Sep 082022
 

The Bacardi Añejo “Cuatro” hews to all the markers of the long-running Gold and Añejo variations upon which its distillery’s fame rests.  It represents Bacardi in fine style, and those who pay the twenty five dollars or less it costs will find their comfort zone is well tended. Because, while it is a blend of mostly four year old rums (with some five and six year old rums mixed in), column still origin and filtered after ageing, the fact is that it represents the standards set by rums of yesteryear while positioning itself as an entry level almost-premium of today. Yeah…but no. There is not enough that’s original here.

Which is not to say it’s not pleasing by itself, within its limits, just that it has to be approached with some care, as it’s light to begin with, so the entire profile bends towards the subtle, not the club in the face. The nose, for example, is warm and gentle as befits a 40% light Cuban-style rum. It faithfully hits all the notes that made Bacardi famous – light caramel, cloves and brown sugar, some sharper tannins, tbacco and leather, interspersed with softer hints of banana, vanilla, green grapes, and perhaps some lemon and camomile tea thrown in.  Easy sniffing, gentle nosing, very pleasant, no aggro, no worries.

The same profile attends to the palate, which begins with some spiciness, but of course settles down fast.  It’s a bit rough around the edges – the dry and sharper woody tannic notes don’t mesh well with the leather, aromatic tobacco and unsweetened caramel – but overall the additional vanilla, citrus and banana tastes help it come together.  Some notes of black tea and condensed milk, a slight creaminess and then it’s on to a short, breathy finish that drifts languorously by, exhaling some sweet coffee and chocolate, a touch of molasses and freshly sawn lumber, and then it’s over.

To some extent the tasting notes as described say something about the pit of indifference into which the rum has fallen since its introduction. The issue is not that it’s good (or not), just that it’s not entirely clear what the points of it is. The gold or añejo of years past filled its duty admirably without going for an age statement, so why release the Cuatro at all?  Because it could eke out a few extra dollars? 

Summing up: the rum is okay, but in trying to be all things to all drinkers, falls into the trap of being neither great mixer not recommended sipper, being unsuited to fully satisfy either. For example, the filtration it undergoes removes the bite of youth and something of the biff-pow that a good mixing rum makes, and if that’s what it is, why not spend even less and go for the blanco or other even cheaper options? And at the other end, the age is too young to enthuse the connoisseur looking for a sipping rum – for such people, rightly or wrongly, sipping territory starts with rums older than five years, even ten…not four. 

Had Bacardi boosted the rum a few more proof points, aged it a bit more, then they might actually have had something new, even innovative — but rather than show a little courage and diversify into the bottom rung of premiums, Bacardi have copped out and played it safe. Since the Cuatro is not completely anonymous and does display some character, I suppose taken on its own terms it sort of kind of works — so long as you know and accept what those terms are.  I don’t, and couldn’t be bothered to find out, so it doesn’t work for me.

(#935)(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Opinion

These days, Bacardi rums just can’t cop a break. Ignored by most serious rum folk, relegated to consideration as a supermarket shelf filler without distinction, they are deemed bottom feeders that have corrupted the innocent palates of whole generations of broke and brainless college students and made them switch to whisky. Bacard’s very ubiquity and massive sales disguise their “good ‘nuff” quality, and have been behind its inability to be taken seriously in the modern age.  From once being seen as the pinnacle of rumdom in the 1950s and ‘60s, the spiritous peak to which all wannabe rum distilleries aspired, the rums of the company have fallen to “commodity” status, while a decade’s worth of young and nimble indies and micro upstarts have taken aim at it and started to chip away at the edifice.  And you’d better believe that just about nobody even bothers to rate (let alone review) their rums without an occasional scoff and guffaw. That’s what selling more cheap rums than just about anyone else on the planet gets you.

Which is not to say that Bacardi is in any danger of losing the coveted space on or near the top of the sales heap. The shyly accepted subsidies (“oh no, we really can’t, really….oh well, but if you insist…”) that are funnelled to them in the land of purportedly meritocratic capitalism via enormous tax breaks and the despised Cover-Over Tax, ensure that when a Bacardi rum goes up against any other of equivalent stats, the Bat will be orders of magnitude cheaper, even if it is of no more than equal or lesser value.

Bacardi rums have just about always been light column still blends (with some pot still juice of unknown amount in the mix). The company has never really gone the full-proof limited-release route (the 151 doesn’t really count and is in any case discontinued), and while they dabbled their toes into the water of the indie bottling scene, it made no sense for them to do it if they couldn’t do it at scale – which they won’t, for the same reasons DDL more or less gave up on the Rares…the margins were too slim for volumes that were too small. Even the hyped special editions like the Paraiso didn’t break any seriously new ground – sure they were good blends, but to my mind there was nothing that wasn’t available elsewhere for less, and that 40% and the NAS? Today’s customers will not blow the money those cost on a product like that – they’re going after the boutique market, an area that I maintain Bacardi has never managed to successfully break into.

Except, in a way, they did try, with the trio of aged expressions of which the Cuatro is the youngest.  To my mind, even with my rather dismissive tasting notes, these three rums – the Cuatro, the Ocho and the Diez – are among the better budget-minded rums the company makes. They lack the anonymity of the superior, the blanco, the gold or the dark (or variants thereof).  They’re priced reasonably to move, and they have that veneer of true ageing about them.  Given the lack of any ultra-aged high-proofed rums out there made by their company, these might be the best we can expect from Bacardi for a while.


 

Aug 282022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#933)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The website is admirably stuffed with production details, of which I have only taken a few bits and pieces. Some additional details provided by a very helpful Ms. Hoskin on short notice:
    • Montanya does not use fresh cane juice, as it is too difficult to transport from Lula in Louisiana. It is milled on site in Belle Rose and the fresh juice is processed there. Montanya receives 100% of what was in the cane plant in two separate forms which are subsequently recombined: raw unrefined molasses (12%) and raw unrefined granulated cane sugar (88%). The major difference is that these cane products never go to the refinery, so no processing with flocculants or other chemicals. It’s as raw, unadulterated and flavorful as you can get (and is akin to the panela of Mexico, or the unrefined sugar in kokuto shochu in Japan). It would be illegal to sell it in that form in a grocery store in the US.
    • Fermentation is open, water cooled, and lasts 6-7 days. The fermented wash goes into the still at about 17% ABV
    • Distillate comes off the still at about 74% ABV. Ms. Hoskin remarked in her email to me, “People say that can’t be done with alembics, but I am here to say it absolutely can.”
    • Barrelling is at still strength, no reduction. “[This]…is somewhat unusual. Many of my colleagues water their distillate down before it goes into the barrel at about 54 to 58% alcohol. I started doing it my way because I just didn’t have a big enough rack house, but now that I do, I can’t see any reason to change.”
  • My appreciation to the Skylark gents of Indy and Jazz Singh — the distributors of Montanya in the UK and the EU —  at whose residence I tried this rum (and quite a few others) in a small but epic Rum Show afterparty. I paid for my plunder with some rum loot of my own, and a special gift for them both from Mrs. Caner.
Apr 132022
 

Few in the rum world are unaware of the little rum company in Massachusetts called Privateer, so indelibly has it made its mark on the American rum scene. Maggie Campbell, the former master distiller there (as of late 2021 she is in Barbados working for Mount Gay) put her stamp on the company’s reputation quite firmly via a series of releases with evocative names like Distillers’ Drawer, Queen’s Share, Bottled in Bond and Letter of Marque (among others). And Privateer, like Velier, Savanna, Foursquare and others, had learnt of the value of limited editions, regularly released – they stoked excitement, tickled the collector’s avarice, and if one didn’t please, well, there was always another tweaked edition coming along soon.

