Feb 162024
 

“Oh wow!” I wrote with a sort of delighted and startled surprise when first nosing Archie Rose’s 40% white rum they called White Cane. I had not tried anything from the distillery before – indeed, I knew very little about it — but the rich and oily scent of a mechanic’s shop fumigated with vanilla flavoured acetones was really not what I had expected as an opening salvo. And it didn’t stop there, because the seeming light ‘n’ easy aromas it started out with contained quite a bit more oomph than was initially apparent – once it opened it up it was brine, olives, ripe and watery fruits, lots of pears and papaya, figs and persimmons, even a hint of caramel and some sweet yet tart apple cider. The nose displayed a thickness and depth that was quietly impressive – one does not often see this kind of profile in a standard proof rum very often.

Putting down my glass, I looked curiously at the sample label. Who was is this outfit? What was behind the name? Was it a left-handed nod to WW1 ack-ack fire, maybe, or a hat tip to Riverdale and the comics? An old but forgotten relative, perhaps, or a gone-to-seed second eleven cricket player from the past who nobody except the owners remembered? 

Apparently not. Some references suggest that “Archie” was a slang word, a pseudonym for an underground distilling bootlegger at a time in the 1800s when the temperance movement was ascendant in Australia and distillation was illicit, if not quite illegal; and since the founder, Will Edwards established the distillery in its first location in Rosebery, an inner suburb of south Sidney, the name seemed a good fit. A more prosaic alternative is that the neighbourhood itself was named after an uninspiring and obscure 19th century British PM, Archibald Primrose, and the distillery took the contracted form of his name, so take your pick. 

Anyway, it was apparently the first new distillery in the city since 1853 (one wonders what the previous one was) and comprised of several Italian made fermentation tanks (named after rappers), and three hand built gas-powered steam-boiler-heated 3600-litre pot stills made by Peter Bailey, who at the time was the country’s only still maker. It was mostly family financed, and sported a very good bar right next to the distillery to help make ends meet.

“White Cane” was and remains the company’s only unaged rum (there are some experimentals coming as well, however), and it’s interesting that they went with that name instead of the near universal “cane spirit” moniker everyone else has been using over there. The source cane came from Condong up in NSW just south of Brisbane, so the molasses likely originated from the Condong Sugar Mill, and the wash blended two kinds of molasses – high test and B-grade —  fermented with two different yeasts for 4-16 days, then run through their main and pilot still at least twice, with part being “cold” (or vacuum) distilled.

That fermentation and complex distillation was probably why the taste, as well as the nose, had enough chops to excite some curiosity, if not outright enthusiasm. It presented like a crisp, tangy, citrus-like 7-up, with green apples, pineapples, ripe pears on the edge of going off, red grapes and a subtle bite of ginger. The nose, I felt, was better, but for the taste to be this interesting at 40% did demonstrate that the awards the rum won (three so far) was not mere happenstance or flinging medals at everything that turned up. The palate continued to provide subtle and almost delicate notes: white chocolate, crushed walnuts some mint, fennel, sweet coconut shavings and some faint mustier cardboard notes, leading to a short, easy, sweet and spicy finish redolent of cinnamon and ginger and papaya. Nice.

Names and origins aside, currently the distillery boasts five different rums (and fifteen whiskies, ten gins, four vodkas and various other alcoholic products, lest you err in thinking their focus is on the Noble Spirit). Their origin was, and remains primarily in, whisky, for which they have won oodles of awards, and boosted their cash flow so well that in 2020 they were able to float A$100 million financing to move to Banksmeadow, a few kilometres south of the original location, leaving Rosebery to be a sort of visitor’s area for tours, classes and other events. Two massive new pot stills were also installed allowing production to be significantly increased.

As always, there is the downside that such a wide variety of spirits production dilutes focus on any single one. Not something I can blame a distillery for, since making payroll, paying rent and expanding the business is what it’s about, but lessening the attention that can be paid to developing and improving one product. Clearly whisky is the core business and everything orbits that priority (my opinion); and we must be careful not to over-romanticize the myth of the Great Little Solo Distiller Working in Obscurity, since commercial enterprises do make good juice, and not always by accident or as throwaways. Recent “Heavy Cane,” “Virgin Cane” and other experimental rums Archie Rose is playing with point to a committed and interested distilling team that wants to do more than just make another supermarket rum.

The White Cane, even at 40%, is pretty good and that’s an endorsement I don’t give often. I think the panoply of tastes — admittedly delicate and occasionally too faint and hard to pick apart — play well together, don’t overstay their welcome or allow any one element to hog the show, and provide a nice drinking experience. Sometimes just as much work goes into an unaged spirit as an aged one — perhaps more since there’s no backstop of ageing to improve anything so what comes off the still had better be ready — and it’s clear the distiller paid attention to the entire production process to provide both mixing and sipping chops. One can only hope the distillery expands the range and ups the proof, because then not only would it likely garner even more awards, but I’d  be able to bug Steve Magarry yet again…to get me a whole bottle, not just a sample.

(#1058)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar, Day 7. This is Batch #2 from 2023. Batch #1 was introduced in 2022
  • Production notes from company webpage.
Feb 092024
 

We’ve met this distillery before, a mere hundred reviews or so ago. Founded by the husband and wife team of Brian and Helen Restall in 2016, they have slowly built quite a repertoire of spirits (he likes dark ones, she prefers light so maybe there’s some kind of Jack Sprat vibe going on here) – standard rums, white ones, spiced ones, the 2021 release of the 2-3 YO 55.5% Pure Single Rum I enjoyed and a brutal 63% “fire cane” I really want to try, plus gin, falernum, limoncello and vodka, which covers the bases nicely.

So here they are again, with a somewhat offbeat take on the Pure Single Rum, if not as strong. Because the background of the company is covered in that original review, I won’t rehash it here, except to note that the columnar still I mentioned then – 380L and six plates — has a name: Alba, which was the initial name of Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter before he renamed her Allegra. I enjoy these little winks that distillers make to some interesting aspect of their past or something that interests them, in the naming of their still, truly.

Photo (c) Lord Byron Distillery website

Anyway, about the rum: molasses based, using distiller’s yeast on a wash left for seven days in closed stainless vessels, then run through the two copper alembics (it’s double distilled), then matured a minimum of three years in ex-bourbon barrels sourced from Woodford Reserve – which if shy they can call it rum, and not a cane spirit. Of course, bearing in mind the sustainable, ecologically-friendly, zero-waste nature of their operation and commitment to making pure rums, it’s not chill filtered and additive free. 

This is a rum that channels one of the more peculiar olfactory profiles I’ve yet come across- it reminds me something of some Japanese rums, especially kokuto shochus. It opens with an odd sort of earthy, mouldy, damp cellar aroma, and of wet, much-worn leather boots. Brine, olives and a vegetable soup with “plenty obstacles” and a fiery pimento for kick. There’s a sense of wet paint slapped onto decaying drywall, the bitter tang of roasting chestnuts (which I never cared for myself), plastic sheeting, and only at the end when all seems over and done with, do the shy tangy notes of ripe fruit emerge, some green apples, grapes, pears, that kind of thing.  It’s an unusual nose and I’m unsure how well it would work at a heftier proof point, though I would have liked to see that one a bit more, I think – a lot of subtlety gets missed out on that, say, 43% or 46% might have shown off better.

This observation is apropos for the palate as well, which is quite crisp: and while not exactly clear or clean, is close enough not to offend while still being rather too mild for everything it apparently stuffs in its jock. It channels a hot, almost sour and spicy Thai Tom Yum soup with no shortage of lemongrass, salted butter melting in a pan, with olive oil and toasted rye bread coming behind that. Again the fruits take something of a back seat and only start becoming noticeable after the rum opens up, and even then there’s not a whole lot that one can easily pick out: lemon peel, fresh peaches, pears, some watermelon, more or less. But it does meld nicely into the whole, some of the dirty notes from the nose are absent, and the finish concludes things well: short, sharp, reasonably flavourful, all of it fading fast and acting like it just wants to bail.

Strictly speaking this is not my dram of grog. I’m not won over by the loamy and earthy notes at the beginning (the official site entry refers to “bourbon corn” as a tasting note) and aspects of the nose in  particular don’t work for me; plus, as always, I have my issues with standard strength – it makes everything too mild which even a few additional points of proof might have showcased more effectively. Yet I can’t fault it for that, only admire the courage it must have taken to release the rum as it is, knowing it is something at right angles to more established profiles. So to conclude, Lord Byron’s rum showcases rather more potential than the sort of intense quality sported by the 55% 2018 Pure Single Rum they did before, and would seem to be aimed at the more easy going supermarket crowd who prefer more demure fare. The furious taste profile attendant on something stronger is missing, and the tastes will not be in everyone’s comfort zone: yet underneath all that, we see a much better rum is waiting to be appreciated, and now, having written my opinion, I think I’ll go back and try my sample a few more times. Let’s see if, after a few more hours, it delivers more concretely on what it promises.

Have a good weekend!

(#1056)(78/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar, Day 13
Feb 012024
 

Cabarita Spirits is the Australian equivalent of Nine Leaves, or so I like telling myself, and Keri Algar, the Spanish-born New Zealander  who is the owner, may live in one of the prettiest places on earth, close to Cabarita Beach in the Tweed Shire of New South Wales (Husk Distillers are also in the neighbourhood). Like Yoshi-san in Japan before he did a runner on us, she is also chief cook and bottle washer, to say nothing of the entire procurement department, sales force, accounting section, maintenance manager, head distiller, bottling line and managing director all rolled into one. No, really.

