a sort of quality without effort, like it was hardly even trying, and are quite different from the normal run of Mount Gay rums which are more widely available, and more affordable. The Magnum is neither worse nor better than either of those two earlier HV editionsbetter to say it exists on that same level of pot still excellence, and I suppose that if the distillate had not been used for the Magnum line, it would have been completely appropriate to be the third Last Ward in the Habitations. The price will probably keep the average buyer away, but for those who can score a sample or even a bottle of this latest in the Velier lineup, I think it’s more than worth it.

(#948)(88/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Opinions on the online databases like Rum-X and Rum Ratings mostly felt it did not quite come up to snuff; in doing my last checks before posting this review, was surprised to see I liked it more than most. I passed over comments like the alcohol being too high or the profile not being their thing (those are personal opinions, and each has their own which won’t necessarily align with mine), but one thing must be conceded: there are other Barbadian rums out theresome even from Mount Gaywhich are almost or equally good, and which cost less. It has to be accepted that part of the price here is the rarity and small outturn, and the premium of the name.
  • The photograph on the label is a 1999 photo of the Californian seaside resort of Pacific Palisades.
Oct 052022
 

Even after the decade I’ve spent writing about Velier’s rums, the company still manages to pull a rabbit out of its hat and surprise me when I least expect it, and the new Habitation Velier Amrut rum from India is this year’s contender for the rum I most wanted to try, the moment I saw Steve Magarry’s post about it on FB in September of 2022 (it popped up at Paris’s WhiskyLive a week later). Because, consider what a singular rum this is, and how many fascinating strands of the rum world it pulls together:

It’s a pot still rum, from the HV line (which as you know, I consider a hugely important one) and an intersection with La Maison du Whisky’s “Antipodes” line of spiritsand therefore suggests, as the Indian Ocean series also did, that there is a move by independent bottlers to go further afield to new and unexplored territory in sourcing their barrels1.

In that vein, then, it’s also the only independent bottling of a rum from India itself that has crossed my path since Alt-Enderle’s “India” rum from Germany, back in 2014 (and that one was questionable). And it’s also not made by some no-name, just-opened small distillery with a single small pot still run by a pair of young enthusiastic backpacking European exiles, but a major whisky making house (one that my buddy in Calgary, Curt Robinson, just loves) which makes a popular rum line of its own.

Thirdly, and perhaps as important, it highlights an emergent (and still relatively small) trend towards using other sources of sugar cane and its derivatives to make rumin this case it’s not juice, not molasses, not vesou or ‘honey’, but the unrefined, nutrient-rich sugar known as jaggery. We have met it before from India and always from the same company that makes this rum: Amrut (though I sometimes suspect Old Monk from Mohan Meakin may also use it). And yet even to say jaggery is only used (or made) in India is incorrect, because unrefined sugar of this kind is made around the world. In the Philippine Cordilleras it is inti, in Malaysia it is known as gula melaka and Thailand as namtan tanode; it’s used in making kokuto shochu in Japan and charandas in Mexico (where it called panela), and in both these latter cases the resultant is, while recognizably a rum, also different and completely fascinating.

Years ago I heard stories about Luca wandering around India when the Indian Ocean series was being assembled in 2018, and there were always rumours that the series was never meant to be just two bottlings: but he never found the proper rums from major distilleries in India that he felt warranted inclusionthey were not pot still, not interesting enough, had additions, were too young, or whatever. Yet clearly he had identified something at that stage and it was simply not ready then, because the Bangalore-based distillery of Amrut gave him a single barrel of pure jaggery-based rum to bottle in 2022, and this is it. Pot still, 62.8%, 7 years old, ex-bourbon barrel aged, aged in India. And it’s really quite something.

If aroma had a colour, I’d call this “gold”. It smells like a warm tropical evening with the dappled and fading light breaking through the trees in orange and yellow-brown. It’s a high ABV rum, sure, yet all one gets on that nose is ease and relaxation, molasses, vanilla, coconut shavings, coffee grounds, some freshly sawn wood and the firmness of an anvil wrapped in a feather blanket. There are also some fruits hovering around the edges of awarenessa mix of oranges, sugar cane, fleshy stoned fruit (very ripe) and spices like cumin, cinnamon and thyme held way way back, with just enough making it through to tease. It’s one of those rums that invites sustained nosing.

The taste presents more crisply, with somewhat more force, which I argue is exactly the way it should be. Like other Indian rums I recall, it shows off honey, maple syrup, licorice for the sweet stuff, then balances that with the freshness and tartness of pineapple, strawberries, ripe peaches and apricots a fat ripe yellow mango bursting with juice, and an intriguing line of spices (cumin and cinnamon), minerals and light ashiness that together are just different enough to excite, while not so strong as to derail the experience. Attention should also be drawn to a really nice and long finish, which has the sweet and salt of a caramel-laden latte, but is mostly musky and fruity, with some cinnamon, brine, light florals and brown sugar.

LMDW Catalogue Entry (c) LMDW (click to expand)

A rum like this has to navigate a fine line, since it is not made for indigenous consumers or drinkers from the diasporalike Amrut’s Two Indies or Old Port Deluxe (or the Old Monk itself, for that matter) — in a region where additives and spicing up do not attract quite the same opprobrium as they do elsewhere. It’s aimed at a western audience which is likely to be unfamiliar with such products and has its own criteria, and so an unadded-to spirit which is clearly a rum is a must…yet at the same time it must also present its own artisanal nature and country’s distilling ethos to show its differences from western-hemisphere rums. It can’t be just another Caribbean rum-wannabe, but its own product, made its own way, hewing to its makers’ ideals and own local tastes.

By that standard, all I can say is it succeeded swimmingly. I thought it was an amazing, new, fresh and all-round tasty rum, one that was familiar enough to enjoy, strange enough to enthral, flavourful enough to remember (and then some). Taste, complexity, balance, assembly, they were all quite top notch. It was a rum I wish I could have had more of right there. Habitation Velier’s Amrut may not point the way to a third major source of rum raw materials, and never be more than a niche market product as it isrum folks are as clannish as the Scots when clinging to their favouritesyet I think we may be witnessing another front being opened in the ever widening battle to make rums more interesting, more global, more uniqueand, at end, perhaps even more respected. At the very least, even if none of those things appeal or interest you, try the rum itself, just for itself, as it is. It’s really damned fine.

(#941)(88/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The photograph from the catalogue which has been circulating on social media shows 65% ABV and a 285-bottle outturn. This was an early facsimile issued for inclusion in the catalogue, printed prior to the final bottling The actual strength as issued is 62.8% and there is only one bottling, not two. Outturn is 130 bottles (per the label). I was sampling from Bottle #1. What happened to the other 155 bottles they had estimated when doing the publicity photo is unknown
  • Completely made, aged and bottled in India. The humourist in me wants to ask, does this qualify as continental or tropical ageing?
  • The Velier webpage has not yet been updated for this rum; when it is, you can find it here.
Aug 282022
 

[In the US] there are a small number of rum distilleries, and a large number of distilleries making rum, observed Will Hoekinga in our 2021 Rumcast interview, indirectly pointing to the paucity of quality American rum making. A corresponding remark I have made myself is that if the random picking of American rums to review results in just a minute percentage being really worth seeking out then the characteristics of the part can be extrapolated to the wholeand both together suggest that of the 600+ distilleries in the United states, only a handful are currently worthy of attention.

This is not a random pronouncement made without facts in evidence either, because after trying half a hundred rums with US branding, it’s clear that the best rums sold there are either imports from elsewhere by local indies (Holmes Cay, Stolen Overproof, Hamilton, Two James, K&L) or smaller distillers like Richland, Pritchard’s, Balcones, Privateer, Maggie’s Farm, or Montanya. For sure none of the big guns like Bacardi, Captain Morgan and Cruzan really go for the brass ring, being much happier to avail themselves of millions of subsidised dollars to make low cost rum of no serious distinction. And other rum makers like Kirk and Sweeney, One-Eyed Spirits, or Florida Caribbean Distillers contract out their blends and rums to other distilleries and can hardly be said to have a single world-shattering product in their lineup.

One of the best-regarded distilleries carrying the rum flag without mixing it up with other spirits (and getting loads of press for this and other more social aspects of the job) must surely be the small Colorado-based outfit of Montanya, which was established in 2008 and whose founder, Karen Hoskin, may be one of the most interviewed rum makers in the world after Richard Seale, Joy Spence and Maggie Campbell. Without even checking too hard I found articles here, here, here, here and here, dating back a decade or more, all of them displaying the same down to earth common sense, practicality and dedication to her craft that one sees too rarely in a land where too often the coin of the realm is visibility, not expertise (or, heaven forbid, a good rum).

Ms. Hoskin, who has loved rum for decades (the first rum she became enamoured with was in India in 1999 – I think she was visiting Goa), decided to begin her own distillery business at a time when her day job of graphic and web design was no longer of much interest. She and her husband set up the distillery in Crested Butte in 2008 with a 400-litre direct-fire Portuguese-made copper pot still1, and immediately began producing two rumsa Platino Light white and a lightly aged Oro dark; these two staples have been joined in the intervening year by the a limited edition Exclusiva, a 4YO Valentia, and a special 10th Anniversary edition. By 2018 their rums were available in just about every US state and they had started on a program of international distribution, especially in the UK and Europe.

The Platino which we are looking at today, is a lightly-aged, filtered, pot still white rum, released at an inoffensive 40%, without any additives or messing around, and it is based on a wash made from raw unprocessed sugar from Louisiana (i.e., unrefined…but not the “sugar cane” that some external sources speak of). Initially the rum also had a touch of caramelised cane juice honey added to it (which was always disclosed), but as of 2021 the practise has been discontinued.