After reaping many plaudits for their rums since opening for business in 2011, Privateer got yet another feather in its cap in 2020 when Velier sourced eight casks from them (three from 2016 and five from 2017). This purchase was for inclusion in the well-regarded and influential Habitation Velier series of pot still rums, and 1197 bottles of a blended 3 YO rum were released at 55.6% ABV in 2020. Whether the intersecting forces of a well-regarded (but young) American rum, pot stills and the imprimatur of Velier were or are enough to justify the price tag it commanded has dominated most discussions about the rum since it became available.

So let’s get right to it. Nose first, as always: it is straightforward with caramel bon bons,m toffee and light molasses, underlain by very light floral hints.  Vanilla and lots of tannins and wood sap jostle rudely alongside, and with some effort, after a while, you get some fruity elements – cherries, yellow mangoes (the Indian or Sri Lankan kind with that odd tart snap to the aroma that always reminds me of sharp crackling ozone) and peaches – but it’s something of a thin soup with too much bite, like one of those scrawny rice- eating flea-bitten mongrels from the ghetto that snap as soon as look at you.

The palate is better, perhaps because by now you’re used to things as they are and adjusted. Here we have nuts, peaches, syrup, more vanilla, more tannins (though not as overbearing) and a rum that feels more solid, thicker, more emphatic. Some unsweetened chocolate and bitter coffee left too long in the percolator round out the profile.  The whole thing comes to an end with a finish that is satisfactorily long, nutty with sweet/salt caramel notes, and a final touch of fruit to give it some semblance of complexity.

Speaking for myself I think this is a rum that’s still too young, and there’s really not enough depth. The rum has presence, sure, but what in some rums is a good thing (a few core flavours, masterfully assembled) here just feels like an uneasily married series of pieces jumbled together. The strength is too high for what it attempts (not often I say that, admittedly) and the oak is very noticeable. That said, the Privateer 2017 is a rum that many Americans might like due to its better-than-usual quality (for them) and its proximity to a bourbon (which would also draw in lovers of Foursquare) — while others elsewhere would shrug it off for the same reasons.

So far, I have not been completely won over by Privateer in spite of the accolades and social media praises (which is not to say that Maggie Campbell doesn’t earn her coverage – she does). Although their rums are excellent for their milieu where there’s a much lower bar to clear, by the exacting standards of world famous rons, rums and rhums I’ve tried, they still have a ways to go. But then, in making any kind of generalised statements about the company’s products, I do too, so this review is by no means the last word on Privateer’s rums, just my solo take on this one.

(#899)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

Jan 312022
 

Rumaniacs Review #132 | 880

The exact date of make of this Hawaiian rum is a little tricky: the NZ Canterbury Museum notes it as “circa” 1960s and there are old magazine advertisements for sale online which mention it, dating from 1967 and after, so that dovetails neatly with internal Seagram’s records dating the creation date of the rum to 1965. It was made in time for the Montreal World’s Fair, also known as Expo 1967, and designed to speak to Canada’s desire to move away from its staid British past and embrace a more multicultural mindset. This was done (or so the thinking in the C-suite probably went) by making a more neutral tasting rum that chased the emergent move from the distinct shot to the anonymous long pour in the post war years, and to add something a little exotic to the portfolio. They handed it off to one of their subsidiaries in the US, since “exoticism” and “Canada” were hardly synonymous at the time.

Calvert Distillers Corporation — the maker of record on the bottle label but actually acting as more of a distributor for the Leilani branded rum — was founded in August 1934 as a holding company for the Calvert Distilling Company and Maryland Distillery (both of which were, of course, older companies) and was acquired the same year by the Canadian spirits company Seagram-Distillers Corporation. Calvert was combined with its other subsidiaries in 1954, and Seagram’s itself was sold off piecemeal between 2000 and 2002 to Vivendi, Pernod Ricard, Diageo and the Coca-Cola Company. By then the Leilani had long since been discontinued. Most online listings now refer to either mini bottles, or old advertisements.

So Seagram’s and Calvert were the official companies involved in the brand.  Which distillery — Hawaiian or otherwise — made the Leilani rum is more difficult since distilleries now in existence on the islands all seem to have been founded after 1980 (and in many cases after 2000).  Of course, full disclosure being so much less prevalent back in the day, it is entirely possible the rum was made elsewhere and just branded as Hawaiian, but for the moment, the jury is out on this.

Colour – Pale yellow

Strength – 40% | 80 Proof

Nose – Sharp, crisp, light and clear.  Lemony notes of zest and 7-Up, mangoes, unripe strawberries, pineapple and vanilla, and that’s the good part.  There are also less desirable aromas of  gasoline (!!), scallions and (get this) an indifferently done steak overspiced with salt and black pepper and heaped up with melted butter and green peas.

Palate – Lemon meringue pie, some brininess, vanilla, pears, peas, vague fruit juices and more mineral and smoke notes of some kind of charred wood.  It’s a touch sweet, and can be mixed reasonably well, but nobody would ever think this is a sipping rum.

Finish – Light, easy, calms down a fair bit, mostly pears, lemon zest, some Fisherman’s Friend cough drops and vanilla. I’m surprised to get that much.

Thoughts – The rum was, of course, made for cocktails, not for any kind of sipping. Still, for a light rum bottled half a century ago and made to chase a mix (and oh yeah, to take on Bacardi), it holds up surprisingly well, and I kinda-sorta liked it. It is very light and wispy, so it was probably the right decision to have it as part of my first tasting of the day, before moving on to something stronger. I really wish I knew more about its production, because it actually reminds me of a cane juice rhum, an agricole, and it would be interesting to know if it was or not, what still it came off of, and whether it was aged. 

(76/100) ⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • When we spoke, Martin Cate also mentioned his own belief that the rum was not made in Hawaii, because “I don’t think there was a facility to make that much column rum in the islands at that time. My guess is that it was bulk from PR or possibly from WIRD since Seagrams had a long relationship with WIRD over the years.”
Feb 272020
 

It must be something intrinsic to the USA and their commercial distilling culture, that almost every distillery I’ve come across seems to like making ten different thing off their apparatus.  It’s as if they view a single point of focus, a single product line, as an anathema – a still must be multipurpose, and work to earn its keep by wringing the maximum different amount of spirits out of it.  And this leads to my oft-repeated remark that American distillers seem to like making whiskies, gins, vodkas and other stuff — and produce rum not because of real love for the spirit but as a sort of afterthought to round out the portfolio and provide some immediate cash flow while their hoped-for next Pappy is ageing.

Mad River out of Vermont is no exception to this. In fact, while originally thinking of starting a winery, they finally settled on getting a distillation setup to produce what they really wanted to make – a brandy. Yet, oddly, after sourcing their Muller still from Germany, the first thing off that still in 2013 was a rum, the First Run, and went on from there to make bourbon, rye, and other types of rum — including a silver American “Demerara” (so named probably because it’s made from Demerara sugar, and I have a feeling there’s a potential trademark violation accusation there somewhere if DDL ever hears about it)…and, of course, apple brandy.