Photo (c) Cabarita Spirits, from the webpage

All kidding aside, Cabarita is a small distillery, conceived in 2019 after Keri was feeling glumpish about doing soulless work for The Man in perpetuity. “I was wondering…how to be able to live on a Pacific Island in the possession of a small beachside rum bar without spending the next twenty years behind a desk, when it occurred to me that I might make rum, and that could be a means to my tropical dreams.” Starting with a rinky dink 25-litre still and a 25-litre fermenter and a lot of ideas led to two years of relentless self-education, distillery visits, sourcing equipment, and incredibly hard work and experimentation. Finally she ended up with a 230-litre copper pot still (handmade in Western Australia by HHH Distill), which she named Felix after her Spanish grandfather, who had worked as chemist in a sugar factory back in the day, and started commercial production with the usual unaged cane spirit (but oddly, no gin — “I never cared for it” she sniffs). While the official name of the distillery is Cabarita Spirits, she chose a different name — “Soltera” — for its associations with being carefree and unbound, though she does admit that these days she’s actually never been less carefree or unbound, what with all the effort of holding down all these jobs and only getting paid for one. But there are no regrets.

The “Oro” (“gold”) rum barrel aged cane spirit which formed part of the 2023 advent calendar is her second edition of a slightly aged product. Released in that year, it derives from molasses (sourced from Condong Sugar Mill in northern NSW for the curious), has a 3-4 week open fermentation time using commercial yeast, run through Felix and then aged for eight months in an ex-bourbon barrique that was re-coopered to ~120L and charred with a medium burn. What comes out the other end is an almost-but-not-quite colourless 40% rum that really isn’t half bad. All that hard work and playing around, methinks, sure paid off.

Let’s start with how it smells: sweet, light and citrusy, channelling the sunshine of a spring morning where the slight nip of departing winter still lingers and the grass is wet with dew. There are notes of key lime pie (including a warm pastry), light florals, pineapples, bananas and kiwi fruit, old paper, and a sort of potpourri air freshener. Also the faintest hint of vanilla and caramel, damp earth and cashews, but held way back. Air freshener, potpourri. I like the youthful freshness of it, the delicacy backed up by a solid backbone of aged and varied aromas, and call me a romantic, but I see the owner in this one in a way I rarely do with others.

What I want to remark on as well, is the way the palate opens up over time. Initially it doesn’t taste like there’s too much going on (“too faint” I grumbled in my initial notes before crossing it out…twice) – laundry drying on the line, ginger, yoghurt, olive oil, caramel, citrus and pineapples (again). It takes effort to tease these notes out. Yet after five minutes, then ten, then half an hour, it turns bright and sparkling, and what in a lesser rum might be faint and wispy anonymous notes of zero distinction is transmuted somehow to a taste that’s really quite lovely. By the time I’m done, I’m scribbling about citrus, mangoes, laundry detergent and pastries and pouring another glass for Mrs. Caner to try and admiring the finish, which is longer and more crisp and tart than any standard strength rum has a right to be,

Admittedly I’m fonder of higher proof rums, so freely concede that, sure, yes, there could be more strength here (and my score reflects that): yet somehow the whole thing works well and it deserves its plaudits. Consider also the difference between what this is and what the disappointing Bayou White from last week was. There we had a sort of indifferent lowest-common-denominator commercial product made to sell and not to taste: it had about as much character as a sheet of saran wrap. Keri has not made a world beater here, no – I’d be lying if I said that – but she’s made a tasty rum with passion and drive and her own character stamped all over it. It’s a lovely little number, and a win in all the ways that matter.

(#1054)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar, Day 5
Jan 232024
 

Black Gate distillery is an outfit to keep an eye on. The husband and wife team of Genise and Brian Hollingsworth made waves (to me, at any rate) with their 52% Dark Overproof back in 2021 and in 2023 they have come close yet again with this lovely Shiraz-cask-aged number – which doesn’t reimagine the rumiverse so much as take lots of what’s good with it and re-engineer it into a taste that’s uniquely their own. 

Let’s just refresh our memories: located in central New South Wales, Black Gate was founded in 2009 in the small rural town of Mendooran. The husband and wife team splits the duties: Genise Holingsworth does the good stuff and makes the Lord’s favoured spirit, 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 stills – relatively small at 630 litres and 300 litres capacity – and work with food grade molasses, commercial yeast and water, to make their various rum expressions. All are small batch (the rum output of Black Gate is only about 2000 litres per annum, and that includes the other thing). The distillery makes various Dark Rums with different finishes or cask maturations, and aside from whiskies, no cash flow stalwarts such as gins or “cane spirit” seem to be on the menu. 

Photo (c) Black Gate Distillery FB page

Rums are aged in Port or Sherry casks, or both, for a minimum of two years — to be able to be classified as “rum” under Australian law, if you recall. With respect to this one, the source was from the aforementioned molasses, and fermented for around two weeks, then run through the direct-fire pot still, aged about 3-4 years in a 225-litre Huntington Estate Shiraz cask from Mudgee, then left to rest for two months before bottling. As with the overproof, labels are all the same for all these dark rums no matter when made: the specifications are, in a clever bit of economising, white printed stick-ons. The strength of the sample from the 2023 advent calendar was 45.6%, and I note there’s a newer version for sale on their website at 47.2%, so be aware of and on the lookout for some batch variation.

More is not needed so let’s get right into it. Nose first – this starts off interesting right away: rubber, funk, rotten oranges, flowers, tart yoghurt, wet leather and the sour hotness of kimchi, ashlyan-foo and turkish peppers. Underneath this rather startling mash up lurks a musky odour of damp loam, a kind of freshly watered potter’s mix which doesn’t sound appetising, but which I assure you, kind of is. Coiling around all that are fainter notes of acetones, ginger, vegetable soup, and pickled russian cabbage (not sauerkraut). The nose as a whole is not unpleasant, just goes off at something of a tangent and it’s probably a good idea to to let this one stand for a bit and come back to it a few times to get the full impact.

What I like about the taste is that it provides the tangy fruit that are not as clearly evident on the nose. Slightly sweet, it presents chocolate oranges, some caramel, leather, smoke, with vanilla and darker fruit (prunes, ripe raspberries, plums) coming through off the shiraz cask and the ageing. Ginnips, fresh cashews, grapes and green apples with a touch of licorice and that damp earth, apricots and overripe Thai mangoes, accompanied by a solid spicy heat all the way down culminating in a really nice low key but long lasting finish redolent of honey, brandy, coffee and fruitiness.

That’s really quite a bit for any rum to be sporting, and is one of the reasons I kept it on the go for longer than usual (two days)…just to see how it would develop. What may surprise casual drinkers is that even with all those sometimes off-kilter tastes coming through (and I must be honest – the assembly is a bit off and some will not like everything they taste here), the rum feels really accessible, even to the less exacting drinker. It gives a lot and the strength is right – more power and intensity might have shredded it – and so it doesn’t so much so much rock the boat as gently move it around a few times.

Speaking for myself, tasting this thing was a pleasure – because with their playful experimentation, careful distillation and shiraz ageing, Black Gate have produced a young rum that is a touch off the rails, sure, but also a decent and intriguing sipping experience. Perhaps it’s no accident that That Boutique-y Rum Company picked it as one of their ‘Return to Oz’ series recently. If I was their buyer, I would likely have given it a shot too.

(#1052)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The exact age is unknown. 3-4 years goes the blurb
  • Outturn is also unclear – because of the small scale of the distillery and the notation that it is one barrel (#BG-140), one must assume it’s less than 350 bottles.
  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar, Day 17
Jan 152024
 

Once again we start the new year off with a series of rums from the Australian Advent Calendar, 2023 Edition.  First issued by the Australian rum-loving couple Mr. & Mrs. Rum in 2021, not in 2022 and now again for 2023, it answers what we out west have been wondering about for years (well…at least I have) – what’s going on with the rums being made in Australia over and beyond Bundaberg, which everyone cheerfully loathes and Beenleigh which everyone likes? Twenty four rums in the calendar, a whole raft of new and old distilleries strutting their stuff, and let me tell you, to get them to Canada was a ripping yarn in itself…not entirely unlike Butch’s father’s watch, you could say.


We begin the series out of order, with a rum from the island of Tasmania, made by a little outfit called Island Coast Spirits, located just south of Hobart, the state capital (Tasmania is an island state of Australia). It is, it should be noted, not a distillery itself since it has no equipment. The owner, Kirk Pinner, runs over to the Observatory Hill Winery (about half an hour to the NE on the other side of Hobart) which (a) is run by a friend (b) makes rum (and brandy, gin, schnapps and wine) and (c) has a still. He rents that still and makes his own rum, so not quite a contract operation like we saw with Mandakini a few weeks ago, yet not entirely a true producer or an indie either. The website is rather scanty on details, so Kirk very kindly answered an email of mine providing some of this info, and a brief company bio is provided below.

For the purposes of this review, what we need to know is the following: the rum is made on a pot still, using a combination of fermented raw cane juice and molasses…so a hybrid rum if there ever was one. Once off the still it is aged in ex-Bourbon barrels with a light char, for something just under three years and bottled at living room strength of 40%.

“[My desire was…] to produce the spirits I wanted,” Kirk wrote to me, and clearly he had something easygoing in mind. Not some backyard snarling ester-sporting beefcake that stomped all over one’s glottis, just a rum that was easy and accessible. The nose confirmed that he did fairly okay with that: it smelled of delicate icing sugar, vanilla, pastries hot from the oven, as well as more standard caramel, swiss bon-bons and a light touch of molasses and brown sugar. Also some cinnamon, eggnog, ice cream, a relatively sweetish aroma, and all over soft and straightforward and simple. 