For a company so otherwise forward-looking, I find this oddly conservative. For example, although there is an emergent strain elsewhere in the world, of making (if not showing off) white rums that are pure and unaged, it has yet to become a thing in America, where most white rums follow the Bacardi model of “filtration to white” after a short period of ageing. The rationale is that this gives the best of both worlds: some taste from the wash source, and some from the barrel, with none so stark as to overpower the cocktail for which it is made. This glosses over the fact that with industrial stills producing very high ABV distillate, the former is very unlikely, on top of which filtration also removes some of the very flavour elements distillers claim to be after. In Montanya’s case with the Platino, they have gotten around this by using pot stills so that more flavour is preserved at the other end, and a pine-based lenticular filter which removes most (but not all) of the colour, and yet not quite so much of the taste.

What taste does remain and gets carried forward on the nose, is, in a single word, intriguing. Though the rum is made from unrefined sugar, little of any kind of agricole style sap-profile comes throughinstead, what we get is a papery cardboard aroma of old and tattered textbooks…at least, at the inception. This is followed by quite a bit of funky sharp pineapples and sour fruithalf ripe mangoes, strawberries going off, some overripe oranges, that kind of thing. It gradually turns into a more solid smell that channels some cinnamon, vanilla and cardamom in a pretty good combination.

The palate just wants to keep the offbeat party going, and starts with an odd sort of minerally notelike a licking a penny, or tonic water searching for a limemixed up with the ashy charcoal of dying embers on a cold night (I know, right?). Once more the fruits ride to the rescue: mangoes, soursop, pineapples (again), plus pears, watermelon and papaya. There’s a touch of vanilla, figs and melons, and the whole is sparkly and light, with a more pronounced (but not overbearing) agricole-ness to the experience than the nose had suggested there would be. It all leads to a short finish, light and fruity with just a hint of brine and sweet buns hot out of the oven

My overall feeling, having had it on the go for the best part of an hour, remains one of real interestI’d like to try more of these; since all of Montanya’s production is small batch, the variation of the Platino over time would be fascinating to experience. This is not some cheap, easygoing, hot-weather cruise-ship staple, indifferently made and lazily redolent of the Caribbean’s standard profile of caramel, fleshy fruit and vanilla. We’ve had that a thousand times before and they’re too often all but interchangeable.

No, what we’re seeing here is traces of real originality. The Platino marries a sort of bizarre agricole-wannabe vibe with minerally notes, cereals and cardboardthen mixes them all up with sharp and funky fruits, as if it was playing its own obscure tasting game of rock-paper-scissors. In my reviews, a high score does not normally attend a light, white, living-room-strength, filtered rumone where a higher proof could emphasise its points more forcefullybut I confess to being somewhat seduced with this one. It’s really worth checking out, and if there ever comes an unaged version, now that would be something I’d buy sight unseen..

(#933)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The website is admirably stuffed with production details, of which I have only taken a few bits and pieces. Some additional details provided by a very helpful Ms. Hoskin on short notice:
    • Montanya does not use fresh cane juice, as it is too difficult to transport from Lula in Louisiana. It is milled on site in Belle Rose and the fresh juice is processed there. Montanya receives 100% of what was in the cane plant in two separate forms which are subsequently recombined: raw unrefined molasses (12%) and raw unrefined granulated cane sugar (88%). The major difference is that these cane products never go to the refinery, so no processing with flocculants or other chemicals. It’s as raw, unadulterated and flavorful as you can get (and is akin to the panela of Mexico, or the unrefined sugar in kokuto shochu in Japan). It would be illegal to sell it in that form in a grocery store in the US.
    • Fermentation is open, water cooled, and lasts 6-7 days. The fermented wash goes into the still at about 17% ABV
    • Distillate comes off the still at about 74% ABV. Ms. Hoskin remarked in her email to me, “People say that can’t be done with alembics, but I am here to say it absolutely can.
    • Barrelling is at still strength, no reduction. “[This]…is somewhat unusual. Many of my colleagues water their distillate down before it goes into the barrel at about 54 to 58% alcohol. I started doing it my way because I just didn’t have a big enough rack house, but now that I do, I can’t see any reason to change.
  • My appreciation to the Skylark gents of Indy and Jazz Singhthe distributors of Montanya in the UK and the EUat whose residence I tried this rum (and quite a few others) in a small but epic Rum Show afterparty. I paid for my plunder with some rum loot of my own, and a special gift for them both from Mrs. Caner.
Aug 152022
 

Diplomatico is one of those brands that seesaws wildly in the estimation of drinkers, has its determined detractors and equally unmoveable fans, and the opinion one gets for any of the rums in the range is very much dependent on [a] the stance said drinker has with respect to the purported dosage, [b] where they are (North Americans seem to like it more than Europeans do) or [c] what other drink they came to rum from (whisky drinkers will walk away, brandy and cognac fanciers will stick around). All agree though, that more transparency is needed with respect to any additions and until recently this was absent from the company website.

This rum originated somewhere around the mid-teens, I think, when the C-suite at Diplo took a look at the larger rumiverse and decided that their old stalwarts of the Traditional Rangethe Anejo, the Plana, the Reserva Exclusivaand even the upscale Ambassador line, all needed a facelift and some beefing up. New blends like the Mantuano and Seleccion de Familia were issued, the annual single vintage rum was spruced up (with the 2007 12 YO being the first that seems to have a real age statement on it), and in an effort to capitalise on the variety of their rums and their experience, they created a trio of rums that drilled right down to the nuts and bolts of their rums’ basic components. In the French Islands they did this with parcellaires; Diplomaticolike DDL and St. Lucia Distillersdid it with their stills and named them the Distillery Collection. The three rums in this Collection began to become widely available in early 2019.

Whether these new types of rum from an old house succeeded in raising awareness, boosting the casa’s street cred and increasing their sales is debatable. The rums were interesting if all you were drinking was other Diplos…not quite so much when rated by a more international, educated audience as had been developing since the turn of the century. Yet they were interesting, and after reviewing No.1 (“Kettle Still”) and No. 2 (“Barbet Still”), it left the No.3 “Pot Still” to considerbut at the time of release it was not available for me, then COVID struck, the world shut down, and it wasn’t until I spent a most enjoyable few hours in Dirk Becker’s shop Rum Depot in Berlin in December 2021, that I finally got around to trying it.

Like the others it was a blended 47% ABV, molasses-based rum, aged in ex-bourbon casks for around eight years, and I thought it was quite good, all in all. The nose started right off with a sort of brown, deep, sweet scent of caramel, to which was added light sandalwood and leather. A whiff of aromatic tobacco and florals crept in, and it displayed a nice rounded, easy smell, with complexity that seemed absent at first, but which simply took time to build and emerge. Although it nosed somewhat softly, after some minutes the whole was redeemed by the crisp clarity of light florals, orange peel and some nicely ripe white fruits like pears and green apples.

Tasting it continued most of the experiences already nosed. It tasted dark and leathery, with licorice, dried wood chips and a pleasant background of light flowers that balanced well. There was a slight lemony tang to it, the sort of thing sometimes gotten from freshly-washed laundry that had been dried in the hot sun, and behind that was raisins, pears, a hint of pineapple and strawberries, a quick flash of brininess, and the smooth taste of salt caramel ice cream. The finish was the weak pointfairly short even for the proof, and it mostly repeated what I had tried before. Some licorice, vanilla, citrus, leather, aromatic tobacco, none of which could quite elevate it beyond what had already come…but at least there was something there to notice, and it didn’t sink by being some milquetoast whiff of nothing in particular.

The rum is, to my mind, the best of the three Distillery Collection rums, and while it doesn’t feel stuffed with flavour all the time, it has a staying power and a gradually unfolding sense of complexity that is not to be dismissed out of hand. I think that one’s final perspective of the rum will depend on whether the persistent style which Diplo’s roneros could not seem to shake or get pastthat lightness, odd for a pot still rumis to one’s taste.

This was also what made the others less, for me: the No. 1 was intriguing if ultimately lacklustre, and as far as I was concerned the No.2 was nothing we hadn’t already seen from others, done better and costing less. The No. 3 Pot Still is better than both…but only by a little. It’s not that any of them were bad in comparison with Diplomatico’s own branded stableit’s more that they were not as good as the competition they were trying to take on. Only time will tell whether they feel confident enough to keep on releasing more of thesebut speaking for myself, I sure hope they do, because these are rums that have enormous potential and will please a lot of people even as they are.

(#930)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Each of the three rums in the Collection has an outturn of 5,000 bottles. I don’t know if that was all they ever issued or whether this is an annual production run (I suspect it was batch produced and no more was made).
  • As far as I am aware, nothing added here.
  • The picture of the still on the label suggests a double retort pot still. It apparently came from Scotland, was once used to make whisky, and was commissioned at Diplomatico’s facilities in 1959.
  • “Botucal” is the brand name of Diplomatico in Germany.
  • Heartfelt thanks to Dirk Becker and his attentive, knowledgeable and enthusiastic band of stalwarts in Rum Depot, who treated me with patience and courtesy the entire time I was there. Vielen Dank, Leute.
  • Alex’s review over at the Rum Barrel is worth reading, as well as Geoff’s review at the Memphis Rum Club.
Aug 112022
 

Without question, Black Gate Distillery’s “overproof” rum 1is one of the best of the crop of the New Australians that I’ve tried in the last years, and the standout of the 2021 advent calendar. It is a 52% pot-still molasses-based bag of bragaddocio, it sports an attitude, it’s big, it’s bold, and completely the sort of thing John Wick would have in order to finish off the evening in a style we can best describe as, oh, ”assertive”.

This is all the more remarkable since we’re talking about not only a relatively new distillery (founded in 2009) with relatively few products, but a rather young rumit’s three years old. Yet it deserves the accolade, because its aromas it displays and the quality of the first few minutes with it not only set the tone for all that comes after, but suggest there’s even better to come in the years ahead.