The PX is one of their stable of rums, which also includes a Maple-Cask aged rum, the aforementioned First Run and a flavoured vanilla variant. The PX is a single-column-still distillate, aged in toasted and charred barrels, finished in Pedro Ximinez casks (not idea how long in any of these) and released at 46% ABV.  

These bare bones facts obscure a multitude of small issues. For one, they call it a “Demerara-based” rum and remark that the sugar they source is fair-trade certified, but what that means is that it’s a rum made with brown sugar of unstated provenance – if it came from Guyana, which is the only country which can sell a sugar with the word “Demerara” on it, “fair trade” would be an unnecessary statement. For me then, this rum skirts right on the edge of my personal belief idea that a rum should state its origins clearly, and should come from fresh-pressed juice, or molasses…not from sugar itself. The ageing is also never spelled out on the bottle or the website – not the ageing of the base rum, nor the duration of the finishing in PX. We have no idea what the complete outturn is, therefore grading the words “Limited Edition” is impossible. And so these niggling omissions in turn cast doubts (mine) on the “scrappy independent,” “we love what we do” origin story on their website, which I’ve learned the hard way to always regard with some skepticism.

But enough.  Let’s move on to the rum itself and what it tastes like, grade it on how it actually is. Is this a rum that’s up and coming, preparing to take its place as one of the USA’s unsung heroes, a nimble fast-moving upstart ready to take on all comers and make the Caribbean producers look anxiously to their nethers?

Not quite…though it is interesting.  It starts off on the nose with woodchips, sawdust, glue, and old books in a musty library. The fruits start in the background and then slowly gather strength – these are sweet prunes and ripe peaches for the most part, leavened with vanilla, blancmange, some nuttiness and cereals, figs, cloves and raw damp tobacco leaves. The odd thing about it is that it starts nicely but fades away really quickly, so its evanescence is a disappointment — just as I’m coming to grips with it, it vanishes like it’s middle name is Cheshire.

The palate is also somewhat disappointing. The initial tastes are all there – dark fruits, raisins, prunes — but they’re thin and green, not really very precise or dialled-in, more like a mishmash of poorly coordinated soft stuff thrown at a wall. There’s also coffee grounds, tobacco and dark bitter chocolate, more cloves, and in this respect it reminds me a lot of the Dictador 20 or their Best of 1977 – except that it seems lighter, and drier, not quite as polished. As for the finish, that’s simply underwhelming — short and indeterminate, almost indifferent. There’s some tobacco, pancake syrup, vague fruits, smoke, maple sugar, all wispy and vague, here one second and gone the next.

The PX influence is noticeable in the fruitiness, nuttiness and some of the drier aspects of the rum — beyond that, I can’t say there’s much to enthuse. The nose is clearly the best part of the experience, yet even with that, it’s not the sort of rum that encourages sedate evening sipping while watching the sun  go down and discussing the nature of the rumiverse. Part of that is the way the balance feels off, and the tastes and aromas don’t really pop, or mesh particularly well. You’re left feeling this is an essay in the craft, with a few interesting flavours that ultimately fail to cohere, leaving a muddled experience you don’t know what to do with when it’s done. Hardly enough for an unqualified recommendation.

(#705)(76/100)


Other Notes:


Opinion

My point about the jumping all over the spirits-production map, making various different spirits and not settling on one, is merely an observation, not a criticism; and not meant to diss a self-evident enthusiasm for the work, or the commercial realities all such little businesses in the USA must overcome.  After all, the Caribbean rum producers are single-mindedly focused on rums because they started form a base of sugar and molasses which were produced right there, and moved on from that point. American distillers mostly lack this geographic-agricultural advantage. Too, being a single-product producer carries risk: money is tied up in this thing and if sales lag, the enterprise could founder – so the incentive to spread that risk by making several products which can all sell to different market segments, is great.  But what it also does is diversify expertise – and the long, tedious, kaizen-like approach to learning and experimentation and gradual increase in knowledge and skill and quality of the one product they’ve hung their hat on – the way, for example, Mhoba’s founder tinkered for ages to get his stuff right – is missing.

That’s very likely why I have, so far, not seen much in the American rum industry to enthuse me. The rums most make are competent and occasionally interesting, yet don’t wow my socks off (at least, not yet). My experience thus far has been that those who go the whole hog and deal with rum as their primary spirit — not as some kind of adjunct —  tend to do better qualitatively than those who try to do too much. Privateer is one such, Montanya is another, Richland and Pritchards are always intriguing, and there are more.  But I have a feeling that if the Law of Mediocrity holds true, then the low to middling quality of all those American rums that have crossed my path over the last ten years (mostly by pure happenstance) define the majority of rums made there; and the companies I have named with products that really make a splash, are the outliers, the leading edges of the bell curve. Only time will tell if that feeling is accurate.

Dec 082019
 

If you want to know why American supermarket rums (sometimes called “value rums” which is two lies at once) get such short shrift from so many rum folks, one like this is enough to explain the general indifference. It’s milquetoast, vague, with not a single point of interest, and that’s including the equally lackluster promotion that surrounds it.

Let’s start at the beginning.  What is it, who makes it, where’s it from? We must begin with the label, which unfortunately just makes me want to cringe.  No really. 

For starters, it’s noted as a “Caribbean Style rum”. That’s about as useful as perfumery to a hog, as Tolstoy once remarked. Clearly the makers assume a level of ignorance of their customer base that is off the scale, since exactly what is that?  Even Dave Broom in his seminal book “Rum” where he addressed that very question, backed away in horror at lumping all rums from the region together as “Caribbean.” So, we talking Guyana, Cuban, French Island, Jamaican, Barbadian? Nope. Won’t work. Useless.

Next word: “Black”. Baby Rum Jesus help us.  Long discredited as a way to classify rum, and if you are curious as to why, I refer you to Matt’s takedown of the matter, and anyway – the rum isn’t black, but dark brown.  Then “A smooth Caribbean flavour with a distinctive taste for every palate.” Clearly we’re living back in Henry Ford’s time, where you can have any taste you want as long as it’s black.  The irony of the statement is compounded by the fact that if it’s really distinctive, it cannot by definition appeal to every palate. 

About the only thing we can take as a reasonable fact is the bottom part, where we see the rum is bottled by the “Ron Carlos Company de Licores, Auburndale Florida.”.  Excellent. Who’re they? Google it and you’ll be directed to Florida Caribbean Distillers which is a massive industrial facility producing 188 proof near-neutral spirit (from various sources including cane) and reselling as bulk that around the world. And if the company name sounds familiar, it should be – this is the same multi-column-still factory contracted to make the Noxx & Dunn 2-4-5 Florida and the Florida Old Reserve rum I wrote about a year or two back.

Clearly this does less than enthuse me, but the Caner is nothing if not moronically persistent in the face of absurdity, so I gird up my loins and hoist my trusty glass and take one for the team so that you lot won’t have to.

It starts off in unspectacular fashion with very light caramel, chocolate, coffee and flambeed bananas.  Some molasses pokes its head up like a gopher scanning for predators, then disappears, and there’s some citrus chittering waway in the background, too faint to make any kind of statement or balance off the thicker aromas in any significant way.  You can sorta kinda sense some bubble gum and soda pop, sweet and fleeting, and that’s about it. About par for a 40% column still rum, to be honest.