The 40% ABV made for a clean and unaggressive entry; it tasted pleasantly warm and a little sweet and came completely without aggro. Vanilla and caramel and toffee carried over from the nose. A few sweetish fruit – peaches, pears – nothing too acidic or tart. Molasses, a hot caramel macchiato, flambeed bananas, icing sugar on a cake fresh out of the oven, leading serenely to a short, finish that summed up the preceding without adding much that was new. 

Picture (c) Island Cost Spirits FB Page

It’s a nice little rumlet without undue pretensions, but that same easy going nature is something of a weak point for those who like their rums more assertive. There are amber Bacardis with more going on than we see here, and I had similar remarks (and reservations) about Killik’s Gold, where I noted that such low ABV hamstrings a rum that could be better a few points higher. But that said, it will work for some, because it’s simply not trying hard to be a game changer…just a soft breezy rum for easy sipping. On that level it succeeds, and the awards it’s racked up in its brief life – a silver medal at the 2022 Australian Rum Awards in Queensland, and another silver at the World Rum Awards in London in 2023 (pot still NAS category) – suggests that others certainly seem to like what the company is offering, my own reservations notwithstanding.

(#1050)(77/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Fermentation time, barrel size, ratio of sugar cane juice to molasses, outturn, are all unknown
  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar, Day 4

Brief Historical bio

Island Coast Spirits is, as noted, a Tasmanian spirits maker (not a distillery). It was founded in October 2021 and has adhered to the principle of making their spirits on a third party’s distillation apparatus — a pot still — from the beginning. This was a conscious decision made at the inception: Kirk Pinner knew when he began planning, that he did not want the significant overheads and costs/debt associated with setting up his own distillery. He wanted the flexibility to not have all that headache but to be able to concentrate on his own desires and strengths: namely to have the ability to take on projects/new spirits on a whim without worrying about the infrastructure; and to focus more on the business relationships, ingredients, selection of barrels, blending and back end work. To that end he turned to those with some expertise (like Observatory Hill Winery) and used their skills to make his spirits.

In the three years since he began, the company now makes seven different products: Vodka, Rum, Gin and Whisky, and three flavoured vodkas. So far there is just one rum in the portfolio – this one – with another very interesting one in the pipeline waiting to be released sometime in 2024.  In the meantime, the distribution within Tasmania and on the mainland is good, and Kirk is building on his success (and awards) to take his juice on the road to various F&B trade expos in Asia to promote the island, the brand and the rum. 


 

Dec 022023
 

Almost all of Capricorn Distilling’s current line up of releases are good ones, and they haven’t even started a serious ageing program yet. Whether this is a matter of their desire to tinker and see what happens, or a clearly thought-out distillation philosophy, is unknown to me. What I do know, is that having tried their standard range (not the spiced, infused, gins, liqueurs or anything else) I can honestly state that if you get a white unaged Australian rum this year, you could do worse than buy a case of their juice generally – and the High Ester in particular. Because that thing is damned good: it channels Jamaica by way of Reunion, adds a measure of outback attitude, and sports serious rum making mojo on all levels. 

It’s on par with the overproofs of Black Gate or Killik (especially the latter’s Silver) in my estimation, and indeed it shares some of those rums’ DNA: molasses-based based, a 10-15 day fermentation using a different yeast from the Coastal Cane, some dunder for kick (and maybe a diced dingo or two, who knows? — with Warren, you get the impression that anything is possible). Then there’s a single pass-through on Rocky (the double retort pot still), after which it’s left to rest for a while and diluted down to 51% before bottling. 

If that sounds interesting, wait until you nose it, because while it’s not quite as well rounded as the Pure Single Rum, it’s hot, it’s spicy, it’s clean as new steel, and really crisp. There’s a sense of sparkling wine about it – chianti, Riesling, plus some 7up, and pineapples.  Lemony cumin, ginger, florals, cinnamon, which slowly merges with a damper aroma of rain on hot clay bricks and then softens into coconut shavings, oatmeal cookies and white chocolate crusted with almonds. The clear metallic sweat of someone who’s been exerting themselves in very cold weather after just having had a bath (yeah, I know how barmy that sounds). Juicy and ripe white fruits – papaya, guavas, pears, green apples and a few slices of pineapple. This is clearly a rum that enjoys Christmas.

The palate is somewhat more subdued, while still professing a certain originality. First there’s that clean scent of fresh laundry hot from the drier, followed by a sweet, tart, yoghurt, and citrus-y hints of ripe fruits that have not yet started to go. What distinguishes the taste is the way the sour miso soup or kimchi comes out swinging here, as does a kind of  sweet-salt tartness of, say, pickled tomatoes and bell peppers (with a reaper thrown in for good measure). Added to that are notes of pine, cinnamon, licorice, ginger, wet sawdust, fruits…it just keeps chugging along, one taste after another. This one rum packs a lot in its jock and isn’t afraid to sport it, right down to the aromatic, long, dry, fruity and crisp finish that immediately encourages another pour.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s occasionally hit and miss (that’s why I tried it multiple times), and the crisp sourness mixed with sweet and salt won’t be to everyone’s taste. And indeed, Wally told me that his own team liked the Pure Single Rum best; my friend and tasting chum Logan also felt it lagged (slightly) behind the Pure Single and even the Coastal Cane. 

I completely get that, because they are good rums in their own right, and I’ve reviewed them with genuine affection, scored them well. But for my money, those — while excellent in their own pitch — don’t break new ground with quite the same in-yer-face insouciance, don’t get hit outside the boundary, and remain satisfied with a solid bouncy four into deep fine leg. The High Ester Cane, in contrast, appeals to my love of the original, the offbeat, the new, and has no hesitation going for a powerful, lofty out-of-the-park six. It walks up to your wicket, hits you over the head and drags you off the field, and, love it or like it or hate it, you’ll always know you’ve had something different that day. That’s not a compliment in everyone’s book, but it sure is in mine.

(#1043)(87/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • My fellow Calgarian reviewer, friend and redditor, FarDefinition2, as well as another redditor FrostyThought8591 both felt the High Ester was not quite as good as the Pure Single or the Coastal Cane, but both agreed it would shine in cocktails. This is why sharing samples around and checking for feedback is so useful – it not only gives consumers another opinion, it also forces me to consider other points of view.

Company background (from Review #1029)

Capricorn Distilling’s origins date back to  2015 or so when Warren Brewer began distilling in his backyard with friends, using an 80-litre still from Spain (where he got it from is anyone’s guess). He released his first batch of premium rum in 2016 by which time he and five friends had bought the Saleyards motel in Rockhampton (the distillery was pushed into the pub and the idea was to use each line of business – motel, pub, restaurant, distillery – to provide a fuller experience for patrons), which is 650km north of Brisbane. This establishment is closed now and larger premises acquired in 2020 in the south of Queensland (in Burleigh Head on the Gold Coast, which is south of Brisbane and a mere stone’s thrown from the state border with NSW). Now the Saleyard company website redirects to Capricorn, but for a while in early 2021 both locations operated at the same time. From the beginning, it seems was rum was Brewer’s thing and indeed, his Capricorn Spiced Rum copped the top prize at the 2020 World Rum Awards. 

The distillery doesn’t stray too far away from the standard outputs we have observed in other small and newly-established companies: its stable of releases encompasses spiced and infused and flavoured rums, a liqueur, the unaged Coastal Cane, the High Ester rum and some experimentals we’ll talk about at some point; also Ready To Drink cans, and, of course, the ever-present cash flow generator of gins. The company runs two pot stills: one is a single retort copper pot still called “Burleigh”, the other a double called “Rocky” made in NSW.

Nov 272023
 

Capricorn really is a distillery off in its own zone, and I mean that in a good way. Aged or unaged I’ve rarely seen a producer so young make rums that display such a deft, sure touch – they’re not all world beaters, but I think they’re certainly a cut above the ordinary, even the entry-level standard-strength “Coastal Cane” which I likened to a cross between an agricole and a Jamaican white overproof. In November 2023 they had a sort of coming-out party at the Brisbane Rum Revolution, where there were a number of complimentary comments about the various releases: the Pure Single Rum was one of the ones singled out (no pun intended) for especial attention, and many remarked on how pleased they were to have tried it.

The Pure Single Rum, which is a title deriving from the Gargano Classification system (see other notes below) conforms to its requirements exactly – it is a rum made via batch distillation, on a pot still, from a single distillery.  It’s the extras that elevate it to the next level because few 4YO rums have the distinction of being this good (did someone say “Renaissance”?). The rum is molasses based, a week’s fermentation, aged in ex-Shiraz casks for 2½ before being transferred out to a new American oak barrel (no ex-bourbon here) and then decanted into 221 bottles at 56% in November 2022. The idea is always to have a limited amount of this rum based on a cask that’s deemed ready (Release 3 just hit the shelves a few months ago) and right now there are a couple hundred casks or so slumbering in the warehouse, waiting their moment. Labelling is minimal and states the provenance nicely, and there are no additives, no filtration, no extras.

Tasting notes, then: the nose opens with a hot breath of sweet strawberry-flavoured bubble gum, a salt caramel and vanilla ice cream cone, gummi bears, and white toblerone chocolate. Some very ripe dark grapes, prunes. Honey, waffles and cereal mix well with toffee and brown sugar: overall the aromas is consistently strong without being sharp, well controlled, slightly sweet to inhale and overall seems like a pillow for the nose. It also smells like the most “traditional” rum of the four Capricorn rums I had, because there’s less of the tart and slightly sour tang that characterises the others, and emphasises a profile we similar to that of Barbados, Panama and even Guyana (minus the wooden stills). 