Consider how it opens: it’s, in a word, lovely. It blows right out of the glass, and reeks of rich red wines, plums, blackberries and cherries on this side of too ripe. It reminds me of the Tin Shed S.S. Ferret rum I looked at before but without the dusty, cereal, mouldy notes of an abandoned house. Here the house is in fresh paint and good nick, and you smell that glossy paint, varnish, furniture polish, acetones; and if that isn’t enough, the depth of the aromas provides morestrawberries, sorrel, the pungent smell of mauby. I got a well-remembered sense of my mom’s kitchen in Guyana just nosing the thing.

The palate doesn’t drop the ball in the slightest. The 52% strength allows the rum’s profile to be really robust, precise: it’s dry, with dark fruit bonded to crisp herbals, and solid initial notes of brine, olives and spicy miso soup. It’s around the edges that other fruits come out to playsweet Thai mangoes, apricots, cherries, raspberries, attended to by honey, salt, cloves and even a flirt of lemon zest and cumin. The finish is long and doesn’t introduce anything new, and functions more as a summing up of most of what came beforesome dark fruits, a touch of vanilla, red wine, caramel, sorrel, lemon zest and cranberrieswhich I assure you is more than enough to elevate this rum beyond the mere ordinary.

About the only thing you have to watch out for is which one you’re getting, because there are several bottlings under this name, and each set comes from a single aged cask (or two) with its own identifierthe rum I speak of here is from casks #BG081 and 82, distilled in September 2017, bottled in November 2020, and if my reading around is right, just about everyone who has had one of these overproofs really really likes it.

They’re right to do so. It is, I feel, a really fantastic young rum, and one can only wonder where it would be in another five years (or ten) if they had kept any behind to age some more. I know many reading this will prefer their old tried and true Caribbean varietals, but I can wholeheartedly endorse this new Australian expression. It’s as near to an exquisite badass as you can possibly get without being ten proof higher and ten years older. Too many rums we try these days are similar variations on old themes which have lost some lustre and originality, so it can be wonderful to find a rum like this, which finds a different way to tell the same story in a new and exciting way.

(#929)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Founded in 2009, Black Gate Distillery is located in Central West New South Wales, in the small rural town of Mendooran. Like most of the micro-distilleries of the New Australians, it’s a husband and wife operation wherein this caseGenise Holingsworth does the good stuff and makes the rum, while her husband Brian dutifully makes that other obscure drink and handles the maintenance aspects (he’s a fitter machinist and auto mechanic by trade). They sourced two pot stillsrelatively small at 630 litres and 300 litres capacityand work with food grade molasses, commercial yeast and water, to make their various rum expressions. All are small batch, which stands to reason when one considers that the rum output of the small operation is only about 2o00 litres annually.
  • So far, Black Gate makes various Dark Rums, overproofs mostly with different finishes or cask maturations, and one called Tawny. Aside from whiskies, no cash flow stalwarts such as gins or “cane spirit” seem to be made.
  • Rums are aged in Port or Sherry casks (or both) for a minimum of two years. This rum was aged for three years in two Australian port (‘tawny’) casks: one of 225L and the other of 100L. A more recent 54.6% edition of the overproof was aged for five years.
  • Labels are all the same for all these dark overproof rums no matter when made: the specifications are, in a clever bit of economising, white printed stick-ons.
Aug 012022
 

It’s been years since I looked at any of the rums of Barbados’s boutique micro-distillery, St. Nicholas Abbey. This is not for want of interest, reallyjust opportunity. Plus, I had enthusiastically reviewed most of the original three-rum 81012 YO lineup (later expanded to five with the additions of the 5 and 15 YO), and felt no immediate need to search for and buy and try progressively aged and more expensive expressions like the 18, 20 and 23 year-olds that kept on coming out the door at standard strengthsooner or later one of them would cross my path, I told myself.

As the years progressed they remained at the back of my mind, however, and after 2017 I got interested all over again. Because in that year they released the 60% overproof whiteand since I had quite liked the original 40% version tasted the year before, with its cane juice and pot still origins, intriguing taste and gentle complexity, I hastened to try the OP at the first opportunity (which came at the 2022 TWE Rumshow). The overproof white is, like its lesser-proofed sibling, made from rendered cane juice (‘syrup’) then run through the pot still before being allowed to rest for three months in inert tanks, and then bottledthe current crop of 40% and 60% whites derive from the same source, it’s just that one is reduced and the other isn’totherwise, they are identical.

The standard white I tasted in 2016 had teetered on the edge of untameability, and walked a fine line between too little and too much. It was original, yet still felt something like a work in progress where the final vision had yet to snap into focus more clearly; this one was quite a bit better and it wasn’t only the extra proof. The thing smelled like a whole lot more was in there: sweet vanilla, sugar water, raspberries, cherries, and very little of the briny paraffin wax and floor polish that had marked out its predecessor. That was present, I hasten to mention, just kept firmly in the background, allowing the fruity flavours and congeners their moment to shine.

The palate was also well assembled, and holds up well; creamy hot sweet vanilla-flavoured cocoa drizzled over a four-fruit ice creamlet’s say mango, cherry, cranberries and pineapple. It didn’t come with a ton of complexityit was not that kind of rumwhat I got was, however, more than sufficient for Government work, and it was firm and warm and intense enough that I could sip it and get something reasonably complex, and near-delicious without having half my glottis abraded. The finish was suitably long and near-epic, mostly light fruits in a salad, some breakfast spices, a touch of cumin, and a green apple slice or two.

Clearly St. Nicholas Abbey have not rested on their laurels since I first ran across their wares back in 2011, or even since I sampled the initial white they made. The profile of the overproof is one that continues to work well for a rum that can be both mixer and sipper, and it straddles the divide neatly. Best of all, it’s well made enough that it never seems to be a binary decision, but one that’s entirely up to the drinker and will satisfy either way, because it’s one of those rums with the “overproof” moniker that doesn’t have to be endured, just enjoyed.

(#926)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • Previous reviews of the St. Nicholas Abbey range of rums provide most of the backstory to the estate and the rum-making operation. It remains (as of 2022) the smallest of the island’s distilleries.
Jul 282022
 

More and more, being environmentally conscious and paying attention to a sustainable agricultural business model is a determinant for any forward looking distillery that can trade on this aspect of its operations to make sales, gain visibility and win awards. What was once a minor aspect of production methodology has grown to the point where it is something almost every new micro distilleryand many major onesseeks to institute. More than just ethically correct, it’s good business.

Lord Byron Distillery (named after the 19th century poet who is arguably the world’s first modern celebrity) is one which ticks all these boxes. It is located twenty minutes up the road from Winding Road Distillery (and is closer to the beach), about 180km south of Brisbane in New South Wales. It was founded in 2016 by the husband and wife team of Brian and Helen Restall, who are both engineers, and from the beginning went with a zero-waste and fully-sustainable philosophy. Water comes from collected rain and natural springs; bonsucro-certified molasses once merely used as cattle feed is sourced from a farmer co-operative nearby, power comes from a renewable electricity generator, and distillery waste products are turned into liquid fertilisers and feed additives.

The distillery has two copper pot stills and a steel single-column still; the pot stills were both brought from Europe and are named Ada and Allegra (after Lord Byron’s daughters, I’m assuming) — they produce the usual assortment of gins, vodka, limoncello that make for cash flowand various cane juice distillates (sometimes double distilled) which are either sold as white “rhum”, spiced, and aged rum, always in small batches.

The rum we’re looking at today derives from the 2018 harvest and was bottled in 2021, so it is about 2-3 years old, and can therefore be called “rum” under Australia’s regulations. The exact barrel number is not noted on the sample, but bar batch variation between casks, I think we can assume that what is tasted of one rum from that year, is likely to be similar to all others from that year assuming all bottling was done at the same time. For the curious, it was aged in a 260-litre ex-red wine barrel, and another six months in an ex-port barrel, so it qualifies as double-aged instead of finished, I guessoh, and it came out at a solid 55.5% so the impression I get is that it’s made for real rum fans, not casual imbibers.

The rum and its distillery do well from a marketing and ethical standpoint; and it’s a fine rum to taste as well, even for one so young. The initial aromas arising are of cereals, cheerios, and dusty furniture in an old house, as well as (paradoxically) the plastic wrapping surrounding a new pair of leather shoes. There are few sharp notes of sweet and acidic fruits to be found here, so none of the sweetest offerings fo the orchard are on sale: however, one can detect caramel, figs, dates, sapodilla and a touch of brine and papaya. As it opens up, some dark raisins and lemon pie vaguely waft by, a touch of vanilla and aromatic pipe tobacco, but that’s about it. It’s quite enough to enjoy, I assure you.

Tastewise, no slouch either: it’s deeper and more luscious than the nose implied, with a dry kind of bite. It’s very warm but not a scorcher, presenting a solid first taste of brown sugar, salt caramel ice cream, and peanut butter. This dominates the profile for a while before giving way to some fruitiness of bananas, pineapples in syrup, cherries, and anise. A little oak, a little vanilla emerge, and the port-infused cigarillos are once again in evidence, which I suppose is the wine barrels making themselves felt. The finish is soft yet pungent, quite long, and without serious sharpness or aggro; the closing notes are a firm amalgam of bitter chocolate, caramel, vanilla, raisins and cinnamon, getting quite dry at the back end.

After all is said and done, the real question is whether all the organic, locally sourced, natural ingredients have a discernible impact on what gets poured into the glass. Our grocery shelves are filled with packaged food and drink that contain all sorts of additives, preservatives, binders, chemicals and what have you, that proponents of the organic movement say hides natural flavours. Can we detect such things in rums, and deliberately seek out the pure, the natural?

To some extent, I think so, and here’s a product that makes the case for such products quite well. Lord Byron’s rum is a two year old, double distilled, double matured, with nothing added, made organically, simply, and, like my homemade pepper sauce, with as few ingredients as possible. What we get at the other end when we taste it, is a limited smorgasbord of a profile, that does the neat trick of pretending to be less than it is, then providing more. It is, in short, a quiet little corker.