The palate sinks the rum further.  Oh, it’s so bad, so weak, so thin, so forgettable. All the notes from the nose prance and clump around with cement overshoes and no balance – chocolate, coffee, nougat, caramel, molasses and some raisins, and after a few hours (here’s where I started to reach out in desperation) some kiwi fruit and papayas. It’s a near neutral, all-neutered spirit, and whether they aged it or not is irrelevant, really – it’s just plain boring. As for the finish, well, it’s finished.  It’s so faint as to be nonexistent, and I’m at a loss to tell you what it is I just had.  

There’s something going on here under the hood – I think.  It’s really a question of whether you’re sensitive enough to spot it and then, if you scale that hurdle, can identify what it is you got, ‘cause this sucker isn’t giving up anything easy.  You’ll strain long and hard to make this rum wannabe surrender its unexceptional secrets, and frankly, I don’t think it has much to give up in the first place (except maybe a dash of alcohol into a cheap punch). Even if you’re on a budget, you can find better for the same price, and as for me, if I was in a bar this was all they had, I’d pay ‘em to make me not drink it.

(#682)(72/100)


Other notes

  • On proof66, in a 2018 comment, it notes that “All Ron Carlos Rums now are being made in Puerto Rico by Club Caribe Distllers and bottled in Florida.” The poster opined that they’re better now than they were, and give Bacardi a run for its money.  I chose to doubt that. 
  • As a point of interest, FCD controls the Caribe Distillery. Their primary market for rums is cruise lines, duty free shops, bulk sales elsewhere and contract rum creation (like Scheer does), alongside many other distilled spirits and brands.
  • Given the absence of current references to the Black rum reviewed here, it’s possible that it morphed into the “Dark” and was further rebranded into the “Gold”, but evidence is somewhat lacking. I still have not been able to ascertain whether it’s been aged, but from the profile, I would suggest maybe one or two years.
  • Neutral alcohol, neutral spirits spirits, or rectified spirits, are generally  considered to be alcohol at 95% ABV or greater.
Oct 232019
 

soma online

For all the faux-evasions about “a historic 250 year old Jamaican distillery” and the hints on the website, let’s not dick around – the Stolen Overproof is a Hampden Estate rum. You can disregard all the marketing adjectives and descriptors like “undiscovered”, “handmade” etc etc and just focus on what it is: a New Jamaican pot still rum, released at a tonsil-chewing 61.5%, aged six years and remarkably underpriced for what it is.

The Stolen Overproof has gotten favourable press from across the board almost without exception since its launch, even if there are few formal (i.e., review-website based) ones from the US itself — perhaps that’s because there’s no-one left writing essay-style rum reviews there these days except Paul Senft, and shorter ones from various Redditors (here, here, here and here). In my opinion, this is a rum that takes its place in the mid-range area right next to Rum Bar, Rum Fire, Smith & Cross and Dr. Bird — and snaps at the heels of Habitation Velier’s 2010 HLCF, of which this is not a cousin, but an actual brother. 

If you doubt me, permit me to offer you a glass of this stuff, as my old-schoolfriend and sometime rum-chum Cecil R. did when he passed me a sample and insisted I try it. You’d think that Stolen Spirits, a company founded in 2010 which has released some underwhelming underpoofs and “smoked” rums was hardly one to warrant serious consideration, but this rum changed my mind in a hurry, and it’ll likely surprise you as well.

soma online pharmacyThe nose was pure Jamaica, pure funk. It was dusty, briny, glue-y and wine-y, sharp and sweet and acidic. and redolent of a massive parade of fruits that came stomping through the nose with cheerful abandon. Peaches in syrup, near-ripe mangoes, guavas, pineapple, all dusted with a little salt and black pepper.  It held not only these sharpish tart fruits but raisins, flambeed bananas, red currants, and as it opened further is also provided the lighter crispness of fanta, bubble-gum and flowers.  

The rum is dark gold in the glass, 61.5% of high-test hooch and a Hampden, so a fierce palate is almost a given.  Nor did it disappoint: it was sharp, with gasoline (!!), glue, acetones and olive oil charging right out of the gate.  It tasted of fuel oil, coconut shavings, wet ashes, salt and pepper, slight molasses, tobacco and pancakes drenched in sweet syrup, cashew nuts…and bags and bags of fruit and other flavours, marching in stately order, one by one, past your senses – green apples, grapes, cloves, red currants, strawberries, ripe pineapples, soursop, lemon zest, burnt sugar cane, salt caramel and toffee.  Damn – that was quite a handful. Even the finish – long and heated – added something: licorice, bubble gum, apples, pineapple and damp, fresh sawdust.

So, whew, deep breath.  That’s quite a rum, representing the island in really fine style. I mean, the only way you’re getting closer to Jamaica without actually being there is to hug Christelle Harris in Brooklyn (which won’t get you drunk and might be a lot more fun, but also earn you a fight with everyone else around her who was thinking of doing the same thing).  Essentially, it’s a Jamaican flavour bomb and the other remarkable thing about it is who made it, and from where.

The Stolen Overproof is an indie bottling — the company was formed in 2010 in New Zealand, and seems to be a primarily US based op these days — and the story I heard was that somehow they laid hands on some barrels of Hampden distillate way back in 2016 (Scott Ferguson mentions it was 5000 cases in his video review) and brought it to market. This is fairly recently, you might say, but even a mere three years ago, Hampden was not a household name, having just launched themselves into the global marketplace, and Velier’s 2010 6 YO HLCF only reached the greater rum audience in 2017 – apparently this rum is from the same batch of barrels.  The Stolen is still relatively affordable if you can find it (US$18 for a 375ml bottle), and my only guess is that they literally did not know what they had and put a standard markup on the rum, never imagining how huge Jamaica rum of this kind would become in the years ahead. 

When discussing Bacardi’s near-forgotten foray into limited bottlings, I remarked that just because you slap a Jamaican distillery name on a label does not mean you instantly have a great juice. But the reverse can also be true: you can have an almost-unobserved release of an unidentified Jamaican rum from a near-unknown third-tier bottler, and done right and done well, it’ll do its best to wow your socks off. This is one of those.

(#669)(85/100)


Other Notes

60,000 1/2 sized 375ml bottles were issued, so ~22,500 liters. All ageing was confirmed to be at Hampden Estate.


Opinion, somewhat tangential to the review….

If you want to know why I generally disregard the scorings and opinions on Rum Ratings, searching for this rum tells you why.  This is a really good piece of work that’s been on the market for three years, and on that site and in all that time, it has garnered a rich and varied total of six scores – one 9-pointer, three at 7 points, one of 4 … and Joola69’s rating of 1. “Just another Jamaican glue and funk rum” he sneered rather contemptuously from the commanding heights of his 2,350 other rum ratings (the top choices of which are mostly devoted to Spanish/Latin column still spirits). If you want a contrary opinion that indicts the New Jamaicans as a class, there’s one for you.

Certainly such rums as the gentleman champions have their place and they remain great sellers and crowd pleasing favourites. But really good rums should — and do — adhere to rather higher standards than just pleasing everyone with soft sweet smoothness, and in this case, a dismissive remark like the one made simply shows the author does not know what good rums have developed into, and, sadly, that having scored more than 2000 rums hasn’t improved or changed his outlook.  Which is bad for all those who blindly follow and therefore never try a rum like these New Jamaicans, but good for the rest of us who can now get more of the good stuff for ourselves. Perhaps I should be more grateful.