I also enjoy the taste, and in assessing this aspect I can understand why it was so popular at the festival: a good mouthfeel, very warm, with honey, caramel, vanilla, fresh wonderbread toast, and even some salt crackers and brie. It has hints of ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, as well as swiss bonbons, dulce de leche and a few dates, figs and other mild fruits like papaya and watermelon. The finish is unambitious and lets you down easy without introducing anything that isn’t already there – a tawny mix of molasses, caramel, toffee, vanilla and honey with a sprinkling of breakfast spices.

The Pure Single rum is an interesting mix of solidity and delicacy at the same time, and yet it never strays too far from a traditional “rummy” taste: it is the one rum of the distillery that comes closest to being completely recognizable as an aged rum by anyone, and that’s one reason for its easy acceptance and why people liked it. It is not precisely challenging, and introduces little that is new: a trailblazer for a new Australian style it is not (though I would not have objected had it done so). Nor is Capricorn going for a moon shot or a Hail Mary pass — they have other rums for that. What they are trying to do with this one — and have succeeded, I think — is assemble a solid young rum that’s fascinating and tasty and well made, complex and delicious enough for Government work, and simply a really good rum to try on its own and to enjoy. 

(#1042)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • From Release #3 it looks like there is a now a numerical designator on the label.
  • “Pure Single Rum” is a term of relatively recent derivation. It was coined by Luca Gargano of Velier in 2017 as part of his suggested new classification of rum, which he believed was not being well served by older systems based on colour or regions. His idea was to create a new regimen that focused more on production techniques and he came up with four basic classifications: Pure Single rum, Traditional rum, Single Blended rum, and Ordinary rum. These form the basis of the Gargano classification, which is detailed in rather more depth on Velier’s page. It has received some criticism for shortcomings and exclusions, and for not catering to rums which fall outside the clear demarcations – some prefer the Cates System advocated by Martin Cates of Smuggler’s Cove which has more gradations and is easier to understand – but if it has added a single term to our vocabulary of rum, it’s that first category of Pure Single Rum.

Company background (from Review #1029 of the Coastal Cane)

Capricorn Distilling’s origins bean in 2015 or so when Warren Brewer began distilling in his backyard with friends, using an 80-litre still from Spain (where he got it from is anyone’s guess). He released his first batch of premium rum in 2016 by which time he and five friends had bought the Saleyards motel in Rockhampton (the distillery was pushed into the pub and the idea was to use each line of business – motel, pub, restaurant, distillery – to provide a fuller experience for patrons), which is 650km north of Brisbane. This establishment is closed now and larger premises acquired in 2020 in the south of Queensland (in Burleigh Head on the Gold Coast, which is south of Brisbane and a mere stone’s thrown from the state border with NSW). Now the Saleyard company website redirects to Capricorn, but for a while in early 2021 both locations operated at the same time. From the beginning, it seems was rum was Brewer’s thing and indeed, his Capricorn Spiced Rum copped the top prize at the 2020 World Rum Awards. 

The distillery doesn’t stray too far away from the standard outputs we have observed in other small and newly-established companies: its stable of releases encompasses spiced and infused and flavoured rums, a liqueur, the unaged Coastal Cane, the High Ester rum and some experimentals we’ll talk about at some point; also Ready To Drink cans, and, of course, the everpresent cash flow generator of gins. The company runs two pot stills: one is a single retort copper pot still called “Burleigh”, the other a double called “Rocky” made in NSW.

Nov 152023
 

Brisbane’s Rum Revolution in Down Under has just ended last weekend, and among the many excited questions of “were you there?” and “did you drink this?” posted on social media, were a surprising number of accolades given to Capricorn, the little distillery run by Warren Brewer (also and variously called Walter, Wal, Wally, Warren and Wally Walter, depending on how he’s feeling on the day), south of Brisbane. People were getting all gobsmacked over the High Ester rum (rightfully so methinks) and I’m hoping we’ll see it at a rumfest in Europe next year, so we can see how others feel about it.

Alas, today I’m not reviewing that one (although I want to) but will instead focus on another very interesting experimental rum the distillery makes, the Dumpster Diver, which among other things, demonstrates that West Indians are not the only people out there with a sharp and obscure sense of humour. Now, this is an unaged rum, white, molasses-based, jacked up to the nines by using a cane juice acid, muck, and natural ferment to supercharge the thing; it was fermented for about thirty days, distilled in a single pass through the double retort pot still (that’s the one named Rocky), then left to snooze in a stainless steel vat for a couple of months. I’d like to think Warren then chucked it into a dumpster out back behind the shed for people to fish out when they wanted some, but naaah, he just bottled it…at 62%. It is not currently available in shops (it remains something of a trial release and not mentioned on the company website), and Wally tells me it can always be had to buy at the back door of his distillery where they sign waivers before tastings (well…not really: but they are warned what to expect so as to cushion the shock).

Normally at this point I’d tell you about the distillery and its background; however, that’s already available (reprinted below), and the only thing to add to it is that I think Walter deserves the praises, because this rum is really quite a blast to have neat…or, as he reminds me, in a totally awesome martini. This is one rum that’ll cure what ails you.

So, let’s just dive right in. Nose first: it’s redolent of cucumbers and a few pimentos in white vinegar, really hot and sharp. There’s an element of dusty houses, old cupboards, granny’s unused bloomers (best not go there) and a whole lot of dry and expired cereals. The smell is slightly sweet, and also sour, channelling gherkins and diluted balsamic vinegar: there is a sort of kimchi vibe here that’s quite nice, and even some ashlan-foo (which made Mrs. Caner sigh with nostalgia when I passed the glass to her to confirm). The intensity fades after it opens up and remains well controlled and rather quiescent most of the time. Towards the end, things get weird for a while — it could be just me but I thought I nosed some disinfectant, pine sol and even the slight acrid hint of a chlorine bleach, which makes it slip in my estimation, but overall, the nose is really quite something – not one you’ll forget in a hurry, and somewhat reminiscent of an agricole.

Photo (c) and courtesy of Josh Wall

It is also excellent on the palate: strong, firm, solid, and very dry.  Letting it stand to let the harsh alcohol burn off is probably a good idea, or alternatively, some might like to add a little water. This allows a solid taste experience to unfold, starting with an air of clean white laundry flapping in the breeze on a sunny day, white wine and tart fruits, plus unsweetened yoghurt, which presents a sort of crisp fruitness that is very pleasant.  Pomegranates, figs, dragon fruit, soursop and other unusual stuff like that, but also citrus, green apples and grapes, each snapping crisply into focus and then quickly moving aside for the next one. As for the finish, well, pretty damned fine: dry, dusty, fruity, nicely long, with acetones, nail polish remover and bubble gum – plus the usual fruit salad rounding things out.

New rums like this from far-flung locations are why I stay in the game.  It’s such an interesting dram, on so many levels. It shows a lot of rough edges – “like a country bai com’ to town” – and a demonstrable lack of couth is right there, front and centre – you can almost smell it sweating and sweltering in the heat.  And yet it’s a completely solid rum, channelling Hampden by way of Worthy Park with a little TECA thrown in, before adding its own exuberant Queensland twist. It’s rough, it’s brutal, it’s got tastes and to spare, attitude beyond reason and when you’re done you will realise that it’s also an immensely enjoyable drink on its own terms. And yeah, it really does make a seriously sleazy, filthy, barkin’ mad martini.

(#1039)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Disclosure: although Warren and I agreed I’d send him something from my stocks to pay off for the samples he sent to me in Canada, as of this writing I have not yet done so. Just waiting for my empty sample bottles to arrive, though, and all will be settled.
  • I’ve asked for a photo of the bottle and label, as none appear to be available online, even on the company’s social media pages. My sincere thanks to Josh Wall of the Brisbane Rum Club FB page, who kindly allowed me to use his photograph of the rum bottle and its label. Ta, and a hat tip, mate.

Company background (from Review #1029)

Capricorn Distilling’s origins began in 2015 or so when Warren Brewer began distilling in his backyard with friends, using an 80-litre still from Spain (where he got it from is anyone’s guess). He released his first batch of premium rum in 2016 by which time he and five friends had bought the Saleyards motel in Rockhampton (the distillery was pushed into the pub and the idea was to use each line of business – motel, pub, restaurant, distillery – to provide a fuller experience for patrons), which is 650km north of Brisbane. This establishment is closed now and larger premises acquired in 2020 in the south of Queensland (in Burleigh Head on the Gold Coast, which is south of Brisbane and a mere stone’s thrown from the state border with NSW). Now the Saleyard company website redirects to Capricorn, but for a while in early 2021 both locations operated at the same time. From the beginning, it seems was rum was Brewer’s thing and indeed, his Capricorn Spiced Rum copped the top prize at the 2020 World Rum Awards. 

The distillery doesn’t stray too far away from the standard outputs we have observed in other small and newly-established companies: its stable of releases encompasses spiced and infused and flavoured rums, a liqueur, the unaged Coastal Cane, the High Ester rum and some experimentals we’ll talk about at some point; also Ready To Drink cans, and, of course, the everpresent cash flow generator of gins.The company runs two pot stills: one is a single retort copper pot still called “Burleigh”, the other a double called “Rocky” made in NSW.