(#925)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

Jun 272022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#918)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Jun 162022
 

Aisling Distillery’s “Riverina” rum is one that defies easy description. It is a rum of real originality that can inspire equal parts admiration or despite, and the only one the resolutely whisky- and gin-focused distillery has ever released in its short eight years of existence. Its bare statistics could be described in a short sentence, yet to attempt an analysis of what makes it impressive may actually be too long for a short review like this one…because what it tries is no less than to marry a straightforward rum profile with something wholly and solely its owna character, a sense of the terroire of the region from which it hails.

Consider the nose of this 47.5% pot still rum. Now, the molasses was local, the fermentation ran to three weeks with a commercial yeast and it was aged for four years in un-charred ex-shiraz casks sourced from around the NSW region of Riverina, where several wineries exist. Yet from those seemingly commonplace elements came an initial aroma that startles and beguiles in equal measure: a sweet sort of semi-rotten funkiness that channels a heap of castoff fruit outside a busy fruit-and-veggie stand in hot weather: pineapples, strawberries, bananas going off, overripe mangoes and dark cherries, plus a scent of sweat and onions and rotting sweet potatoes. It reminds me of an overproof St. Lucian mixed up with flashes of a Longpond TECC, both lighter and more floral (faint lilies and jacaranda) than either Winding Road’s Coastal Cane or Tin Shed’s Requiem.

Then there’s the way it tastes. At a middling sort of strength, it goes warm and relatively easy on the palate, without any undue aggro: it’s actually quite pleasant. The flavours too, are deceptively simple (and not at all like those nose might suggest they would be): initial notes of smoke and well polished leather, and then a parade of bubble gum, fruits (yellow mangoes, strawberries, gooseberries, cherries, and some lighter and crisper green grapes), which then give way to some citrus juice and iced tea. There’s also some Danish butter cookies, brine, sweet maple syrup and caramel, a touch of cinnamon and brown sugar, but none of it is cloyingsweet this is not, and in fact it presents as rather dry, overall. This all segues into a pleasantly long and dry finish, quite aromatic, citrus-y, wine-y, with the briny and slightly “off” notes combing well with sweeter and more musky ones.

This is a rum to admire, and I enjoyed it a lot. It has a heft and a light snap to it (plus all those weird and wonderful aromas and tastes), and feels like the sort of rum you can take any way you wantneat or mixed. It hews to some of the West Indies baseline with which we are familiar, but part of it is resolutely itself, enticing you with tastes you like and holding you in place while showing off something new. Not many new rum makers can pull off that trick on their first try.

Granted it could be aged a bit longer (four years is just a starting point, really) and become something even more complex and sanded down: that aside, the reason I suggest you get it (or at least try it) is not just because of that profile, not just because of the medal score it garnered in 2021, but the simple fact that it is on a level with other good local rums that seek to redefine what Australian rum actually is. In my sojourns around the antipodean rum scene I have yet to find a rum range so consistently unique that one single smell would alow me to bugle “Oz!” immediatelybut this is one like Killik, Tin Shed, Winding Road and others, that’s wasting no time getting there. It makes me look forward to whatever they will come up with next.

(#916)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • 700 bottle outturn from three ex-shiraz casks
  • Distilled on a 2,200 litre steam-operated pot still, with a steam jacket. The condenser is a worm condenser, not a shell in tube.

Historical Background

Situated in the town of Griffith, Aisling Distillery is in south central New South Wales in Australia, in a region called Riverina, which is locally known as the food bowl of Australia because of the predominantly agricultural economy. This in turn is based on the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA) which was established in the early part of the 1900s, resulting in the land being opened up for extensive farming: fuit, vegetables, rice and vineyards were all established here, the latter often by a very large influx of Italian immigrants who remain a significant proportion of the population.

I mention all of this because the Aisling Distillery, which was founded in 2014 by the husband and wife team of Mark and Michelle Burns, was an attempt to capture and claim something of Mark’s Scottish heritage and Michelle’s Dutch background, which had to some extent been subsumed and forgotten in a largely Italian cultural milieu (about 60% of the population claim Italian background)1. A distillery was chosen, which capitalized on Mark’s engineering background and for the potential versatility, because the idea was to make small batch premium single malts with local barley (for Mark, channeling the Scots) and high quality gin (trading on on Michelle’s Dutch descent). After some research and investment they bought an Australian made 1000 liter pot still (not sure of it has a name) sourced local barely and were off to the races.

As with other such smaller distilleries we have been looking at of late, rum was not the priority. The two year ageing requirement was an issue, some experience and experimentation was needed for rum distillation and in any case, from the beginning, good whiskies and gins were the primary goals. Looking at the amount of whiskies and various gins that have been released and listed for sale over the yearsversus a single rum and one vodkaclearly the trend has continued.

That’s what makes it so interesting, to see what they did with the only rum they have produced to date, which was laid to rest in 2016, a mere two years after they started distilling. What came out the other end in 2021 was considered so good that it won the gold medal and the “best rum” trophy at the Tasting Australia Spirit Awards that same year and basically crowned it as Australia’s best rum. That’s quite an achievement for a company which doesn’t even have a primary focus on the product.


 

Jun 092022
 

Rumaniacs Review #135 | 0914

Disregardactually, try to forgetthe label for a moment, so that the word “Navy” doesn’t send you into conniption fits. It’s an advertising thing, and exists on that label for no other reason than to draw a line between the seafaring traditions of yore, and your mindas if somehow, by buying and drinking the rum, you are instantly transported to a noble nautical heritage stretching back centuries, with sea spray in your face, snapping sails overhead, and you line up at four bells to get your tot. I guess that’s the rum partsodomy and the lash go mercifully unexamined (though one does wonder when some courageous Navy-rum-maker wannabe will eventually go the whole tot on the label, so to speak…but I digress).

The rum is of course not a true Navy rum. That’s just marketing garbage; it’s a standard strength blend of unspecified Caribbean components which one website generously referred to originating from “the best sugar cane” and “from the Caribbean islands of Guyana”the very thing that always soothes my suspicions about a brand and gives me the warm and fuzzies. It’s apparently made by a company called “The Four Bells Fine Navy Rum Co.” out of Glasgow which is almost untraceable. Consider it a contract-made third-party blend, no longer made, probably hailing from the island of Guyana. You can trust that. The label says so.

ColourDark gold

Strength – 40%

NoseAll the snark out of the way, I must confess it wasn’t half bad. It’s a dark brown rum, actually quite aromatic. There was molasses, wood, tannins, licorice and brine with a heavy, almost sulky attitude to the nose. Wet sawdust, caramel and honey, well-polished leather boots and some emergent lumber notes that kept getting stronger. Nothing new, nothing too complicated, lots of old faithfulsthis is almost like low-level spirituous comfort food.

PalateAgain, good: warm and simple, Molasses, polished leather, dark cherries, raisins, licorice, a smidgen of sharper tannins and some sour citrus rind. By now I kind of had a bead on the thing, so was not surprised to taste additional notes of bitter chocolate, coffee grounds, toffee and molasses, clearly young, somewhat sharp. It reminded me of cheap Canadian mixers like Young’s Old Sam (a perennial favourite of mine).

FinishShort, which is to be expected at 40%, a bit sweet and yet also dry, with closing points of pungent licorice, molasses and a very sweet caramel macchiato.

ThoughtsBells is a rum that doesn’t need to be stronger, because for all its evident youth, it’s also heavy enough and has sufficient flavours to be tried neat. It is, in that respect, completely straightforward, and clearly not looking to break boundaries and redefine genres. It’s fine as it is, within its limits, but those limits are further restricted by the lack of information provided about the rum itself, and the company that makes it. Like it or not, few taste blind, and people do tend to rate a rum based on what they know about it…or not. Here we know nothing about the rum, the blend, or the makerand if we can’t trust the information that is provided, if only on the label, then it makes us trust what we’re tasting less, much less, and there aren’t many who would buy a rum with that kind of cloud hanging over it.

(#914)(80/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • For what it’s worth, I think the blend is mostly PM out of Guyana. If there’s anything else in there, it’s a very small percentage. The back label notes it as being pot still, but who knows?
  • In British Navy tradition, the strikes of a ship’s bell were not aligned with the hour. Instead, there were eight bells, one for each half-hour of a four-hour watch – four bells is therefore halfway through any one of the Middle, Morning, Forenoon, Afternoon, Dog or First watches (good that someone knew this, because naming it “eight bells” would have been unfortunate, being used as it was to denote end of watch” or a funeral).
  • There are other Four Bells Rums“Four Bells” as a title does not appear to have any trademark or copyright or owned brand associated with it: several firms have made use of the titlesuch as one I reviewed for the Rumaniacs (from the 1970s), or another that went up for auction released by Whyte & McKay;
  • There remains no current references to Four Bells as a company, or the rum outside of auction sites and a few obscure online shops. It may just be a one off brand experiment into rum dating back many decades. Rum-X comments that its production ceased in the late 1970s / early 1980s.
  • A stronger 50% version of the rum remarks that W&M have the Four Bells Fine Navy Rum Company as a subsidiary but that can’t be verified. If it is a subsidiary (they have the same address), Four Bells is not mentioned anywhere on its website or company profile, and W&M has so many other minor subsidiaries under its corporate umbrella (59) that it’s unfindable. Even the CEO’s linked in profile doesn’t tell you anything about Four Bells. White & MacKay itself does deal in spirits, and is currently a subsidiary of the Philippines-based Emperador Group which is part of Alliance Global Inc a diversified F&B/Hospitality/Real Estate conglomerate.
  • I’ve sampled this out to some friends over the years, and quite a few really liked it. It’s not a waste of money, if you find it on some dusty store shelf at a cheap price and enjoy a Guyanese style of rum. I’d rate it on par with the ED-8 or -12, though maybe less complex than either.
Jun 052022
 

In less than a decade, the indigenous spirits of Haiti have gone from being local moonshine known only to locals, residents of the DR, visiting NGOs, Haitians in the diaspora and the occasional tourist, to rhums that have made their mark and become famous the world over. They are enormously complex, traditionally made, un-tinkered with and unaged, and have helped usher in an appreciation for artisanal cane spirits that would have been unthinkable to the aged-rum establishment as little as ten years ago.