Sep 192019
 

Much of the perception of small and new companies’ rums is tied up in their founders and how they interact with the general public. Perhaps nowhere is this both easier and harder to do than in the United States – easier because of the “plucky little engine that could” mythos of the solo tinkerer, harder because of the sheer geographical scale of the country. Too, it’s one thing to make a new rum, quite another to get a Je m’en fous public of Rhett Butlers to give a damn.  And this is why the chatterati and online punditocracy barely know any of the hundreds of small distilleries making rum in the USA (listed with such patience by the Burrs and Will Hoekenga in their websites)…but are often very much aware of the colourful founders of such enterprises.

That said, even within this ocean of relative indifference, a few companies and names stand out.  We’ve been hearing more about Montanya Distillery and master blender Karen Hoskin, everyone knows about Bailey Prior and the Real McCoy line, Lost Spirits may have faded from view but has great name recognition, Koloa has been making rum for ages, Pritchard’s and Richland are almost Old Stalwarts these days, the Eastern seaboard has its fair share of up and coming little rinky-dinks…and then there’s Privateer and its driven, enthusiastic, always-engaged master blender, Maggie Campbell, whose sense of humour can be gauged by her Instagram handle, “Half Pint Maggie.”

Privateer was formed by Andrew Cabot after he walked away from his tech-CEO day job in 2008 and decided to try his hand at making a really good American rum, something many considered to be a contradiction in terms (some still do). In 2011 he opened a distillery in an industrial park in Ipswich, Massachusetts but dissatisfied with initial results sniffed around for a master distiller who could deliver on his vision, and picked a then-unemployed Ms. Cambell who had distilling experience with whiskey and brandy (and cognac), and she has stayed with the company ever since. The rum is made from grade A molasses, and is twice distilled, once in a pot and once in a columnar still, before being laid to rest in charred american oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The company’s ethos is one of no additives and no messing around, which I’m perfectly happy to take on trust.

So, all that done away with, what’s this Navy Yard rum, which was first introduced back in 2016, actually like?  

Well, not bad at all. Each of the three times I tried the rum, the first thing out the door was sawdust and faint pencil shavings, swiftly dissipating to be replaced by vanilla, crushed walnuts and almonds, salted butter, caramel, butterscotch, a touch of the molasses brush, and the faintest tinge of orange peel.  What is surprising about this admittedly standard and straightforward – even simplistic – profile is how well it comes together in spite of the lack of clearly evident spices, fruits and high notes that would balance it off better. I mean, it works – on its own level, true, dancing to its own beat, yes, a little off-kilter and nothing over-the-top complex, sure…but it works. It’s a solid, aromatic dram to sniff.

The mouthfeel is quite good, one hardly feels the burn of navy strength 57.1%…at least not initially. When sipped, at first it feels warm and oily, redolent of aromatic tobacco, tart sour cream on a fruit salad (aha! – there they were!) composed of blueberries, raspberries and unripe peaches.  Vanilla remains omnipresent and unavoidable, but it does recede somewhat and tries hard not to be obnoxious – a more powerful presence might derail this rum for good. As it develops the spiciness ratchets up without ever going overboard (although it does feel a bit thinner than the nose and the ABV had suggested it would be), and gradually dates and brine and olives and figs make themselves known. The rather dry finish comes gradually and takes its time without providing anything new, summing up the whole experience decently – with salted caramel, vanilla, butter, cereal, anise and a hint of fruits — and for me, it was a diminution of the positive experience of the nose and taste.

Overall, it’s a good young rum which shows its blended philosophy and charred barrel origins clearly. This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength in that it’s well blended, the edges of pot and column merging seamlessly; it’s tasty and strong, with just a few flavours coming together. What it lacked was the complexity and depth a few more years of ageing might have imparted, and a series of crisper, fruitier notes that might balance it off better; and as I’ve said, the char provided a surfeit of vanilla, which was always too much in the front to appeal to me.

I’ve often remarked about American spirits producers who make rum, that rum seems to be something of a sideline to them, a cheaply-made cash filler to make ends meet while the whiskies that are their true priorities are ageing.  That’s not the case here because the company has been resolutely rum-focused from eight o’clock, Day One – but when I tasted it, I was surprised to be reminded of the Balcones rum from Texas, with which it shared quite a lot of textural and aromatic similarities, and to some extent also the blended pot/column Barbadian rums with which Foursquare has had such success (more Doorly’s than ECS, for the curious). That speaks well for the rum and its brothers up and down the line, and it’s clear that there’s nothing half-pint or half-assed about the Navy Yard or Privateer at all.  For me, this rum is not at the top of the heap when rated globally, but it is one of the better ones I’ve had from the US specifically.  What it achieves is to make me want to try others from the company, pronto, and if that isn’t the sure sign of success by a master distiller, then I don’t know what is.

(#658)(83/100)


Opinion

After I wrote the above, I wondered about the discrepancy in my own perception of the Navy Yard, versus the really positive commentaries I’d read, both on social media and the few reviews others had written (94 points on Distiller, for example, and Drink Insider rated it 92 with nary a negative note anywhere on FB). Now, there is as yet no reviewer or commentator outside the US who has written about the Navy Yard (or others in the line), partly because its distribution remains there; those who did really went ape for the thing, some going so far as to call it the best american rum, so why didn’t I like it more?  

The only answer I can come up with that isn’t directly related to my own palate and experience tasting rums from around the world, is that they are not coming to Privateer with the same background as others are, or I do. The sad Sahara of what is euphemistically called “rum choice” in the US, a resultant of the three-tier distribution dysfunction they amusingly call a “system”, promotes a rum selection of cheap quantity, but so denuded of real quality that when the girl next door makes something so much better than the mass-produced crap that masquerades as top-drawer rum over there, it just overloads the circuits of the local tippling class, and the points roll in like chips at a winning table in Vegas. 

This is not in any way to take away from the achievement of Maggie Cambpbell and others like her, who work tirelessly every day to raise the low bar of American rumdom. Reading around and paying attention makes it clear that Ms. Campbell is a knowledgeable and educated rum junkie, making rum to her own specs, and releasing juice that’s a step above many other US brands. The next step is to make it even better so that it takes on better known Names from around the world which – for now – rate higher. Given her fierce commitment to the brand and the various iterations they’re putting out the door, I have no doubt there will be much more to come from Privateer and I look forward to the day when the company’s hooch muscles its way to the forefront of the global rum scene, and not just America’s.


Other Notes

I drew on Matt Pietrek’s deep dive for some of the biographical details, as well as articles on Thrillist, Imbibe and various posts about Privateer on FB. Details of the company, Ms. Campbell and the distillation steps can be found both Matt’s work and t8ke’s review, here.  This is one of those cases where there’s so much information washing around that a synopsis is all that’s needed here, and if your interest has been piqued, follow the links to go deeper.

Aug 122019
 

Last week, I remarked briefly on persons who are famous or excel in some aspect of their lives, who then go off an lend their names to another product, like spirits – Blackwell was one of these, George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila is another, Bailey Pryor’s Real McCoy line might be among the best known, and here is one that crossed my path not too long ago, a Hawaiian white rum made with the imprimatur of Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar who maintains a residence on Maui and has long been involved in restaurants and spirits (like Cabo Wabo tequila) as a sideline from the gigs for which he is more famous.