 

Sep 302023
 

Today we’ll go back Down Under, because we want to check out a starter rum from another one of those small distilleries that seem to be popping up with increasing frequency all over the map: craft, small batch, experimental, not from the Usual Countries, founded and run by one or two quasi-certifiable enthusiasts who just want to hare off and do something different, because, well, they can.

Capricorn Distilling’s origins bean in 2015 or so when Warren Brewer began distilling in his backyard with friends, using an 80-liter still from Spain (where he got it from is anyone’s guess). He released his first batch of premium rum in 2016 by which time he and five friends had bought the Saleyards motel in Rockhampton (the distillery was pushed into the pub and the idea was to use each line of business – motel, pub, restaurant, distillery – to provide a fuller experience for patrons), which is 650km north of Brisbane. This establishment is closed now and larger premises acquired in the south of Queensland (in Burleigh Head on the Gold Coast, which is south of Brisbane and a mere stone’s thrown from the state border with NSW). Now the Saleyard company website redirects to Capricorn, but for a while in early 2021 both locations operated at the same time. From the beginning, it seems was rum was Brewer’s thing and indeed, his Capricorn Spiced Rum copped the top prize at the 2020 World Rum Awards. 

Still, for all the stated love of rums, the distillery doesn’t stray too far away from the standard outputs  we have observed in other small outfits: its stable of releases encompasses spiced and infused and flavoured rums, a liqueur, the unaged Coastal Cane, the High Ester rum and some experimentals we’ll talk about at some point; also Ready To Drink cans, and, of course, the everpresent cash flow generator of gins.The company runs two pot stills: one is a single retort copper pot still called “Burleigh”, the other a double called “Rocky” made in NSW and acquired in 2022.

The Coastal Cane is a molasses based spirit, from molasses fermented for ten days and then run twice through “Rocky” the double retort. No ageing, no additions, no filtering, just reduction down to standard strength of 40% ABV.

The middling-long fermentation time and that double pass through the pot still provide quite an aromatic punch. The nose starts with rubber, rotting fruit, brine and sugar water, making me blink in surprise…wait, what?  is this a Jamaican undercover in Oz? … The smells continue: acetones, turpentine, new plastic peeled off a new phone. Some bananas, mangoes, papaya, maybe a grape or two. There’s a sense of freshness, of greenness, about the whole aromatic experience, like the damp floor of a forest glade after a summer shower.  After a while one can sense mint and marzipan, prunes and apricots, all of which is a little sharp.  Admittedly it has a bunch of rough edges and it’s quite spicy for 40%, but we can ascribe that to the fact that it probably boiled and frothed off the still just a few minutes before being stuffed into the bottle and calmed down with some water, so it’s to be expected, really.

When tasted there’s a certain minerality about the rum, something like ashes, or water on hot concrete. Admittedly it’s rough, but I quite like the taste, because it also channels some sugar water, grassiness, mint, marzipan and pine needles (kind of odd, in a nice way), overripe fruits, a twist of citrus. It then moves quickly to a short, crisp and tangy finish, where things go back to being traditional – fruits, rubber, olives, a touch of sugar water, and ends the short show in a not unpleasant flourish akin to a smack across the back of the head.. 

You sort of have to wonder at what this entry level rum manages to achieve. Its youth is evident, and yes there are ragged edges that show that; but you can also sense potential in the thing – it would probably make a bangin’ daiquiri – and overall it presents something like a cross between an agricole and a Jamaican white overproof. Over the last few weeks we have been looking at some seriously high powered young aged rums from Taiwan, but this unassuming rumlet proves that strength isn’t everything, and you can be made to appeal to the accountant in the front office… while still impressing the cane cutter out back.

(#1029)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Disclosure:

Although Warren and I agreed I’d send him something from my stocks to pay off for the free samples he sent (mind, he did say it was unnecessary…I mean, a few 5cl bottles? – hardly evidence in a bankruptcy proceeding), as of this writing I have yet to honour the promise. But it will be.

Aug 252023
 

Killik distillery, located in the east of Melbourne, is one of the “New Australian” outfits I have an eye out for: like others located up and down the east coast of Australia (and elsewhere), they are seeking to bootstrap a homegrown rum industry into something greater by applying modern techniques to old-style rum-making and adding an occasional dash of crazy to set themselves apart. So far it’s mostly local sales that keep these small and often family-owned operations afloat, yet slowly their reputation is spreading beyond the Bundies and Beenleighs everyone knows. The Boutique-y Rum Company’s recent bottlings of Black Gate and Mt. Uncle distilleries speaks well for the future of antipodean rums, and Killik is sure to be a part of that movement.

Readers with pachyderm-level memories will likely recall that we’ve looked at a Killik Gold (rum) before – that one was a year or so old and matured in Chardonnay casks, while this one is of somewhat more recent vintage, no finishing or fancy cask, and a different age. When I addressed this question to the Brothers Pratt (the owners), they remarked that although the overall production process remains the same — they continue to tinker with wild yeast fermentation and Jamaican high-ester-style rum making as a core ethos — the small size of their output means that until they expand it to larger sizes, batches are and will be strikingly varied, and those batches come out quite often. In that sense they are somewhat like the six-month ageing-and-output cycle Nine Leaves in Japan used to have.

One thing to look out for is the label. Now recall, Australia has that 2-year rule that states a cane based spirit cannot be called rum until it is aged for at least two years (producers are trying to address a potential revision to this outdated law through the courts)…so strictly speaking Killik should only be able to call it – as before – a “gold” or a “cane spirit” or some variant thereof.  However, in what I personally consider a stroke of marketing genius, they trademarked their name and the image of the anchor device together, as “Killik Handcrafted Rum,” and cheerfully added that to their labels, right above the word “Gold”.  They therefore stayed within the law while simultaneously skirting it and unambiguously stating what they’re making.

This particular version — it’s hard to identify it precisely since there is no notation on the label or the website — was confirmed to me to be at least twice as old as the version from 2022 that had come from the 2021 advent calendar. It is therefore a completely different rum, still made on a hybrid still, with dunder and wild yeast part of the recipe pushing the congener count up.  It is also a blend – of 75% original stock rum now aged to 3 years, plus 25% of one year old fresh make. As before, the barrels are from a local cooperage and I have an outstanding query as to whether it was used or new barrels and if used, what they previously held.

Bottled at the same 42%, the Gold takes a few more chances than the original did – it noses as slightly richer, rounder, fuller. And while the funk and congeners remain as muted as before, there’s an overall sense of something slightly richer here: paint and furniture polish, a touch of wax, acetones and new plastic.  This dissipates over time and is replaced by some middling-sharp fruity notes — apples, green grapes, diluted lemon juice, apricots, pineapples and unripe peaches. There are also, after some minutes, hints of vanilla, cherries, lemon key pie, hot sweet pastries, cookies, and unsweetened yoghurt – very nice for something so relatively young.

The palate maintains that sense of something more complex and richer than its predecessor, even if the strength undercuts that somewhat. And yet overall still it tastes pretty good — green apples, light pineapple slices, bananas, pine tart and grapes, combine nicely with the sense of pastries steaming fresh from the oven, vanilla, light sugar water, lemon zest, and bitter chocolate and crushed walnuts. The finish wraps up the show as best it can, and sums up the tart and creamy fruits and pastries vibe quite well – it is quite easy drinking with a bit of a sour edge, occasionally sharp, not too hot. More cannot really be said here.

Overall, I think the low strength hamstrings a decent rum that could actually be even better — that 42% is okay for casual drinking, but for more appreciation you do need more oomph. The relatively young age is something of a mixed blessing as well, since along with the slightly added complexity comes a bit of roughness — and so I can’t completely recommend it as a sipping rum. That said, the thing makes a really fine daiquiri, and on that front, with those sharp fruity notes leaning up against the warm pastries, the rum walks down strange and interesting yet hauntingly familiar paths inhabited by hot Jamaican patties and fierce white overproofs served in plastic tumblers at backcountry rumshops —  and if nothing else, those are the qualities which define it as a rum too good to walk away from. 

(#1019)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

Aug 172022
 

When it comes to Australia and its rums, it’s likely that only two names immediately jump to mind (assuming you know of any at all and are not from there yourself): Bundaberg and Beenleigh. Both are relatively long-lived companies that predate many better-known producers founded much more recently in other parts of the world, yet it is only recently that awareness of them has climbed. Of course, this is in a large part due to association with or ownership by other major spirits companies with worldwide clout and visibility that can be leveraged, as well as social media trends.

Those two companies aside, however, few western consumers have tasted a wider selection of rums from Down Under. Australian rums don’t make it to rum shows or rum festivals (except in their own region) and pricing problems prohibit easy import or muling of bottles to and from the country, whether by distributors or individuals. But there is a vibrant and dynamic rum culture in Australia, and in the last two decades — paralleling the rum renaissance in the west — a host of small distilleries has cropped up, almost all single- or family-owned enterprises that make small batch pot still production. Because of the lack of any blogger or writer or reviewer in Australia who has a broad-based international readership, little of this has reached the attention of the wider rum world until very recently, when Mr. and Mrs. Rum issued the 2021 Australian Rum Advent Calendar. For the first time a wide variety of rums became available for people to try, and it was my good fortune to get hold of a box.

I systematically wrote the reviews one by one, and while they are now done, the thoughts they engender about Australian distillery culture and the rums they make, are too many to fit easily into a single review. Granted that twenty-plus reviews is hardly a complete sampling of the entire country, yet I feel that the points that occurred to me as the process continued — and at the end when I was summing up — are relevant in a more general context…more, at least, than just an observation on this or that distillery.