The rums, with their fierce and fiery tastes, initially appealed mostly to cocktail makers (and drinkers), which is to say, barkeeps and barflies, and rum aficionados who know this stuff backwards and forwards. But their immense and uncompromising profiles are gradually finding a more general audience elsewhere as well: the great mass of rum drinkers who are more middle-of-the-road, who inhabit the medium-to-low price range and are at best occasional tipplers of more exotic fare like this. Slowly but surely, the clairins are winning them over.

Photo pilfered from and (c) Chris Francke, with my thanks

Of course, it could be argued that a much more approachable and well-known Haitian rum brand is Barbancourt, and indeed, one of their range has already been inducted to the Key Rums pantheon. But while the clear style of the Barbancourt rums is worthy of being the first entry into the series from Haiti, one cannot seriously discuss the rums of the half-island without also acknowledging its long-made artisanal backcountry rums. They may be occasionally divisive, perhaps even an acquired taste, yet for those who take a deep breath and dive right in, they are amazingly flavourful, complex and versatile rums. Nobody who claims they love the category can pass them by, or walk away unaffected by their uncompromisingly wild and untamed natures.

For the purposes of this entry, I am limiting the clairins to the five unaged white rums distributed and popularised by the Genoese firm of Velier, not any of the aged variants that have became available as the years progressed, or any of the blendsthey all take second place in my estimation to the unaged versions, and I argue that when it comes down to it, it’s the five from Velier that form the base upon which our knowledge of the others rests. You could say they are the core clairins of our comprehension of the subcategory and serve as useful stand-ins for all the others.


As a straightforward and simple introduction, clairins are unaged cane juice (or sugar cane syrup) rhums made in Haiti, usually by small village distillers using cane from small nearby fields (often their own), crushing it with primitive machinery, fermenting with wild yeast, and running the wash through bare-bones and rudimentary (occasionally home-made) distillation equipmentpot stills, for the most part. Bottling is haphazard and it’s not unheard of for people to bring their own containers to the tiny distilleries to fill up, and the result is sold as-is, almost exclusively at the local level. Much is also sold to village pharmacies in 55 gallon plastic drums and they bottle it for the final consumers. And it’s long been a practice for merchant bottlers in the neighbouring Dominican Republic to buy clairins in bulk and use it to give their own softer rons some kick and flavour (or to release their own “branded” clairins which are then retailed in both countries). Many larger distilleries do this and rarely or never bottle their own work.

Photo (c) and used with kind permission of John Go

Clairins, then, inhabit a sort of strange universe: they are indigenous, small batch, local spirits and one of their initial selling points to the western world was that they were made on small pot stills, adhering to very old and little-changed methods of distillation dating back to the very introduction of nascent distillation technology by the French plantocracy, more than two centuries ago. The little producers didn’t care if they got a wider distribution in the region, let alone the world, and remained an enclave of spirit making frozen in time. Unsurprisingly, this was a Thing for those of the new rum generation who sought out “natural” and “genuine” spirits that did not interact overmuch with something like, oh, modern technology.

While there are many scores of small clairin makers scattered around Haiti (500 or so, is a statistic often bruited around1), they remain primarily rural spirits like charandas in Mexico or grogues in Cabo Verde or aguardientes everywhere else (in fact, a case could be made that they are aguardientes in all but name).

As he recounts in his book Nomade tra i barrili (“Nomad among the barrels”), Luca Gargano went to Haiti in 2012 to meet Herbert Linge and Jane Barbancourt and took the time to go around the countryside, where he started to come across these local small distilleries. He tried some of their products and was completely enthralled with the natural, strong tastes they displayed. Unsurprisingly the first he sampled was one Michel Sajous made down in Chelo (the gent was already very well known in Haiti for his clairins), and a casual offhanded remark a few days later pointed Luca to Fritz Casimir over in Vaval; and some time after that, a chance meeting on the road led to Duncan Casimir’s place (now run by his son Faubert).

These three small distilleries, out of all the others, formed the initial export crop of the clairins which were to become so well known in the years that followed. By 2014 they were on sale in Europe and Velier lost no time promoting the hell out of them. They brought bartenders to Haiti to demonstrate the country and the rhums; created the Clairin World Championship; brought out new expressions every year; started ageing some into the Ancyen line of aged clairins; blended them into various permutations, such as the Communal; and added two new mainstays from Le Rocher and Sonson by 2019 in an ongoing effort to expand the range.


The impact these rums had is undeniable and this is where it is useful to keep in mind how fast the rumworld is moving. Even in 2014 when limited-edition aged rums from independent bottlers were becoming more famous and more sought after, the market was still mostly about producers’ brand stables of progressively more aged rums (gold, anejo, vieux, 5YO and up, etc) and filtered cocktail whites like Bacardi’s Superior or various Latin Blancos. Agricoles were a small but growing niche market, with aged agricoles being considered the ones to get, and outside of the enthusiast’s sphere of interest, “real” white rums from the French islands were relegated mostly to those islands, or metropolitan France. “Unaged” was not seen as a selling point, Rum Fire and Rumbar rums were not a thing, and the Wray & Nephew white overproof was too often dismissively shrugged off as a “Jamaican diaspora rum” or relegated to the tourist trade, not seen for the classic it later came to be.

The release of the first three clairins and the subsequent marketing and bartender involvement, gave the entire category of unaged, unfiltered, natural white rums an enormous boost in visibility, helped even more by social media and the first crop of reviewers who championed them. In the years that followed, agricole rhum makers from Reunion, Guadeloupe, Marie Galante and Martiniqueamong othersexpanded their ranges of white rums, issued others at new proof points (mostly stronger) and even began a few annual releases here and there…the line from clairins’ success is an indirect one to be sure, but another emergent trend, that of parcellaire rhums, can owe at least a small influence to the terroire so clearly associated with each of these so-very-different Haitian whites.

The increasing visibility (and sales) of the clairins was at a minimum a contributing factor in allowing new micro-distilleries to take the chance of issuing unaged white rums of their own: the Asia-Pacific rumisphere of new brands like Issan, Chalong Bay, Mia, Naga, and Sampan may have co-existed or even predated the clairins, but I argue that they were more locally sold than exported, and the clairin tide was certainly one that helped lift their boats on the international scene as well. Aguardientes, grogues, charandas, arrack, kokuto shochu, Vietnamese rượu and many other such cane spirits which are gaining in popularity are in some small part indebted to the respect accorded to unaged cane juice rums so exemplified by the clairins.

As recently as April 2022, Malt’s writer Han, in a retrospective on the class, suggested that the lack of acceptance of these clairins in the stable Velier’s distributed rumsas opposed to the mania surrounding the Demeraras and Caronis (all of which were aged rums) — resulted from the rhums’ peculiar inability to be neatly pigeonholed and classified, and therefore they were not considered must-haves and financial money-spinners the way the others were. That may once have been so, back when unaged white cane spirits were unusual and considered too lowbrow for wide acceptance. That’s now changingand indeed, Han resolutely recommends that people give these rums a closer look and maybe a re-taste to see how really good they are. What were once seen as puzzling differences inhibiting neat placement, are increasingly considered sought-after terroire-driven individual characteristics, demonstrating that the the international rhum audience is learning, adapting, accepting and growing. The clairins are going mainstream, big time.

In short, the five clairins which form the backbone of the exported Haitian artisanal rhum ecosystemno matter from which yearare serious Key Rums, and no one can be addressed without mentioning every other. They remain affordable, they are originals by any standard, and have become regular bartenders’ backbar staples. They shine in cocktails, yet they can, for those willing to take the chance, be worth trying neat as well, because in few other spirits is the origin, the terroire, the entire process of making it, so evident as in one of these rhums. Their introduction channelled long-gestating trends already gathering a head of steam and perhaps coasted on their coattails rather than creating anything singular themselveshowever, I also suggest that they enlarged and accelerated those same trends and had an influence on all rums of this type that came afterwards. They are important rhums from Haiti that need not be overshadowed by Barbancourt, other agricoles, or cane juice distillates made elsewhere, and can co-exist very nicely alongside them all as unique and flavourful rums of versatility and individuality in their own right.


The Rums as of 2022

The very brief tasting notes represent a (December 2021) re-tasting of those bottles I bought and reviewed over a period of some years. Since there’s a new version out every year or so, the ones I mention below are to be considered as representative only, and the reader should be aware of variations over the years, and from their own experience. However, I do believe that they provide a sense of the differences among them all, their similarities, and something of why they remain so enthralling.

Clairin Sajous 2013 Release, 53.5%

The first clairin I ever tried, the most shocking and still, to me, the fiercest, most rambunctious and fearlessand I feel that way about it perhaps because I came upon it so unexpectedly, without warning, and it knocked me flat. The huge nose reeked of wax, brine and gunpowder, fusel oils and lacquer, sugar water and salt beef, and the taste, solid and savage at the same time, channelled cane sap, brine, olives, unripe fruit and balsamic vinegar. Even at 53.5% it retained seriously savage character that I’ve spent a lot of time and retatstings coming to grips with.