It’s always a toss-up whether the visibility and “fame” of such a rum is canny branding / marketing or something real, since the advertising around the associated Name usually swamps any intrinsic quality the spirit might have had to begin with. There’s a fair amount of under-the-hood background (or lack thereof) to the production of this rum, but for the moment, I want to quickly get to the tasting notes, just to get that out of the way.

First off, it’s a 40% rum, white, and filtered, so the real question is what’s the source? The back label remarks that it’s made from “first pressing of virgin Maui sugar cane” (as opposed to the slutty non-Catholic kind of cane, I’m guessing) but the YouTube video (timestamp 1:02) that promotes it suggests brown sugar (which is true) so, I dunno.  Whatever the case, it really does smell more like an agricole than a molasses-based rum: it starts, for example, with soda pop – sprite, fanta – adds bubble gum and lemon zest, and has a sort of vegetal grassy note that makes me think that the word “green” is not entirely out of place. Also iced tea with a mint leaf, and the tartness of ginnip and gooseberries.  It’s also surprisingly sharp for something at standard strength, though not enough to be annoying. 

In that promotional video, Mr. Hagar says that the most distinct thing about the rum is the nose, and I believe it, because the palate pretty much fails by simply being too weak and insufficient to carry the promise of the nose on to the tongue in any meaningful way. It’s sharp and thin, quite clear, and tastes of lemon rind, pickled gherkins, freshly mown grass, sugar water, cane juice, and with the slightly off background of really good olive oil backing it up.  But really, at end, there’s not much really there, no real complexity, and all of it goes away fast, leaving no serious aftertaste to mull over and savour and enjoy. The finish circles back to the beginning and the sense of sprite / 7-up, a bit of grass and a touch of light citrus, just not enough to provide a serious impression of any kind.

This is not really a rum to have by itself.  It’s too meek and mild, and sort of presents like an agricole that isn’t, a dry Riesling or a low-rent cachaca minus the Brazilian woods, which makes one wonder how it got made to taste that way.

And therein lies something of an issue because nowhere are the production details clearly spelled out.  Let’s start at the beginning: Mr. Hagar does not own a distillery. Instead, like Bailey Pryor, he contracts out the manufacture of the rum to another outfit, Hali’imaile Distilling, which was established in 2010 on Maui – the owners were involved in a less than stellar rum brand called Whaler’s which I personally disliked intensely.  They in turn make a series of spirits – whiskey, vodka, gin, rum – under a brand called Pau, and what instantly makes me uneasy is that for all the bright and sparkling website videos and photos, the “History” page remarks that pineapple is used as a source material for their vodka, rum is not mentioned, and cane is nowhere noted as being utilized; note, though, that Mr. Hagar’s video mentions sugar cane and brown sugar without further elaboration, and the Hali’imaile Distilling Company did confirm they use a mash of turbinado sugar.  However, in late 2016 Hali’imaile no longer makes the Sammy’s rum.  In that year the sugar mill on Maui closed and production was shifted to Puerto Rico’s Seralles distillery, which also makes the Don Q brand – so pay close attention to your label, to see if you got a newer version of the rum, or the older Hawaiian one. Note that Levecke, the parent company of Hali’imaile, continues to be responsible for the bottling.

With some exceptions, American distillers and their rums seem to operate along such lines of “less is more” — the exceptions are usually where owners are directly involved in their production processes, ultimate products and the brands. The more supermarket-level rums give less information and expect more sales, based on slick websites, well-known promoters, unverifiable-but-wonderful origin stories and enthusiastic endorsements.  Too often such rums (even ones labelled “Super Premium” like this one) when looked at in depth, show nothing but a hollow shell and a sadly lacking depth of quality. I can’t entirely say that about the Beach Bar Rum – it does have some nice and light notes, does not taste added-to and is not unpleasant in any major way – but the lack of information behind how it is made, and its low-key profile, makes me want to use it only for exactly what it is made: not neat, and not to share with my rum chums — just as a relatively unexceptional daiquiri ingredient.

(#650)(72/100)


Other notes

  • The rum is filtered but I am unable to say whether it has been aged. The video by Let’s Tiki speaks of an oak taste that I did not detect myself.
Mar 062019
 

So here we have a rum I’ve never heard of before, made by an outfit called Florida Caribbean Distillers (FCD) in (where else?) Florida. For those with better memories than mine, if the company name sounds familiar, it should be – this is the same one that is contracted to make the Noxx & Dunn 2-4-5 Florida rum I wrote about a few months ago.

FCD is located halfway between Orlando and Tampa: they control the Club Caribe Distillery in Puerto Rico, as well as distilleries in Lake Alfred and Auburndale (both in Florida – the latter distillery produces this rum).  They are the oldest continuously running distillery in the US, being formed in 1943, and (somewhat to my surprise) said to be the largest rum producer in the US, bottle all rum for Cruzan and several smaller labels for contract clients including cruise lines and duty free shops as well as providing distillation, storage, ageing and bottling facilities as part of their service.

They make a bunch of other spirits as well – liqueurs, wines, vodkas, whiskies et al, which means that focus on true batch and artisanal production is not part of the programme. So if you’re looking for some kind of pot-still originality from a leaky, farty backwoods micro-distillery run by a grizzled old salt legalizing his moonshine, or a spanking new copper thing bolted together by an eager-beaver yuppie with the ink barely dry on his MBA and a strong minor in ecological distilling, well, this isn’t really either of those things.

What it is, is a blend of “select rums” aged two years in sherry casks, issued at 42% and gold-coloured. One can surmise that the source of the molasses is the same as the Noxx & Dunn, cane grown in the state.  Everything else on the front and back labels can be ignored, especially the whole business about being “hand-crafted,” “small batch” and a “true Florida rum” – because those things give the misleading impression this is indeed some kind of artisan product, when it’s pretty much a low-end rum made in bulk from column still distillate; and I personally think is neutral spirit that’s subsequently aged and maybe coloured (though they deny any additives in the rum).

Anyway, tasting notes: the nose is the best part, stop reading if that’s all you need. Nutty cereals and salt crackers with cream cheese.  Citrus, flowers, brine and pickled gherkins in balsamic vinegar.. Soft and creamy, quite unaggressive, but tasty enough. Some white chocolate, brown sugar, cinnamon, but the overarching aromatic notes are the salt of maggi cubes and avocados.

To taste it’s disappointing, and leaves me wondering where the sherry influence went and hid itself. There’s some good stuff going on when you smell it, but to taste it wimps out and goes flat as spit on a hot rock.  There’s traces of oaken tannins, salt, caramel, a hint of white fruits, grapes, unsweetened chocolate. Also cereals, nuts, toffee, with a faint line of citrus twittering in the background, nothing really noticeable unless you concentrate.  All in all, it’s actually quite simple, and tastes very young, even a bit harsh, untamed (and not in the way an unaged white does). This jagged bite carries over into the finish as well, which really could use some taming, and gives little beyond some very light fruits and florals, and a last briny note.

For my money, the Florida Old Reserve Rum is not strong enough to make a statement, not old enough to demonstrate real complexity, not distinct enough in any way to perk up a cocktail; and the sherry cask ageing?….well, it’s something of a challenge to find traces of it at all. Tried blind, I doubt you’d notice its absence (or presence, or care). What it seems to be is something of a product that showcases what the distillery can do for others and maybe to bootstrap industrial scale rum making so effectively done by Bacardi.  Well, say what you will about The Bat, they at least can make decent rums. Here, I’d say that a lot more work needs to be done.

