May 202021
 

These days, most rumistas are aware of the Scandinavian company 1423 and their upscale rum brand of the SBS (Single Barrel Selections, even though they sometimes aren’t). In the last five years this small Danish outfit has become a much bigger Danish outfit, not just bottling the upmarket connoisseur’s series of the cask strength single barrel releases, but whole blended lines like the Compañero rums, and occasionally horse trading barrels and supplies with other companies (the Romdeluxe R.1 Wild Tiger, for example, was originally a 1423 import).

But back when this Barbadian rum came on the scene in 2016, they were known primarily in Denmark, even though they had already been in the business of bottling and distribution for eight years by then and had had some success on the larger European rum scene. Not surprisingly, they bought and buy barrels from European brokers (like Scheer, of courseafter all, who doesn’t?) and perhaps what enthused them about the Bajan barrel were the stats: distilled in 2000 at WIRD, sixteen years old, a solid 54%, enough for 224 bottles, and deriving from a pot still. That last might have clinched the sale, since most of what the drinking public was getting from the island at that point was pot-column blended rum. A pot distillate was something rather more interesting.

The year 2000 delivered quite a few Barbadian rums from WIRD to the indie scene: Serge looked at a Cave Guildive 2000-2015 version in 2017 (87 points), one from Whisky Broker a year later (86). Single Cask Rum has probably reviewed the most, here, here, here and here, with the attendant curiosity of referring to them as originating off the Rockley Still when they likely are not (see discussion below this post). Be that as it may, they were and remain quite unique in taste, and this one was no different. The initial nose, for example, started off very traditionally with papaya, bananas, fresh whipped cream…and some light petrol, diesel on a hot asphalt road, and tar fumes. There were hints of something medicinal, iodine-like and almost peaty notes, but very much in the background (where it belonged, trust me). Resting and coming back suggested we had just gone down the rabbit hole and entered the Hatter’s Tea Party: cookies and cream with some green tea, cucumber sandwiches on white bread (no crusts), delicate florals, light fruitiness and it was all I could do to not to think that this had one of the most completely weird aromas I’d experienced in quite a whilewhich is not, you understand, a bad thingjust an unexpected one.

Anyway, it must be said that the taste was better behaved. Again there was that fruity line coiling around the slightly heavier creamier notes. Citrus, tangerines, kiwi and pears set alongside vanilla, salt caramel, dark honey and Danish cookies. Also bananas and papayas plus a touch of tart and unsweetened yoghurt, very well balanced. The medicinal, rubber, petrol and tar notes took a step backward here, so that while they could be sensed, they didn’t overwhelmstill, they distracted somewhat, and the integration into the greater whole wasn’t of the best. The finish was fine, redolent of iodine and soya, gherkins and again, all those light fruits and a touch of whipped cream and cookies.

The rum, then, was quite original, and now, reading around the other reviews of that year’s products after tasting mine, it doesn’t seem my experience was unique. This was certainly some kind of pot still action, and while it could have been made better, it wasn’t a bad rum. Last week I remarked on the weakness and flaccidity of a standard strength 8YO WIRD rum released in 2003 at 42%. I always hesitate to put the blame of such mediocrity solely on the level of proof and years spent sleepingbecause many other things impact profile, light rums do have their charms, and those who specialize in wines and lower strength spirits can often find much to enjoy there. But when one tries another WIRD that is aged twice as long and nearly half again as strong, from another still, the impacts of age and strength and apparatus are undeniable. The SBS Barbados 2000 is not a top tier rum, it’s still seeking a balance it never findsbut it sure isn’t boring, or forgettable.

(#822)(85/100)


NotesThe RockleyStill

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

Based on the research published by Cedrik (2018) and Nick Arvanitis (2015) as well as some digging around on my own, here are some clarifications. None of it is new, but some re-posting is occasionally necessary for such articles to refresh and consolidate the facts.

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

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

This then leads to the other thread in this story which is the post-acquisition data provided by Alexandre Gabriel. In a FB video in 2018, summarized by Cedrik in his guest post on Single Cask, he noted that WIRD did indeed have a pot still from Batson’s acquired in 1936 which was inactive, as well as another pot still, the Rockley, which they got that same year, also long non-functional. What this means is that there is no such thing as a rum made on the Rockley still in the post-1995 years of the current rum renaissance, and perhaps even earlierthe labels are all misleading.

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

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


 

Jun 222016
 

SMWS R3.5 1

A big ‘nbadass Bajan rum, brutal enough to be banished to Netflix, where Jessica Jones and Daredevil occasionally stop by Luke Cage’s bar to have some.