The first is evident from the tenor of the reviews: it’s something of a surprise how good the rums were (and are). Few scored below 80 points, and many were eye openers. I’ve tasted some really foul American, Canadian and Japanese rums which are thankfully not widely available, but here, small and local distillers I had never heard of before were making impressive young rums and cane juice spirits that held themselves up well even when rated against Caribbean rums of greater fame and heritage. Some were essays in the craft, to be sure, and in many cases the rough edges remained visible, the rums too young, the style not yet complete; yet I firmly believe that many will only get better as time goes on, and skills and technique get more refined — and hopefully they will get the attention and kudos they deserve.

The operations making these rums are, for the most part, micro-distilleries, and serve a regional market (some are only at a town- or state-level). A few large ones like Beenleigh and Bundaberg export abroad, but this is an exceptional situation. What characterises most of the distilleries that produced these rums is that they are either sole-proprietorships, husband-and-wife teams, or set up by a few friends, and while I don’t know anything about their financial situation, it seems to me that what they do is a personal thing, a labour of love, and their own funds and families and friendship networks are quite invested in the success of what is at end a small business that has some unique restrictions.

For one, they are hampered by the “ageing law”: rum may not be called “rum” until it’s been aged for at least two years in Australia, a law that has been on the books since 1906. Initially enacted to prevent low grade, poorly made, unaged moonshine — which quite literally, could be and often was, lethal — unscrupulously being sold to unknowing patrons, it is not completely a relic of rougher colonial times as I had thought. Alcoholism and abuse by both buyers and sellers is still a problem today and this is one reason why the law remains, and taxes on alcohol remain quite high.

The law’s intention (if not its ultimate effect) was and is to remove unaged full-proof rum from easy distribution to vulnerable segments of the population, though of course it only really affects legally established distilleries, not outback hoocheries beyond the easy reach of regulators, lawmakers or taxmen. But the unintended consequence of this is that one of the potential revenue spinners of new distilleries which need cash flow to recoup their substantial initial capital outlay – the sale of unaged white rum, especially if made from cane juice – is removed, as it cannot be sold as “rum”. 

Inventive and agile distillers have gotten around this issue by releasing such rums as “cane spirit” yet undoubtedly sales are foregone by application of a law which has not kept pace with developments in the wider rumiverse, where such cane spirits are called rums. Elsewhere in the world, they also go by names like charanda, grogue, clairin, aguardiente or agricole and have devoted consumers who prize the authentic nature of the spirits produced in such a fashion. The problem in Australia as elsewhere, is, of course, that those not already into rum won’t make the connection between these varieties and “real” rum, which again impacts sales and hampers recognition.

The two-year rule therefore prioritises and incentivises aged rums and other spirits without such restrictions, and this means that for at least those two years (likely more – James McPherson suggests five) no rum distillery can really make cash flow on rum alone while its stock is maturing. This requires Australian distillers to focus on other money-makers that can provide more immediate revenues: the most common of these is gin, which is why the gin varieties and volumes in Australia are so great. Unaged cane spirit is another. However, unaged bulk sales abroad — where 10,000-litre or greater iso-containers are the norm — are usually not feasible, because volumes of rum which are distilled are relatively small, sometimes as little as a few thousand litres annually.

And it must be conceded that most distillers are in it to make whiskies, not rums, and like the American micro distillers I’ve mentioned before, rums are a sideshow, if not a complete afterthought – there are many more whisky distillers to be found on Google Maps than rum-focused ones, for example. Some distillers make yet other products in addition to gins and whiskies — spiced spirits, vodkas, limoncello, liqueurs, etc. But the consequence of all this diversity is very much the same as it is in America: focus is diluted and expertise is scattershot, and deep experience, while not absent, is thin on the ground and takes longer to develop than in an operation where it’s rum, and only rum that’s the first spirit of make (I’m not criticising distillers’ necessary choices, only mentioning this is an inevitable outgrowth of the rules).

But seen from the outside, clearly there is talent and to spare in Australia and a genuine love of rums. After all, people keep drinking the stuff, and if it’s being bought, it’ll continue getting made. It didn’t matter whether it was a hundred-year-old distillery, or one established less than a decade ago: almost all the rums I tried were of good quality, with some real standouts. The size or age of the distillery had at best a marginal impact on quality — for example, Killik (founded in 2019) had an unaged white rum was way better than the venerable Beenleigh’s 3 Year Old White, and Black Gate’s Dark Overproof (from a company established in 2009) was its equal though aged. 

The key determinants of really good Australian rums seemed to be a combination of their proof points (stronger was mostly better than weaker, though not always) and the ability of their distillers to think a little outside the box, play around and go for something new – they pounced on niche techniques to seek competitive advantage. Since just about all the rums came from a pot still or a hybrid pot/column and had the 2-year age restriction (Hoochery’s Spike’s Reserve aged 7 years and Tin Shed’s Requiem at 6, were the oldest), it was fermentation and source material that helped carry the flag, and high scoring distilleries like Winding Road, Aisling, Tin Shed, Black Gate and Killik had points of uniqueness in their production methodology unrelated to ageing. Some used cane juice or syrup rather than molasses, others went into longer ferments or used dunder and relentlessly experimented to get “Jamaican style” rums out the other end, while still others played around with finishes and odd casks. 

That said, a not unreasonable question is whether they display anything specific to themselves, something uniquely Australian that would allow someone with even a smidgen of experience to stand up straight and immediately identify a rum from Oz.  After all, say what you will about the Bundie, one sniff of that thing and after you stop spilling your guts and recover your sight, you’d instantly know it for what it was, sight unseen. Are the ones I’ve been reviewing anything like that?

In my personal opinion, not really.  In fact, the strongest impression I took away from this admittedly limited sample set — and one which had been tickling me since I tasted the first indie bottlers’ Beenleighs years ago — is how modern and contemporary they tasted, and that’s both a compliment and an observation. While the quality was indisputably there, the tasted profiles often conformed to the formal regional “styles” already popularised by existing countries and their flagship distilleries. To put it another way, it was hard for me to try these rums blind (as I did) and not instinctively see Barbados, Antigua, Trinidad, Panama, or St. Lucia, depending on which it was. They have the same nature – much improved by being fully pot still distillate, to be sure — that makes them fine drinks, but not clearly identifiable as being from Australia. Even the ones that suggested Jamaica were like that (though more Appleton than Hampden or Worthy Park, it must be conceded).  The most distinctive were the unaged agricole-style cane juice rums like Winding Road’s Coastal Cane, or high ester unaged rums like Killik’s Silver Overproof. Those you could tell came from someplace new, someplace damned fine.

Does this matter? Not entirely, because good rums are good rums and people will always gravitate towards tasty spirits that don’t break the bank.  It’s only superdorks, ur-geeks and rabid rum aficionados (did somebody say “Caner!” ?? Hush, ye snickerers) that make these superfine distinctions.  However, for a more globally recognized Australian rum category to truly emerge will to some extent depend on being able to sway rum lovers the world around on not only quality, but uniqueness: because, why would anyone in the US or Europe buy an Australian-made Jamaica-style rum when the real deal from Hampden or WP or Appleton can be had more easily and for less? I honestly hope that a localised, Australia-centric style of rum will slowly come into focus because of such pressures, and a move away from already existing styles will help.

Wrapping up, then: notwithstanding all the remarks above, I loved these rums. Almost without exception, every single one of the samples in the calendar displayed a quality that for distilleries so small and often so young, was nothing short of astounding. They are not yet top-tier, bestest-of-the-restest, but damn, they did come close in places, they were good for what they were, and will only get better. The hard and often unappreciated work — of so many individual distillers, so many obsessive rummies and their patiently eye-rolling spouses, who experiment without rest or reward day in and day out — really has achieved something wonderful in Australia. I hope to lay hands on more in the years to come, or at the very least more advent calendars as they become available. Because good or bad or indifferent or spectacular, it’s worth it to see a new rum region rise up, snap into focus and add new some fruit to the great rum tree. We should all be grateful for that, no matter where we live.


Further reading


 

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 rum – it’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 more – strawberries, 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 play – sweet 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 before – some dark fruits, a touch of vanilla, red wine, caramel, sorrel, lemon zest and cranberries –  which 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 identifier – the 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 where – in this case – Genise 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 stills – relatively small at 630 litres and 300 litres capacity – and 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 042022
 

It’s been a few years since I last looked at Beenleigh’s Inner Circle rum from Australia, and while that iteration from around 2004 was the same strength as this one — 57.2% — there are several differences between it and the current version.  For one, it is no longer named “Overproof” but “Navy Strength” (incorrectly, in my view, but maybe that’s just semantics), and uses molasses from three separate sugarcane regions along the east coast of Australia 1 to produce its own distillate from Beenleigh’s column and pot stills, while back in the day it was (supposedly) pot still distillate from Fiji. Too, the older rum was aged just about two years, and the new one sports five – both slept in ex bourbon casks – and is now topped off with a smidgen of Beenleigh’s “best ten year old”. The green dot on the label, a heritage design item reflecting the strength of the rum, remains, which is nice.

All of this is fairly basic, and for those who want something deeper, I include more historical background after the review, including what the coloured dots are all about. For the moment, it should simply be noted that I had not been particularly impressed with the earlier Inner Circle Rum, commenting rather acidly that it was “as vague as a politician’s statements,” and was surprisingly mild for something at such a strength, with faint tastes that left me rather indifferent.