What really amazes me, in doing my background notes, is that the Beverage Tasting Institute gave the rum 93 points in 2014 and 88 in 2016.  Leaving aside the drop in scores over a two year span, one can only wonder what sort of sample set they had and what they were comparing it against, to give such a rating to something this unexceptional. If it was up to me I’d never drink the Reserve neat, and mix it without ceremony — always assuming I bought a bottle in the first place, and that’s really unlikely, now that I’ve tried it.  

(#605)(72/100)

Dec 222018
 

We don’t much associate the USA with cask strength rums, though of course they do exist, and the country has a long history with the spirit.  These days, even allowing for a swelling wave of rum appreciation here and there, the US rum market seems to be primarily made up of low-end mass-market hooch from massive conglomerates at one end, and micro-distilleries of wildly varying output quality at the other. It’s the micros which interest me, because the US doesn’t do “independent bottlers” as such – they do this, and that makes things interesting, since one never knows what new and amazing juice may be lurking just around the corner, made with whatever bathtub-and-shower-nozzle-held-together-with-duct-tape distillery apparatus they’ve slapped together.

Balcones, a central Texan outfit from Waco named after a fault line running through the southern half of the state, is a bit more than the kind of happy backyard operation my remarks above imply — they are a primarily whiskey distilling operation, started a decade ago, and their website has a great backstory about how it all started in an old welding shop under a bridge in Waco into which, after some refurbishment, they installed copper pot stills from Portugal, and shoehorned a whisky distillery inside. And after a few years, they began to make rum as well, because, well, “We like to drink rum so why not give it a shot?” as Thomas Mote the distillery manager cheerfully remarked to me.

Okay, so let’s see if they succeeded. Consider first the nose.  For all of the 63.9% it’s quite warm and smooth: it started out with a musky scent of damp earth, a sort of mustiness that reminded me a of a warehouse chock-a-block full of old cardboard boxes, brine, salt and sweet olives.  Then it became somewhat more bourbon-like – raisins, molasses, fleshy fruits starting to go off, then caramel, nuts, butter, vanilla and ice cream. It smells curiously indeterminate – which is why detailed fruity notes can’t be listed – you know there’s a lot of stuff here, but it’s tough to come to grips with them individually.

On the palate, after exercising all the usual precautions for a rum this strong (take a rather small sip until things settle down, because the taste is sharper than the nose leads one to believe and remember, it’s a 63.9% saloon brawler that does its very best to clean the bar counter and rip your face off at the same time), I sensed a salt-rye-fruit-bourbon soupcon of flavours on the palate: a combo of salt, sweet and sour — vegetable soup, sour cream, maggi cubes and deep caramel and vanilla notes, all at once, circling each other for dominance and advantage. The fruits – papayas, very ripe peaches in syrup – were set off by muscovado sugar and light molasses without much citrus lending a sharper note (though there was some) and to which was added hazelnuts, some sweet olives and brine, dark chocolate, cherries, fading out quietly (and lengthily) to a pleasant, warm, aromatic conclusion redolent of cherries, flambeed bananas and molasses, but nothing significantly different from the tastes that had preceded it.

Balcones was swiftly and remarkably forthcoming to all the usual inquiries, noting that it was 100% pot still and used a blend of Barbados-Style Lite Molasses and Blackstrap from Louisiana and Guatemala respectively, fermented for 4-5 weeks (much longer than anything else they make), and they play around a bit with yeast and an undisclosed dunder process to add to the flavour profile. Ageing is between 2-4 years and the rum is made in annual batches of a few thousand bottles at most, and no additives of any kind (“oak and time!” they told me proudly).

Still, taking apart those tasting notes, a number of things jump out. The caramel and vanilla and molasses notes are not precisely domineering, but very much in evidence, to the point of taking over — there’s a sort of dampening effect of the musky and more solid flavours which prevent sharper, crisper, clearer ones (fruits and citrus and florals) from emerging properly and engaging. The range of tastes on show lacked the complexities one expects of even a lightly aged rum, and yes, it actually has a profile reminiscent of a rye or bourbon, maybe a tad richer and sweeter and more congener-rich….more rum-like, if you will. It’s a pretty nifty drink for that strength.  It reminds me of my first encounter with Potter’s Dark, yet it also presents as simpler than it could have been, which makes me ask myself, as I always do with such a profile and which seems to be somewhat of a characteristic of many of the US rums I’ve tried, what is it they really want to be making and was too much whisky lore infusing the rum?

I’ve remarked before that most new and smaller US distilleries seem to be more interested in making whiskies and produce rums as something of an afterthought. Whether not not that’s the case here, Balcones has evidently given the matter quite a bit more thought than usual, and come up with a product that deserves real attention (the business with the yeast and dunder points there). It’s unquestionably a rum; it’s got real fire in its jock; it’s rum-like enough to please, while also original enough to encourage a double-take, and an all-round powerhouse fun rum. I think I’m going to keep an eye on these guys going forward – there’s some interesting stuff going on in Waco, and I hope that they expend their production to a larger stable, aged more, in the years to come.  Certainly their initial full proof rums give us a lot of reason to appreciate what they’ve done so far.

(#581)(81/100)


Other notes

The Special Release is issued annually since 2013 (twice in 2014), but identifying the year is difficult.  To the best of my knowledge, mine is from the 2016 season.

Jul 172016
 

Lost spirits Polynesian 1

Nope, this one doesn’t quite click either.  Too many clashing tastes, none enhancing any other, and overall, too untamed. Still not entirely a bad product though.

Let’s just wrap up the third on in the initial rums made by Lost Spirits, the Polynesian-inspired.  For those who really are not into rums, have not been paying attention, or are wondering why this small company is gathering so much press, be it known that Bryan Davis out of California makes the claim that with his proprietary technology (a ‘molecular reactor’) he can not only emulate many years’ ageing in just a few days, but any country or region’s style. It’s as if by processing the baking grade molasses and yeast that form the basis of their distillate, they can – one day – use that to produce a Velier-style Enmore, or a Foursquare Port Cask, a Havana Club or Longpond Jamaican….all within a week.

Such claims are unlikely to impress many, least of all the grand old distillers and master blenders and guys who have spent decades learning the craft of blending and ageing in the old way, and who disdain unverifiable self-proclaimed magical methods of artificial ageing (concepts which are almost as old as aged spirits themselves and are seen to be in good company with snake-oil sellers hawking their wares outside a travelling  circus).  Still, I’m fairly certain there’s a sphincter or two that’s puckering out there, since technological progression is geometrical, and while the first batch of Mr. Davis’s rums didn’t and don’t come up to scratch or deliver on the promises that they were a Navy rum, or close to a Cuban, they weren’t quite as poorly made as some have made out – they still beat many multi-column-still industrial mass-produced hooch that people buy so blindly, in such quantities, and there’s potential in the process, if it can ever be made to work right, and consistently.

This rum is something like the Cuban-inspired in that it seeks to recreate the profile of the rums from another geographical region.  I’m not sure of the point of this – it’s not like the sample set from over there is large enough to have a decent baseline to begin with, and outside of Hawaii, how many Americans have ever even tasted a Polynesian rum? Background reading points out the fact that it is made to fit the profile of a high-ester pot still product, and indeed it is made on a copper pot still, though of course no age statement is as yet, or can be, applied to it.  It’s in all respects an unaged rum, which leads me to wonder if they didn’t mess with it by adding anything, was it the reactor that created the colour?