Clairin Casimir, 2013 Release, 54%

Of all the clairins I’ve tried, this remains my favourite, “maddening and strange if you are not in tune with it, mesmerising if you are.” Floor polish, turpentine, kero on the nose, plus sugar cane juice, sweet soya sauce and salty vegetable soup, plus sultry, dark overripe fruits. Palate wise it’s so well donethick, voluptuous, herbal, citrus, spicy and even sushi-like, just fruity and sweet enough to be really enjoyable. I still believe it’s the most elegant of the lot, though I’m aware that others have their own favourites in the line.

Clairin Vaval 2013 Release 52.5%

Also a very good initial foray into the world of clairins, the Vaval is the third of the first edition of clairins released by Velier, and sports a more restrained but still Sajous-like nose of petrol-wax-brine explosive oomph, plus some vanilla, sugar water, unripe strawberries and tart pineapples. The taste is almost civilised: grass, herbas and an overwhelming sense of a vegetable garden next to freshly cut grass in the sun after a rain. It has spices, herbs, sugar cane sap and vanilla, and is a completely decent intro to the class.

Clairin Le Rocher 2017 Release, 46.5%

The fourth addition to the pantheon, Le Rocher is much more civilised than the first trio: it’s 46.5% and made from cane syrup, not juice. It smells of salt, soya and soup, and also of light, crisp herbals and fruits. Plus some carrots and a flower or three. It tastes light and even warm, quite easy warm weather drink, though it retains much of its primitive antecedents: bitter chocolate, wax, cane sap, herbs, olives, and perhaps iodine and wet campfire ashes. Well, nobody said it was easy, not even me. I liked it, though.

Clairin Sonson 2018 Release 53.2%

Made in 2018, ready for distribution in 2019 and then hit with delays relating to the worldwide COVID shutdown, it wasn’t until 2021 I managed to buy the fifth clairin. Like Le Rocher, it’s made from cane syrup, not juice, but when nosed, it feels like an only slightly restrained Sajous is trying to get off the leashfuel, brine, wax, plus acetones, paint, cider and some oddly variegated fruitsbananas, gooseberries, green apples. A sweet, pungent, tart citrus-y melange combines on a rather luscious palate, and the whole thing is best taken at leisure over a period of time allowing it to open and reveal its true nature…which isn’t bad at all.


Other notes

  • There as yet is no official or regulated criterion for what constitutes a clairin. Velier came up with a series of protocols to define them, but these are somewhat contentious, and not widely acceptednot even within Haiti. This is one of those areas where the Haitian Government or the local producers should really try for a PDO or GI or some form of regulation, just to nail the term down more precisely and ensure minimum standards of production and quality control.
  • Luca Gargano, the CEO of Velier has always made it clear that none of the rums he distributes are “his” or “Velier’s” (Providence and Rhum Rhum brands excepted) – they are, front and centre, rums from the distillery and the location that are marked on the label and the box. I call them “Velier’s Clairins” here for clarity and to avoid the inevitable question of “what about all the others?” had I left Velier’s name out.
  • A very good listing of all Velier’s iterations of the various clairins can be found on Spirit Academy.
  • For now, I can’t quite make a case for inclusion of the only other clairin that is reasonably well knownSaint Benevolencebecause for all its laudable charity work and exposure in the States and Britain, it remains relatively low key and uncommented on elsewhere, and lacks wide distribution outside those countries. This applies even more to other kleren / clairin makers in Haiti, like Lacrete, Beauvoire Leriche, Barik / Moscoso, Janel Menard, Cap Haitien / Nazon, Distillerie de la Rue, Agriterra Cotard or Agriterra Himbert. These sell mostly within Haiti itself, or vanishingly small quantities abroadmany just sell bulk, and they have rarely been tried by most (including me). I hope to change that in the years to come, as there’s always space in the list for more.
  • An excellent retrospective on clairins was Han’s, who posted first on Malt and a few day’s later re-posted on 88 Bamboo (both in April 2022). It’s one of those coincidences of nearly-concurrent publishing that crops up from time to time.
  • Hat tip to Han of 88 Bamboo for permission to quote from his article and use any photo I wished, and my deepest appreciation to Chris Francke and John Go, who took those great pictures of their own of the entire range of core clairins, and allowed me to re-post their work here. Thanks, all of you.

 

May 302022
 

While there are hundreds of clairin makers in Haiti, and they have been making cane juice spirits there since before the country’s independence in 1804, widespread modern knowledge of the spirit only really came after 2014, when it was introduced to the global audience by Velier, the Italian company made famous by its Demeraras, Caronis, and Habitation pot still rums series. Strictly speaking, Velier’s stable of clairins consists of just five core products from five small distilleries, but this obscures the regular annual releases of the unaged whites, the aged variants, and the various blends.

Initially, clairins from three distilleries were released (Sajous, Casimir and Vaval) a fourth (from Le Rocher) was selected and became part of the canon in 2017, and in 2018 a fifth was put together from a small distillery in Cabaret called Sonsonwhich is, oddly enough, not named after either the owner, or the village where it is located. It was finally released to the market in 2021, but the cause for the delay is unknown. The rum, like Clairin Le Rocher (but unlike the other three) is made from syrup, not pure cane juice; and like the Clairin Vaval, derives from a non-hybridized varietal of sugar cane called Madam Meuze, juice from which is also part of the clairin Benevolence blend. All the other stats are similar to the other clairins: hand harvested, wild yeast fermentation, run through a pot still, bottled without ageing at 53.2%.

Similar aspects or not, the Sonson stands resolutely by itself. On the initial nose, the sensation is of a miasma of fuel, benzine, brine and wax in a semi-controlled nasal explosion. The thing, no joke, reeks, and if it doesn’t quite mirror the gleeful wild insanity of the original Sajousfondly if tremblingly remembered after all these yearswell, it certainly cranks out burnt clutch and smoking motor oil drizzled with the smoke of a farting kerosene camp stove. Thankfully this is brief, and setting the glass aside for a bit and coming back an hour later, it appears almost sedate in comparison: acetone, nail polish remover and some serious olivular action (is that a word?), the aroma of a freshly painted room in a spanking new house. And after that there’s apple cider, slightly spoiled milk, gooseberries, orange rind and bananas in a sort of Haitian funk party, behind which are timid scents of sugar water, fleshy fruits, herbs and spicy-hot Thai veggie soup sporting some lemongrass. And all that in an unaged rum? Damn.

The surprising thing is, the palate is almost like a different animal. It’s luscious, it’s sweeter, more pungent, more tart. It channels watery, rather mild fruitsmelons, pears, papayawhich in turn hold at bay the more sour elements like unripe pineapples, lemon zest and green mango chutney: you notice them, but they’re not overbearing. Somewhere in all of this one can taste mineral water, crackers and salt butter, the silkiness of a gin and tonic and the musky dampness of moss on a misty morning. It’s only on the finish that things finally settle down to something even remotely resembling a standard profile: it’s medium long, a little sweet, a little sour, a little briny, tart with yoghurt and a last touch of fruits and sweet red paprika.

Every clairin I’ve triedand that includes the other four Velier-distributed versions, the Benevolence and a couple from Moscoso distillersis different from every other. Even where there similar elements, they bend in different ways, and admittedly, sometimes it’s hard to remember that they are supposed to be sugar cane juice based drinks at all. The heft of the Sonson, and the amount of disorganised flavours at play within it, is really quite stunning…and disconcerting. I think it’s that first nose that confounds, because if one can get past its rough machine-shop rambunctiousness, it settles down and becomes really nice (within its limitsI agree, it’s not a rum for everyone).

It’s also a rum to take one’s time with: after leaving my glass on the go overnight, when I sniffed it the following morning most of the oily rubber notes had gone, leaving only fruit and cereal and estery aromas behind, and those were lovely. Yet the rum will polarize, because it is cut from a different cloth than most rums or rhums we know and like better, and its peculiarities will not find fertile ground everywhere. I believe that the clairin Sonson is a rum that required courage to make and fortitude to drink… and perhaps a brave and imaginative curiosity to love.

(#912)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The word clairin means “clear” in Haitian creole
  • Of the five Velier-released clairins, I still like Casimir, Vaval and Le Rocher best on a tasting basis, but admire the Sajous and the Sonson most for sheer audacity.
  • Other reviews in the blogosphere are middling positive:

 

May 262022
 

Distilleries that go off on their own tangent are always fun to watch in action. They blend a wry and deprecating sense of humour with a quizzical and questioning mien and add to that a curiosity about the rumiverse that leads to occasional messy road kill, sure…but equally often, to intriguing variations on old faithfuls that result in fascinating new products. Killik’s Jamaican rum experiments come to mind, and also Winding Road’s focus on their cane juice based rums1, like they were single handedly trying to do agricoles one better.

Moving on from the standard proofed rums from Australia upon which the focus has been directed over the last weeks, we begin to arrive at some of those that take the strength up a few notches, and when we bring together a higher proof with an agricole-style aged rumas uncommon in Australia as almost everywhere elseit’s sure to be interesting. Such ersatz-agricoles rums are the bread and butter of the Winding Road Distilling Co in New South Wales (about 175km south of Brisbane), which is run by the husband and wife team of Mark and Camille Awad: they have two rums in their small portfolio (for the moment), both cane-juice based. The first, the Agricole Blanc was an unaged rum of this kind, one with which I was quite taken, and it’s the second one we’re looking at today.

It’s quite an eye-opener. Coastal Cane Pure Single Rum is rum with the source cane juice coming from a small mill in the Northern Rivers area (where WR are also located), and as far as I know is run through the same fermentation process as the blanc: three days in open vats using both commercial and wild yeasts, with the wash occasionally left to rest for longer (up to two weeks). Then the wash is passedtwicethrough their 1250 litre pot still (called “Short Round”) and set to age in a single 200-litre American oak barrel with a Level 3 char, producing 340 bottles after 31 months. Bottling is then done at 46% in this instance: that, however, will change to suit each subsequent release based on how it samples coming out of the ageing process.