No such issues afflict this one, which asserts a formidable nose that reeks nicely of dust, sawdust, some acetones and a smorgasbord of fruits from all over the map. The aromas range from a mild raspberry yoghurt, squishy yellow mangoes, dark and ripe cherries, to a dusty and somewhat woody background dusted over with pine needles, some tannins, toffee and vanilla. Plus there’s ice cream, pears, coca cola and even some freshly-ground coffee beans, all of which is reasonably distinct, front-facing and not at all meek and mild.

The taste is thick, fruity and nicely aromatic, and just a bit spicy – for a five year old it is therefore entering sipping territory if one judges solely on mouthfeel and stays there if it’s taste that’s your criterion. First off there’s the thick herbal-sweet aroma of damp tobacco leaves, fresh coffee and very strong black tea into which an inordinate amount of condensed milk has been dunked (this used to be one of my favourite “food-drinks” as a student, and I remember it well).  The fruits are also well represented, musky and sweet fleshy ones – pears, sapodilla, kiwi fruit, overripe bananas, and apricots.  With some effort one can make out blueberries, vanilla and some chocolate, not much more, and a citrus tang is oddly absent throughout. The finish is quite pleasant and gives a soft send off, redolent of some brine, dark fruits, raisins, vanilla, cinnamon and a mild touch of wet sawdust.

Overall, it’s a pretty good five year old. While not a complete success as a sipping rum, it remains more than good enough for Government work: its minor drawbacks are the relative simplicity, some tastes that don’t entirely gel, and the occasionally rough heat which has not entirely been sanded down by the oak (it succeeds better with a touch of water to tone it down).  Beenleigh has its own flagship rums and this is an old brand name with some heritage and history that came through a convoluted road to their distillery, so it may succeed better in Australia, where memories and tradition ensure a certain familiarity with the product, than in other countries which don’t know anything about it.

Other than that, there’s no real reason for avoiding the rum if a slightly different taste profile is what you’re looking for to wake up your latest cocktail, you don’t want to spend a huge amount of money to get something interesting, and are curious about an aged rum from Down Under.  This one fits the bill nicely on all of those.

(#927)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Inner Circle’s website notes it is a pot still rum (“small batch pot distillation”) but other sites and Steve McGarry (lately of Beenleigh), contend it’s a pot-column blend that copied the original process that was historically also a mix of column and pot still distillates.
  • Limited outturn of 2700 bottles.
  • As always, my appreciation to Mrs. and Mrs. Rum for the 2021 advent calendar, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there will be another in 2022.

Historical Background

Inner Circle was originally made by a now-defunct company called the Colonial Sugar Refinery, which had a long history pretty much unknown outside its country of origin. Formed in 1855, CSR established refineries in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji by the 1890s, and in 1901 they opened a distillery in Sidney, using pot stills to make rums from Fijian and Australian cane. The Inner Circle brand name, which first appeared in 1950, came from the limited high-quality rums they made for distribution to the favoured elite of the company and its clients, and around 1970 it got a broad commercial release in Australia: at that time it was bottled in three strengths, which in turn were identified by coloured dots – Underproof (38-40%, the red dot), Overproof (57% or so, green dot) and 33% Overproof (73-75%, black dot).

The distillery was sold off in 1986 to Bundaberg and the brand disappeared, though CSR remains as a company involved in manufacturing of building products, no longer rums. The Inner Circle brand was resurrected in 2000 by Stuart Gilbert (the Australian Olympic yachtsman) in concert with Malcolm Campbell, one of the distillers of the company who had the original recipe, and I believe they did so with the financial backing of the Australian VOK group, which also took over the Beenleigh Rum Distillery in 2003. The rums was un-retired and is now a Beenleigh product, thought it seems to be kept as a separate brand and line of rums from their regular releases, judging from their individual and separate websites.


 

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 distillery — and many major ones — seeks 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 flow – and 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 guess – oh, 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

Jul 072022
 

When it comes to Australia, the wider world knows of Bundy and Beenleigh almost by default, because they are the big guns that export globally and allow us to try their stuff as found in a duty-free or released by the independent bottlers. But perhaps a better sense of the country could be provided if we run through the rums of those multitudinous small micro-distilleries that dot the landscape, because seriously, that’s where all the cool stuff and innovation seems to be happening as these New Australians seek for the elusive magic of a truly indigenous rum that could not be mistaken for anything else. Not all seriously try for that brass ring, and of those that do, not all succeed – what they all accomplish, however, is to enrich the rum landscape of the entire country, even if they simply make a “regular” rum.

One of the rums that doesn’t make a big thing about channelling some new style or method of production but is content to simply be good, is the rum called Amber “Tavern Style”  Batch No. 5, made by the bluntly-named Yack Creek Distillery (love that name: just saying that – “I had a Yack the other day” – reeks of badass rumgeek machismo, doesn’t it?).  

Photo (c) Yack Creek Distillery

The distillery is located in the Australian state of Victoria, and was founded in 2016 by two friends, Mick and Jamie, conforming to the pattern of many others: the guys were checking out whale sharks in Ningaloo (Western Australia) six years earlier, the conversation turned to spirits and opening a business, and in short order they had made plans. Then years were spent securing the  financing, buying and installing the necessary equipment, doing some training in the field, and the business was set to go. It was called “Yack” after the river and town near which they set up shop, and quite sensibly shortened its name, because calling it Yackandandah might have been a labelling problem and a tongue twister for lexically challenged. Unsurprisingly they have made gin (six varieties) and vodka (just one) to pay the immediate bills, before heading into whisky territory (where they are already up to the 16th edition) and the fifth iteration of their rum line.  The philosophy is to do multiple small batches a year rather than just a few large bones, so runs and outturns have thus far remained relatively modest.

Depending on how they feel, either blackstrap molasses, molasses or sugar cane honey — all locally sourced — is used, fermented with a commercial yeast and then run through a 1000-litre copper still with stainless steel columns (a 130-litre stainless steel and copper modular high column still is utilised for smaller batches and experimentation). For the Amber “Tavern Style” rum we’re discussing today, the distillate is put into an ex-bourbon cask for about four years, and then finished in a Meyrieux Bourgogne cask for a short period before being bottled at 48%.

What that does is produce a golden rum with an uncommonly pleasant nose that is assertive enough not to fade away into thin nothingness. It is, paradoxically both light and rich, redolent of blackberries in cream, cherries, raspberries and a bag of overripe plums.  At no point is it sharp or harsh, just firm and warm,  It changes a fair bit over time too: after a while one can sense oranges starting to go, some kimchi (!!), paint and freshly oiled leather harnesses, and a comfortably upholstered clean leather sofa.  You don’t get that every day in a rum, that’s for sure.

On the palate it continues to be a solid tasting rum with overripe fleshy fruit as before, and tastes a bit of dry sweet cereals, molasses, caramel, a touch of vanilla, brine, and that new-polished leather vibe. It’s not as vibrant as before, though, and the components one would expect to surge to the forefront – aromatic herbs, anise, spices and tart fruits – take a back seat. This leaves salty and musky flavours to take over, at the expense of a more complex multidimensional profile which the nose had hinted was possible. The finish operated at this level also: dry, wine-y, with notes of fat red grapes, licorice, olives, Danish butter cookies and some stale orange rind. It had a certain whiskey-like nature to it, suggesting a malt in rum’s clothing.

Like most new and small distilleries such as we have been reviewing of late, rums like this are youngish, decently made and solidly constructed, but not complex, uber-aged top-enders. They can’t be, because they are the distilleries’ bread and butter, sharing the stage with equally young whiskies and gins through economic necessity (for now). That limits them somewhat, and it’s a quiet achievement that this one succeeds as well as it does.

The Amber No. 5 is an unquestioned achievement of the mid range: it noses solid, tastes firm and finishes with some style, even if it does leave you wishing for more: at the end its informal title of “Tavern Style” pretty much says what the makers probably had in mind when they created it.  And yet, in spite of all that mid-brow aesthetic (or because of it) I really quite enjoyed it, especially in a simple Cuba Libre or with ginger beer, because the rum had enough notes to hold my interest and woke up the mix very nicely; it can even be had neat without undue discomfort. What it also does is remind me — a lot — of a Bacardi 8, a Young’s Old Sam, a young El Dorado or a Doorly’s: a seemingly regular, even overlooked, rum that is quite a bit better when you try it than the bare stats say it is.

(#921)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • I was told the outturn was about a hundred bottles. All are sold in the local area, most at the distillery itself in the small bar they have onsite. Obviously one made it to the 2021 advent calendar from which this sample was obtained, and for which I remain grateful to Mr. & Mrs. Rum for providing.
  • The logo on the company masthead is that of a Blue Murray Spiny Crayfish, commonly found in the creek and was designed by Jamie Heritage and his sister.
  • Yack Creek Distillery is one of a cluster of small family-run distilleries established over the last decade in and around Yackandandah and its surrounds. Backwoods Distilling is close by, and in the area are Barking Owl, Bilson’s, Glenbosch, joining the 10 or so distilleries in Victoria’s High Country.
Jun 302022
 

Photo (c) Riverbourne Distillery

Australia’s sugar cane industry is concentrated in the east of the country, so it comes as no surprise that many of the small distilleries that make rum (one cannot firmly state they are always rum distilleries) are located in the states of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, usually near some kind of built up infrastructure, though sometimes on the outskirts of some small town or other. The small one-man distillery of Riverbourne is a bit more rural and remote (a relative term) in that there really isn’t much between it and Canberra, the capital, which is an hour’s drive away.