“They may be more throwaway efforts than serious exemplars of the blenders’ arcane arts,” I remarked once of one of the 151s with which I amused myself. The SMWS on the other hand, does this overproof stuff with the dead seriousness of a committed jailbird in his break for freedom. They have no time to muck around, and produce mean, torqued-up rum beefcakes, every time. So be warned, the “Marmite” isn’t a rum with which you good-naturedly wrestle (like with the 151s, say) – you’re fighting it, you’re at war with it, you’re red in tooth and claw by the time you’re done with it, and afterwards you’re somehow sure that the rum won. You may feel exhilarated just surviving the experience

Behind the user-friendly façade of the muted camo-green bottle and near-retro label of unintended cool, lies a rum proudly (or masochistically) showcasing 74.8 proof points of industrial strength, the point of which is somewhat lost on mebecause, for the price, who’s going to mix it, and for the strength, who’s going to drink it? It’s eleven years old, aged in Scotland, and hails, as far as I’ve been able to determine, not from the Rockley pot still owned the West Indies Rum Distillery, but in the Rockleystyle”, making it a cousin of the Samaroli Barbados 1986 and the SMWS R3.4 10 year, old and thereby setting the stage.1

SMWS R3.5 2The hay blonde rum oozed intensity right from the moment it was cracked. It was enormous, glitteringly sharp, hot, strong and awesomely pungentthe very first scents were acetone, wax, perfume and turpentine, so much so I just moved the glass to one side for a full ten minutes. That allowed it to settle down into the low rumble of an idling Lambo, and gradually lighter notes of flowers, lavender, nail polish, sugar water and olives in brine came through, though very little “rummy” flavours of caramel and toffee and brown sugar could be discerned. It was clear nothing had been added to or filtered away from this thing.

Having experienced some rums qualifying as brutta ma buoni (which is an Italian phrase meaning “ugly but good” and describes such overproofs perfectly) I was very careful about my initial sip. And with good reasonit was hellishly powerful. Incredibly thick and coating on the tongue. Massive, razor-sharp flavours of brine, cherries, more olives, some dried fruits, watermelon, and that weird combination of a cucumber sandwich on rye bread liberally daubed with cream cheese. Christ this was hotit was so over the top that were you to drink it in company, you wouldn’t be able to hear the guy next to you screaminghe’d have to pass you a note saying “OMFG!!!. Yet that’s not necessarily a disqualification, because like the 3.4, there was quite a bit of artistry and complexity going on at the same time. I have never been able to follow the SMWS’s tasting notes (see the label), but concede I was looking for the marmiteit was just difficult to find anything through that heat. Once I added water (which is a must, here), there it was, plus some nuttiness and sweetness that had been absent before.

All of this melded into a finish that was, as expected, suitably epic….it went on and on and on, holding up the flag of the overproofs in fine style, giving up flavours of hot black tea, pears, more florals, and a final hint of the caramel that had been so conspicuously absent throughout the tasting. I had it in tandem with the 3.4 (and the R5.1, though not strictly comparable), and liked the earlier Bajan a bit more. But that’s not to invalidate how good this one isabout the only concession I have to make is that really, 74.8% is just a tad excessive for any kind of neat sipping. Overall? Not bad at allin fact it grew one me. There was a lot more going on over timeso quietly it kinda sneaks up on youthan the initial profile would suggest, and patience is required for it.

SMWS R3.5 3

In trying to explain something of my background to my family (a more complicated story than you might think), I usually remark that no West Indian wedding ever really wraps up before the first fistfight erupts or the last bottle of rum gets drained. The question any homo rummicus reading this would therefore reasonably ask, then, is which rum is that? Wellthis one, I guess. It’s a hard rum, a tough rum, a forged steel battleaxe of a rum. It maybe should be issued with a warning sticker, and I honestly believe that if it were alive, it would it could have Robocop for lunch, yark him up half-chewed, and then have him again, before picking a fight in Tiger Bay. It’s up to you though, to decide whether that’s a recommendation or not.

(#281 / 86/100)

Mar 012016
 

Samaroli Bdos 1

A Barbadian rum you’re unlikely to either forget, or get much more of, in the years to come. It’s among the most original rums from Barbados I’ve ever tried, even if it doesn’t quite come up to snuff taken as a whole.

I wish I could find more Samarolis from the early days. There aren’t enough from that maker in the world, and like most craft bottlers, their wares go up in price with every passing year. I was lucky enough to buy this remarkable Bajan rum online, and for a twenty year old rum from one of the non-standard distilleries it held its own very nicely indeed against others from the small island.