 

Mark Awad’s avowed intention is to produce a distillate that combines the clarity of agricole rhums with a touch of the Jamaican badassery we call hogo, as well as representing, as far as possible, the terroire of NSW…specifically Northern Rivers, where they are. I can’t tell whether this is the rum that accomplishes that goal, but I can say it’s very good. The nose is lovely, starting with deep dark fruits (prunes and blackberries), opens up to lighter notes (bananas, oranges and pineapples) covered over with unsweetened yoghurt and feta cheese. There’s a nice low-level funkiness here that teases and dances around the aromas without the sort of aggressiveness that characterises the Jamaicans, combined with floral hints andI swear this is truesmoke, wet ashes, and something that reminds me of the smell on your fingers left behind by cigarettes after smoking in very cold weather.

Photo provided courtesy of Winding Road Distilling Co. (c) Mark Awad

The barrel influence is clear on the palatevanilla, some light caramel and toffee tastes are reminders that it’s not an unaged rum. But it’s also quite dry, not very sweet in spite of the lingering notes of lollipops and strawberry bubble gum, has flavours of brine and lemon-cured green Moroccan olives, and brings to mind something of a Speysider or Lowland whisky that’s been in a sherry cask for a bit. It’s one of those rums that seems simple and quiet, yet rewards patience and if allowed to open up properly, really impresses. Even the finish has that initially-restrained but subtly complex vibe, providing long, winey closing notes together with very ripe blue grapes, soft apples, brine, and a touch of lemony cumin.

I’m really intrigued with what Winding Road have done here. With two separate rums they have provided taste profiles that are quite divergent, enough to seem as if they were made by different companies altogether. There are aspects of this aged rum that are more pleasing than the unaged version, while others fall somewhat behind: I’d suggest the nose and the finish is better here, but honestly, they are both quite good, just in different ways.

The constant tinkering and experimentation that marks out these small Australian distillerieswho strive to find both their niche and that point of distinction that will set them apartclearly pays dividends. While I can’t tell you with assurance I tasted an individualistic terroire that would lead me straight to NSW (let alone Australia), neither did the Awads head into the outback at full throttle, going straight through the wall leaving only an outline of themselves behind. What they have in fact accomplished is far better: they have created a rum that is thoroughly enjoyable, one that takes a well known style of rum, twists it around and bounces it up and down a bit…and ends up making the familiar new again. I can’t wait for Release #2.

(#911)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The website specs refer to a single 200-litre barrel and the initial math seems wrong if 340 700-ml bottles were issued (since that works out to 238 litres with zero evaporation losses). However, that only computes if you assume the distillate went in and came out at the same strength. Mark confirmed: “The figures on our website are correct, even though at first glance they may seem a bit off. We filled the barrel at 67.1% ABV and when it was decanted the rum came in at 65.1%. We ended up with just short of 169 litres which we then adjusted down to 46% ABV. This gave us a bit over 239 litres which resulted in 340 bottles, plus a little extra that went towards samples.”
  • As always, chapeau to Mr. and Mrs. Rum for their kind supply of the advent calendar.
May 162022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#908)(87/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • Sugar cane growth had been encouraged in Queensland by the Sugar and Coffee regulations in 1864, the same year as the Beenleigh plantation was established (it was named after its founders’ home in England). Initially sugar was all it produced, though a floating boat-based distillery called the “Walrus” did serve several plantations in the area from 1869 and made rum from molasses – illegally, after its license was withdrawn in 1872, continuing until 1883 when it was beached. Francis Gooding, one of the founders, purchased the onboard still and gained a distilling license in 1884 from which time such operations formally began in Beenleigh. Through various changes in ownership, Beenleigh as a distillery continued until 1969 when it shut down because of falling demand, then relaunched in 1972 under the ownership of Mervyn Davy and his sons; they didn’t hold on to it long and sold it to the Moran family in 1980, who in turn disposed of a controlling share to Tarac Industries in 1984. All the post-1969 owners added to the facilities and expanded the distillery’s production to other spirits, and it was finally acquired in 2003 by VOK Beverages a diversified drinks company from South Australia, in whose hands it remains.
  • Tristan confirmed that the rum is indeed all pot still distillate.
  • L’Esprit is a small independent bottler out of France, perhaps better known in Europe for its whiskies. They’ve been on my radar for years, and I remain convinced they are among the best, yet also most unsung, of the independentsperhaps because they have almost no social media presence to speak of, and not everybody reads the reviews. I also think they have some of the coolest sample bottles I’ve ever seen.
  • An unsolicited (but very welcome) sample set was provided gratis to me by the owner, Tristan Prodhomme, for Christmas 2021, perhaps because he knew of my liking for strong hooch and that I buy his stuff constantly. If we can meet next time I’m in Europe, I have to see what to do to even the scales.
May 122022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#907)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

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

Opinion

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

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


 

Apr 282022
 

Photo (c) Hoochery Distillery website

Just reading the name of this rum invites questions. Where does the rum come from, with a name like that? Who is Spike? Is there a really a distillery named after the rotgut liquor the word “hooch” represents? In the welter of “cane spirit” new-make unaged rums emerging from the New Australians 1and the lack of many seriously aged rums from Down Under, is there actually one that’s seven years old? What could it possibly be like? Fortunately your fearless (if occasionally clueless) reviewer, possessed of rather more enthusiasm than good sense, has not only been here before but has tried this rum as well, and stands ready (if unsteady) to provide all answers.

First, the distillery: Hoochery Distillery’s name derives from, yes, the word “hooch”, a slang term for moonshine, or illegal liquor, popular during Prohibition. A hoochery is now a trademarked word for a low-end small-scale distillery making (you guessed it) hooch, specifically in Australia. Predating many of the New Australians, the distillery itself was established in 1993 in Western Australia’s remote northern Kimberly outback by an American, Raymond “Spike” Dessert (The Third of His Name). He had been in the area since 1972 and when in the 1990s the Ord River irrigation area permitted sugar cane to be grown, he figured that the combination of tropical climate, sugar cane, and the area’s need to diversify suggested a distillery (since a winery was not an option, there being no vinyards in Western Australia’s far north).

That’s the way the company legend runs, but maybe he just liked rum and couldn’t get any worth drinking there. So, like many independent men in a frontier province, he went about it by making stuff himself, from still to shed to vats, learning as he went along, an ethos the company’s website emphasises. Nearly thirty years further along, Hoochery’s rum range includes four starters (white, spiced, overproof, 2YO premium) and three rather more upscale rumsthe Spike’s Reserve series of the 7 YO, 10 YO and 15 YO. All are made with Australian molasses, yeast, local water and a five-day fermentation period — the wash is then run through a self-made double pot still, which keeps things at a low alcohol percentage so as to keep as many flavours in play as possible. The rum we’re looking at today is aged in 300-litre charred oak barrels for seven years, and bottled at 43.1% ABV…it was first released in 2017.

The rum’s nose is an exercise in distinct if confused complexity: it is redolent of bitter wood resin, salt, rotten fruit and is even a touch meaty. All the subsequent aromas wafting through the profile have these preliminary notes as their background: the apple cider, green grapes, red wine vinegar underlain by light molasses, aromatic tobacco and sweet vanilla. By the time it starts to settle down with puffs of musty caramel, licorice and brine, you know that it’s completely and utterly a rum, just one that vibrates to its own frequency, not yours.

Sipping it drives home this point: it has standard tastes of caramel, toffee and sweet brown sugar, and a bag of vanilla (probably from the charred barres that were used in the ageing); and there are some nice hints of stewed apples, peaches in syrup, honey. The problem is that the woodiness, the oakiness, is excessive, and the unsweetened licorice, sawdust, bitter coffee grounds and resin all have too much influence, The sweeter, muskier flavours balance this off as best they can, but it’s not enough. And behind it all is that meatiness, that deep sour funk which some will like and some will not, leading to a dry and tannic finish that’s mostly caramel, toffee, vanilla and overripe fruit.

Aged rums that are fully made in Australia remain relatively scant, with few exceeding ten years of ageBeenleigh has a few good ones and so does the polarising Bundie, with a few others here and there settling around the five year mark. Such indigenous double-digit rums are not yet common enough to make any kind of general statement, the way we can for the unaged whites and their raw distinctiveness. But I hazard that what I’m getting here, with these tastes that jump around like a ‘roo on steroids, is the first inkling of a genuine Australian terroire mixed in with barrel management that still needs some work. It’s possible that the 10YO and the 15YO which Hoochery make will address some of those issues, though I’d have to try them to say for sure. For the moment, the 7 YO is not entirely successful on its own terms, yet remains an intriguing and original rum that can’t be written off just because it’s different and not what we expect. I’d buy it and try it for that alone.

(#903)(79/100) ⭐⭐⭐


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.
  • It’s not mentioned on the website, but Mr. Dessert passed away in 2017, just before the labels for the Reserve Batch 001 (of all three ages) arrived. A facsimile of his signature adorns all subsequent batch labels, but that first one, in his memory, remains unsigned. RIP, mate.
  • Those labels also present an interesting situation: they say “Aged” 7 years, but under “Maturity” it mentions “Solera”. Since the two are not the same concepts, it begs the question of what kind of ageing the rum underwent. For the moment until my queries get a response, I am taking it on faith that the true age is in fact 7 years, but the reader is advised to be aware of the odd dichotomy, and if anyone knows better, drop me a line.
  • The original pot still was installed in 1998, designed a year earlier by Mr. Dessert himself. In 2020 a new, larger pot still was commissioned from Burns Engineering and installed in 2021, and the original was retired.
Apr 212022
 

Image (c) Husk Distillers, from their FB Page

In the increasingly crowded Australian spirits marketplace, for a rum maker to stand out means it has to have a unique selling point, some niche aspects of its production that sets it apart in people’s minds from all the other contenders in the marketplace. Killik’s is the tinkering with the “Jamaican-style” of rum making; Jimmy Rum has its insouciant sense of humour, colourful owner and halcyon location; Beenleigh rests its laurels on being one of the oldest and its origin myth of the shipwrecked pot still; Cabarita Spirits has its vivacious solo proprietress, Brix goes with its yuppie urban vibe, and Bundaberg seems to take a fiendish delight in being equal parts derided and despised the world over. For Husk Distillers though, it’s the focus on producing cane juice based agricole-style rumsthis is what they term “cultivated rum” and what they have in fact registered as a trademark with IP Australia.