Riverbourne is another one of those craft distilleries that have sprung up in the last decade, and its founder and proprietor – Martin “The Kid” Pye – is the closest thing to a scientist I’ve seen in researching these little outfits. The man is a third generation pharmacist and has studied microbiology, biochemistry, chemistry and mathematics in his career, suggesting he possesses a medieval alchemist’s mindset, and likes seeing how things work, how they’re made, and what makes them tick. He founded his small operation in 2015 and took the time to learn from Redland’s Distillery in Tasmania (one of the few completely “paddock-to-bottle” distilleries in the southern hemisphere, it is said), sourced a 900-liter steam jacketed copper pot still (named “Tilly”) and set about making whiskies, which he occasionally named after various titles in the Ludlum universe.

Rums, alas, were and are not a major priority, yet the mere fact that there is a #8 at all implies seven prior ones – the first was released back in 2018 and has been joined by a spiced version and a gin. It’s the dark sipping rum we’re discussing today, and since the website makes little mention of the technical aspects, here are a few facts I’ve gleaned. The rum derives from food-grade molasses from Northern Rivers, pot-still distillate using Caribbean-sourced yeast for the 14-day fermentation, and is aged for three and a half years in and blended from an ex-French-oak red wine cask and an ex-bourbon cask. The outturn is of course quite small – 100 to 200 bottles, give or take.  Oh, and it’s bottled at 48% which may be the distillers attempt not to scare off to many potential rum drinkers with some cask strength monster only a mother (or a rum dork) could love.

Within that rather sparse background we find a rum that has an intriguing profile…if a little uncoordinated. It starts off with a nose that channels brine, olives, flowers and a miscellaneous mishmash of fruits that is hard to separate. Pineapples, mangoes and a sweet habanero or two do stand out, yet overall, it is not particularly sweet. There’s a peaty, grainy – a whiskey-like – aspect to this that is not normally something I care for, but here it actually works rather well.  Overripe bananas and orange peel, some burnt rubber of doughnuts made by overenthusiastic teenagers on their father’s porsche, a bot of caramel, dates and butterscotch, and that’s the nose for you.

My attempt to describe the oddity of the rum’s initial palate will not resonate with – let alone appeal to – many, but I have to state that the first reaction I had was to mumble “salt soap?” to myself, because that’s what an initial taste is like — the red soap which many of my generation and earlier used in Guyana to wash dutty bukta in a standpipe or down by the river (don’t ask). Yet, once it calms down and breathes, the rum isn’t bad at all: here the sweeter notes stand out more forcefully: butter-rich pastries, pancakes and syrup, dates.  Also fleshy and ripe fruits – cashews, red guavas, soft mangoes, and perhaps some apricots.  It’s sweeter than the nose implies, and one senses the taste of licorice, wet sawdust and a sort of sour-sweet teriyaki without ever coming to grips with it. The finish is long and dry and warm, but adds little to the party – it doesn’t actually provide much of anything except a lackluster recap of what came before, mashed together, dampened by a sweetness that hides subtler notes (though it is thankfully not cloying).

Riverbourne’s love is clearly the whiskies, and they make no bones about that – rum and gin are therefore made to defray costs and round out the portfolio, not the results of dedicated rum nerdiness and rumlove that defines, say, Killik, Soltera, Husk or Winding Road. Within that restriction, however, they haven’t done too badly with the Rich Dark Sipping Rum #8. Sure, the tastes are somewhat muddled, lack precision and it’s hard to tease much out beyond generalities (e,g, “fruit” or “sweet” which is not very useful)…yet somehow, the No.8 kind of works.

Perhaps that’s because it tastes like what it is, because it never pretends to be anything else: a rough and ready soldier’s rum, one for the proles, the worker bees, the cubicle drones — one that is simply, strongly and unaffectedly made with a straightforward lack of frippery…Australia’s own version of the El Dorado 5YO. maybe. I thought it was a nice and unprepossessing middle-ground product, the kind often overlooked in our current fascination with uber-aged Caribbean rums or overproofed white agricoles. Occasionally it takes one like this to remind us that there is a place for unpretentious blue collar rums that are competently made, enjoyably drunk and always in the backbar. This is one of those.

(#919)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • As always, thanks to Mr & Mrs. Rum for the samples contained in their 2021 advent calendar, from which this rum originates.
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 own – a 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 cloying – sweet 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 want – neat 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!” immediately…but 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 years — versus a single rum and one vodka — clearly 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 022022
 

Distilling outfits from almost everywhere in the world take the names of their owners, their locations, or some romanticised word that appeals to the founder(s). Occasionally – and I’ve found this in Down Under quite a few times – a bit more sass and irreverence is in evidence, as witness “Robber’s Dog”, “Illegal Tender”, “Holey Dollar” or “Hoochery”, all the real names of real distilleries in Australia. I like that kind of insouciance, however irrelevant it might be to a review of this kind.

Today’s rum is from the interesting and rustically-titled Tin Shed Distilling Co which is primarily known for its whiskies (the UK’s Atom Brands has one from the distillery for the Australian series of That Boutique-y Whisky Co) but also has – as usual – gins (of course), vodkas (one of the owners has a cossack grandfather so…), and a small rum range that goes by the general name of of “Requiem”.  Now a requiem is a last mass of sorts – a prayer and tribute to the dead – and the intent here is for each limited expression to honour a ship and its sailors that went down at sea.  Thus far there are three expressions – the “MV Tom Brennan”, the “SV Songvaar” and the “S.S. Ferret” which last is the subject of this review (but about which, oddly, the company website has no historical details; see wikipedia if you’re curious). 1

Never mind that for now, though. The rum itself: molasses-based, fermented with dried yeast for just under a week, distilled in a nameless Australian-made 2,200 litre pot still and aged for six years in a single American Oak port cask, resulting in an outturn of about 300 bottles; released in 2019 and the recipient of four awards in the years since then. The company began operations in 2013, which means they were laying down the distillate that comprised this rum right from the get go, and clearly they were not hurting for cash flow in the interim if they could afford to wait that long for it to be good enough to release (unaged, two- and three-year-old rums are more common for new distilleries).

Photo (c) Tin Shed Distilling Co.

And it is definitely good enough. The quality such a relatively young rum displayed surprised me, though it does take some getting used to, because the nose has three main components weaving in and out and coiling around each other like a no-rules go-kart race, and that requires some adjustment.  First, there’s a sort of intense initial fruitiness comprising of pineapples, strawberries, unripe mangoes and green grapes. Secondly, there’s the cereal and dusty aroma of cardboard, old books, unswept rooms, second hand bookstores…and cheerios (I know how that sounds).  And thirdly, there’s a medicinal touch of iodine, pine-sol disinfectant and wet ashes, which is fortunately brief and replaced at the last by deeper cherries, syrup, apricots and a prune or two.  I particularly like the way it all winds up with a softer, more relaxed attitude than it starts with.

Even used as I am to rums clocking in north of sixty the relatively tame 46% ABV of this rum works really well – it feels soft yet firm, mouth coating, and lacking any of the dampening effect of added sugar such as defined and diminished some sweetened rums I had tried earlier that day. Mostly, the Requiem tastes of almost overripe and tart fruit: plums, raisins, prunes, blackberries, very dark and very ripe grapes, nicely balanced off by a touch of brine, olives and light soya. The finish is on par with all of this, being rather dry, but light, and channels aspects of what has come before: cereals, dates, brine, and an overripe yellow mango or two. 

It’s unusual for small startups to make such good rums on their first pass: perhaps I should have taken my cue from JimmyRum, which also produced something really good right from the start. I like this one for its well balanced taste and relatively complexity, which didn’t seem to be straining too hard or attempting too much or trying to please too many.

Admittedly, the Requiem S.S. Ferret Is not a “serious” rum in the sense that it’s made from ingredients fermented for a month using wild yeast, dunder pits and dead dingoes, jacked up past 70%, aged for a decade until it squirts congeners from every pore at a level that makes DOK lovers book pilgrimages to Adelaide. Yet it is a tasty and well assembled piece of work on its own merits and within its limits, because like most small distilleries, Tin Shed makes a point of its relentless and ongoing experimentation with the source materials and entire production process.  And while the gents running the show don’t hide their focus on whiskies, they did admit to me that they “should be making more rum.” That’s a sentiment with which I heartily concur, because on the basis of what I experienced with this one rum, Tin Shed is very serious indeed.

(#913)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Historical background

Tin Shed Distilling Co., was founded in 2013 just outside Adelaide in the state of South Australia by two friends, Ian Schmidt and Vic Orlow and built upon the experiences they had had in their previous venture, Southern Coast Distillers2, where they and a third friend, Tony Fitzgerald, established a whisky distillery (you can almost hear the joke start – “A German, Russian and an Irishman start a distillery….”). They did so in 2004 on the premises of the factory that made the flagpoles Schmidt was then manufacturing — he claimed it was “boring” and was looking for something new — and, like with Tin Shed years later, focused almost completely on whisky. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the venture did not pan out and Vic and Ian moved on to start Tin Shed – Southern Coast seems to be closed now, and only lives on in subtle aspects of the design ethic of the Shed’s bottles and labelling.


 

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 rum — as uncommon in Australia as almost everywhere else — it’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 passed — twice — through 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 and – I swear this is true – smoke, 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 palate – vanilla, 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 distilleries — who strive to find both their niche and that point of distinction that will set them apart — clearly 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 bearable — I would not throw this thing out of bed. Plus, it channeled enough fruitiness – orange marmalade, butter chocolates and gooseberries – to provide an interesting counterpoint. And I also liked the finish – it was hot and sweet black tea, crisply and sharply heavy, and fruitily tart, and slightly bitter in a way that wasn’t really unpleasant, just lent a distinctive accent to the close.  

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

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

(#908)(87/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

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