Samaroli only issued 348 bottles of this 45% rum, and went with distillate sourced from the West India Rum Refinery Ltd (which since the mid 1990s is known as the West Indies Rum Distillery, or WIRD, and owned by Goddard Enterprises from Barbadosin 2017 it was sold to Maison Ferrand). When there were dozens of rum making companies in Barbados, WIRR provided distillate for many, derived from a very old pot stillthe “Rockley still” from Blackrock, which is no longer in existence but provided the name of a specific style of rumand a Dore column still. These days they occasionally resurrect the old pot still (but not the Rockley), the Dore is long gone, and most of the alcohol they still produce is done on a large multi-column still purchased from Canadathe company is known for the Cockspur, Malibu brands of rum (and Popov vodka, but never mind). As an interesting bit of trivia, they, in partnership with DDL and Diageo, have holdings in Jamaica’s Monymusk and Innswood distilleries.

Samaroli Bdos 2

Until recently, my feeling has been that well known Bajan rums as a whole have never risen up to challenge the status quo with quality juice of which I know they’re capable. Those I tried were often too tame, too unadventurous, too complacent, and I rarely found one I could rave over, in spite of critical plaudits received from all quarters (some of Foursquare and Mount Gay rums, for example) …and took quite a bit of scorn for thinking what I did. Oh, most are good rums, competently made and pleasant to drink, I’ll never deny that, and have quite a few in my collection, though I still harbour a dislike for the Prince Myshkyn of rums, the Doorly XO. Yet with some exceptions I just find many of them unexciting: lacking something of that spark, some of that out of the box thinkingthe sheer balls that drives other makers to plunge without a backward look into the dark pools of the True Faith’s headwaters.

All that whinging aside, very few Bajan rums I found over the years were this old. Twenty years’ tropical ageing takes a hell of a percentage out of the original volume (as much as 75%), which may be why Samaroli bought and aged this stock in Scotland insteadone commentator on the last Samaroli PM I looked at advised me that it was because they pretty much buy their rum stock in the UK, and so save costs by ageing there too. Which would probably find favour with CDI, who also prefer European ageing for its slower, subtler influences on the final spirit.

Samaroli Bdos 3

Certainly Samaroli produced a rum from Little England like few others. 45% wasn’t enough to biff me on the hooter, so I swirled and inhaled and then looked with some wonder at the light gold liquid swirling demurely in my glass. The first scents were none of that soft rum, burnt sugar and banana flambe I sometimes associated with the island (based on rums past), but a near-savage attack of paint, phenols, plasticine and turpentine, mixed in with acetone and sweet aldehydes reminding me of my University chem classes (which I hated).To my relief, this all faded away after a few minutes, and the nose developed remarkably well: a burst of sweet red grapes, faint red licorice, delicate flowers, clear cucumbers in water, opening further with light additions of bread and butter and orange rind. Not the best opening act ever, but very original, came together with a bang after a while, and absolutely one to hold one’s interest.

The palate was dry, dusty, with fresh sawdust and hay notes mixing it up with that sweetish acetone from beforethen it all took a twirl like a ballerina and morphed into a smorgasbord of pale florals, sherry, Lebanese green grapes; to my disappointment some of that assertiveness, that I’m-a-rum-so-what’s-your-problem aggro was being lost (this may be a taste thing, but to me it exemplifies some of the shortcomings of non-tropical ageing to one who prefers robust and powerful rums). The taste profile was light and clear and held all the possibilities of greater power, but even the gradually emergent leather and smokewhich melded well with bananas and papayasseemed unwilling (if not actually unable) to really take their place on the palate with authority.

So the nose was intriguing and developed well, the palate just didn’t click. The finish? Oh well now, this was greatcome home please, all is forgiven. Long and lasting, a little salty-sweet, furniture polish, wax, peaches and cream, sugary lemon juice and candied oranges, a joyous amalgam of cool, studied stoicism and hot-snot badassery.

That I don’t fanatically love this rum is my issue, not yours, and I’ve described as best I could where I thought it fell down for me. There are of course many things that work in itmouthfeel, texture, and a nose and finish which I know many will like a lot, and I gave it points for daring to go away from the more commonly held perceptions of what a Bajan profile should be. I always liked that about indie bottlers, you see, that sense of wonder and curiosity (“What would happen if I messed with this rumran a turbo into it, maybe?” you can almost hear them think, and then go ahead and issue something like the SMWS 3.4 which by the way, also hailed from WIRD), and maybe they’re seeing what Silvio saw when he made this rum. It may not be the best Bajan-styled rum you’ve ever tried, but it may have also shown what was possible when you don’t care that much about styles at all.

(#258. 86/100)


Other notes

  • Bottle #274 of 348
  • My thanks and a big hat tip to Richard Seale of Foursquare, who provided me with historical background on WIRR/WIRD.
  • A 2021 analysis of all extant information of the Rockley name, style and still is summarized at the bottom of this review. It’s useful for those wanting to get a grip of what the term means.

Samaroli Bdos 1986