As was noted in the review of their “Bam Bam” Spiced rum, the company makes a gin called “Ink”, a pair of unaged agricole-style rums at two strengths, a botanical, a spiced, and a few youngish aged rums. In August 2021 they issued “The Lost Blend” virgin-cane aged rum (as opposed to others made with cane having looser morals, one surmises), bringing to mind St Lucia Distillers’ “Forgotten Casks.” Like SLD, Husk had a reason to name this rum “The Lost Blend,” of course: the rum and its name was based on two barrels filled in 2014 and another in 2016 with cane juice distillate run off the 1000-litre hybrid pot-column stillbut in the aftermath of the Great Flood in 2017, the hand-written distillation notes that detailed the fermentation histories and distillation cuts for the two 2014 barrels, were destroyed, and so…

These are tragic circumstances for the distillation geek and technical gurus who want the absolute max detail (to say nothing of the distiller who might want to replicate the process). For the casual drinker and interested party, however, there is enough to be going on with: the rums from the two aforementioned years were aged until 2018 in a hot and dry tin shed, before being moved in that year to a cooler barrel warehouse until 2021 when they were slowly married and reduced, to be bottled in August 2021 at 43.5% without any additions, colourings or adulterations – 761 individually numbered bottles form the final release, which is not listed for purchase on the company’s website, because it was offered for sale only to locals at the door, and Husk Rum Club subscribers (as well as on BWS and some local shops).

What’s curious about The Lost Blend is how un-agricole-like it is at all stages of the sipping experience (this is not a criticism, precisely, but it is more than merely an observation). Take for example the nose: it displayed no real herbal grassiness that almost define the cane juice origin style of rum (even the aged ones). It started off with wet cardboard, fresh paint on damp drywall, and some new plastic sheeting. Then it moved on to gingerbread cookies, some plum liqueur, molasses, salt caramel and fudge. A touch of nutty white chocolate, brine, honey and a nice touch of light citrus zest for edge. Nicely warm and quite soft to smell, without any aggro.

If I had to use a single word to describe the palate it might be “spicy” (in multiple ways). And that’s because it wasinitial tastes were ginger, cinnamon, anise and vanilla, with a touch of pears, overripe apples, raisins, brown sugar and salted caramel ice cream. There were a few bitter notes of oak and old coffee grounds, but the citrus acidity was long gone here, and overall, even with a short and relatively dry finish that was redolent toffee and unsweetened dark chocolate it presented nicely as a light ‘n’ easy sipper that just wanted to please without going off like a frog in a sock.

Given that the Lost Blend was a rum comprising four- and six-year-old components, it’s almost as surprising to see so much come through the ageing process as what exactly emerged at the other end. I attribute the tastes I discerned to a combination of the subtropical climate and (a guess here) smaller and maybe newer casks that provided those quick and easy notes. What is more baffling is how little evidence there is of the rum actually being from cane juice, because tasted blind (as it was), my scribbled remarks read more like some solid young Latin-style ron than anything else. I did like it more than the spiced Bam Bam, though, and it is well made and works well as a softly tasty warm-weather sundowner: but my advice is to enjoy it for what it is and not to look for serious local terroire or a recognizable agricole-style flavour profilebecause that, I’m afraid, just isn’t there.

(#901)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • As with all the reviewed Australian rums from the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and pat of the Panama to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks, as always.
  • More notes on the company can be found in the Bam Bam Spiced Rum review.
Apr 182022
 

The South African distillery of Mhoba is one of those small outfits like Richland, Privateer, A1710, Issan, Killik or J. Gow, that almost single handedly builds a reputation from scratch through dogged persistence and ever-increasing word of mouth, to the point where they exercise an influence on the whole conversation around rums. None of these are the only ones, or the first, to do what they do: but all of them have qualities that are more than just beginner’s luck, and elevateeven redefinethe category of rums for their entire country.

In the early 2010s, Mhoba’s founder, Robert Greaves, built several versions of his own small stills to continuously evolve and improve what he thought could be done with the rums he wanted to make; he played around with the technical aspects of crushing, fermenting and distilling, applied for a Liquor License in South Africa, and finally opened for serious business in 2015. Initial samples sent to the Miami Rum Festival in 2016 resulted in more tweaking, and by 2017 he was able to demo his wares at the UK and Mauritius rumfests; buoyed by positive feedback there, in late 2018 he had a series of rums he felt were definitely worth showing off which he presented in London that year and in Paris a few months later.

These initial rums were unaged white rums (from cane juice) at different strengths, various pot still blends and overproofs (like the Strand 101 and 151, Bushfire, French Oak, etc) and were soon on commercial sale. One of the most intriguing rums in the stable was the long-ferment unaged Pot Still High Ester white rum, which began being bottled in 2018 (two batches) before really hitting their stride in 2019. Each of these high ester rums is stuffed into a bottle with a label in dark red (maybe to alert the unwary) that has a ton of info on itsource cane variety, harvest date, fermentation, still type, batch numberyet oddly, the actual congener count is absent. This is not a deal breaker, of course, but it does strike me as odd since the “high-ester” description is its main selling point (because of course being a cane-juice pot-still-distillate at strength isn’t already enough).

Anyway, these rums have all had the distinction of being made with about ⅓ dunder and with a three-week fermentation time using wild yeast, run through a pot still, and bottled consistently above 60% ABV (occasionally even over 70%). The one I’m writing about today is 66.2%, which is on the range’s weak side, I guess, but that in no way invalidated the intensity of what it presented.

Even nosed carefully, it was a powerful, sharp experience. It smelled like a whole shelf of fruits going off, poorly stored in a set of mouldy wooden crates stored under the waterlogged roof of an abandoned and dusty warehouse. Synthetic materials abounded: rubber, platicene, heavy plastic sheeting, new vinyl sofas, varnish, glue, nail polish remover, wax and a coat of cheap paint slapped onto fresh drywall. There’s a bagful of spanish olives cured in lemon juice and stuffed with pimentos, to which someone decided to add brine, olive oil and even more fruitspineapples, strawberries, gooseberries, and hard yellow mangoes and the real issue is how much there is. I spent literally an hour going back to this one glass just to tease out more, but the codicil was that I enjoyed the nose less each time, as I got successively battered into near catatonia by ever-changing aromas that just never settled down.

This was more than compensated for in the way it tasted, however. The palate was much much betterbetter integrated, better controlledwhile losing only some of the harsh pungency and untamed wildness the nose suggested I would find. It remained a stong and serious biff to the throat of course (it was a cheerfully violent street hood from start to finish, so that wasn’t going to change) but also nicely sweet and dry, with loads of pungent tastes: overripe Thai mangoes, pears, melons, peaches, kiwi fruits, bananas, orange peel, green tea and sugar cane juice. This took a breather here and there, and let in other tastes of acetones and turpentine…and if you could convert the smell of the inside of a nice new car to a taste, well, there was that too. There were notes of cream cheese, rye bread, strawberries, cinnamon, pineapples which also bled into the finishwhich in turn was nicely long, very sharp and tartly sweet and chemical (in a good way) with a last hint of flowers and overripe fruits.

This is a rum that should not be casually drunk or bought on a whim. It’s surely not “easy.” It’s a hugely potent and feral mix of a Jamaican funk bomb and a Reunion Grand Arome, a clarin’s irreverent offspring with a visiting DOK, and if not approached with caution should at least be drunk with respect. After trying it, Mrs. Caner asked me incredulously, “Is this something you’re actually supposed to drink?” She has a pointI honestly believe that the Mhoba High-Ester rum could wake up a dead stick.

But that said, let’s just try to unpack the experience. The rum had lots of impact, lots of edge, little that was gentle, and there was a whole lot going on, all the time. There were whole orchards of different fruity notes contained in that glass, most of which was a little sour, and I can’t say it entirely won me over: in that maelstrom of “everything but the kitchen sink” some elegance, some balance, some drinkability was lost. Still, you can’t fault its complexity and impact, and I completely believe @rum_to_me when he remarked on Instagram that “it would take over any cocktail in split seconds.”

And also, it does have its adherents and its fansI’m one of them. Not that I’m a high-ester funky junkie, no, and I don’t actively hunt out the biggest, baddest, bestest with the mostest. But at a time when there’s too much caution surrounding the regular regurgitation of Old Reliables from the Same Old Countries, it’s nice to see a rum maker from elsewhere put out a big screaming bastard like this one, that’s all brawn and sweat with maybe a bit of love thrown in as well. It’s a wildly ambitious, enormously challenging and technically solid rum that for sure will make any list of great white rums anyone cares to put together.

(#900)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • For supplementary reading, I highly recommend Steve James’s 2019 three part deep dive into the initial releases of Mhoba as well as his company biography, and Rum Revelations’ 2021 interview with Robert Greaves
  • So far Rum-X has nine Mhoba high-ester expressions, ranging in strength from 65% to 78%, and average scores from 72 to 87, which is quite a bit of variation. Since all are unaged agricole-style pot-still rums, it suggests that the batch/harvest is of some importance in making a future selection among all these options.
  • This bottle is from Batch 2019HE3, Harvest May 2019, one of several from that year.
  • As of early 2022 Velier has released two Mhoba rums (both 2017 4 YO expressions), one for the HV line, and oneblack bottlerelease calledFAQ Plastic.Holmes Cay out of the US also has a 4YO 59% bottling from 2017.