Lost spirits Polynesian 2Anyway, the whole pot still origin at least conformed to the profile of the smells that hit me once I opened the 66%, dark amber rum.  The action got going right away, with solid, sharp notes of wax and turpentine and acetone and shoe polish, here one second, gone the next, morphing swiftly into rotten apples, peaches left in the sun too long, and a lingering background of salty-sweet tequila oiliness that had no business being there.  This is supposedly part of the process the reactor promotes, which produces a surfeit of long chained esters — these are the source of turpentine/paint thinner flavours in high concentrations, and fruity ones when dialled down, so as far as I’m concerned this one had the dial stuck too high, and I didn’t care for it.

To taste it was a sharp sarissa of intense heat, just like any full proof rum.  That part didn’t disturb me, I just put it to one side to open up a bit and came back a few minutes later.  Well now: this was like another rum entirely, remarkably different from what the nose had advertised – quite a bit more balance here, with the waxy turpentine kept way back; overripe peaches (no real citrus tartness evident), brine, black olives, that oily tequila sweet-salt note again, dates, figs and other non-sweet ‘fruits’.  The absence of more traditionally expected tastes was somewhat surprising, and it gave the rum a distinctiveness that may become its maker’s identifying, defining signature, but the problem was that this uniqueness did not particularly translate into a quality rum that I cared for, where a central core of one flavour carried lighter and medium intensity elements of others that blended well together; the Polynesian cannot truly be termed ‘traditional’ by any stretch.  Even the finish – long and dry, redolent of (get this) olive oil soaked bell peppers as well as more dates and soya – didn’t really work well together. I like crazy for the most part, I enjoy originality and reaching for the brass ring, but there has to be a bedrock of underlying quality, of texture and taste and aromas that gels somehow: Mr. Davis is still working on that part.

So.  Good things are strength and heft and an original taste.  Bad things are those very same tastes and the way they do not come together to form a cohesive, enjoyable whole, plus a nose of too many uncontained, uncontrolled esters which allow the wrong ones to dominate. It’s also more than a little jagged to try, and little real smoothness in the mouthfeel.  It’s a mixer for sure, for the moment, and that’s how most will try it and drink it.

Matt Pietrek, commenting in the post on the Lost Spirits Cuban inspired rum, advised me that all three of the rums I’ve written about were from the initial reactor outputs, which have since been tweaked to various settings and routines in a specified order, which we can call Version  2.0. (my bottle with was bought back in early 2015, just when the process was gathering some steam). So there are new products – even whiskies, now — coming out from Lost Spirits, and the technology is beginning to spread to other companies who see either potential to bypass the Caribbean nations, or to make a fast buck, or really produce some cool rums of their own (or all at once).  Based on these three rums, it’ll still be many years before any of the old rum houses, or the European cognoscenti, need to worry that their favourite tipple will be replaced by technology that promises much, but so far, has not delivered.

(#286 / 81/100)


Other notes

Just because I don’t (thus far) endorse or highly praise this line of rums, doesn’t mean others don’t.  North Americans are quite positive in their assessments, while European writers remain silent for now (perhaps due to availability). So some references for your research, should you be curious:

 

 

Jul 132016
 

 

Richland 1*

By itself with nothing else around, it’ll do just fine as a light and casual sipper. It chips along easy, dances pretty around your palate, and has delicate notes that are quite enjoyable. In conjunction with others, it kinda chokes.

This review has been sitting, waiting, gathering dust, for many months now, and the bullet, so to speak, had to be bitten. If I had never tasted a raft of rums from around the world the day the Richland crossed my path, I might have liked it a lot more. But what did happen is that my friends and I did a deep field sample of maybe fifteen rums in a six hour session, and this one suffered in comparison. Not so much because it failed in and of itself, but because during that extended sampling exercise, it was compared with and contrasted to many other rums…and that really allowed us to get into it in a way that more casual imbibers probably wouldn’t. And sank it to the bottom of my pile.

Richland 2It’s a US entry into the cane juice rhum (not “agricole”) world, distilled from locally grown sugar cane rendered down into “honey” in a copper pot still, aged around four years or so in charred American oak barrels, bottled at 43%, and on that basis it certainly has all the proper boxes ticked. Fascinatingly enough, future plans are to have each bottle  numbered so the exact barrel from which it came is traceable.  I refer you to Dave Russell’s in-depth essay on the rum (which he liked much more than I did), which saves me the trouble of regurgitating it all here. One surprise – are there really no other rum producers in the USA who use a pot still and sugar cane honey in a single pass?  Surprising, but interesting all the same.  Kudos.

Now, nose and taste wise, the rum, a gold one, was pretty good: easy-going, delicate, light and very sweet. Behind a rather surprising rubber opening smell, lurked the florals, a lot of them. It was like being in an airconditioned flower shop just after a delivery came in, redolent of lavender and perfumed soap and shampoo (I guarantee, no other reviewer will mention that), 7-up and bubble gum.  It tiptoed around the nose, and other, equally light notes of sugar water and lemon grass and a little vanilla, coconut, came through.

Sipping it resolved some issues, created others and circled back to the original. The nose did provide the promise of some complexity but the palate didn’t deliver quite as much: it was warm and more basic, and the hint of agricole-profile that might have been expected was not distinctively there.  What indeed it tasted like was an uneasy mixture of bananas, sugar water and air-freshener, mixed with potpourri and cooking herbs (dill and rosemary) and even a stick of licorice. After some time the sweet took a back seat, some tartness of apples and oak took over, caramel and vanilla and smoke became more readily discernible, to dominate the rest of the extended tasting.  And underlying it all, throughout the session from start to finish, that travelling-bag scent refused to go away — although honesty compels me to admit I was the only one who seemed to notice it. Thank God it was faint.  Finish was perfectly serviceable, warm and not too spicy, more rubber, more air freshener, more flowers, more vanilla, more oak…and if that doesn’t sound pleasing, well, it was, quite light and airy and melded reasonably well.

Cutting to the chase, my opinion is that it’s decent, without being particularly spectacular.  The taste is an uneasy marriage of competing individual notes that hearken back to almost different profiles altogether, like a sharp agricole trying to be a Bajan.  Doesn’t really work.  Plus, over a long time, going back to it every half hour or so, the metamorphosis from light and tasty sipping rum into some weird sweet air-freshener-like liquid also sank it for me.  It may be a batch thing, since this is a pot still, small batch artisanal rum, and some variations of quality are to be expected.

Comparison might be the key here. Taste it alone, you’re fine.  You’ll like it, as long as light-bodied, unaggressive tamped-down 40% agricoles are your thing. Try it as part of an extended range of good rums, let the thing stand and aerate for a while, put aside any preconceived notions and you’d be surprised how much changes in both the rum, and your estimation of it.  In my case, that wasn’t for the better. 

(#282 / 75/100)

Jul 032016
 

Lost Spirits Cuban 1

Not quite there.  Yet.

Lost Spirits, if you recall, is the company that produced a set of rums of varying strengths last year – polynesian, navy, colonial, and this one – which are processed by their proprietary “reactor” to emulate the taste profile of rums aged for many years, while only being days old.  This is one of the three I bought, the “Cuban Inspired” version, bottled at a growlingly powerful 75.5% and properly labelled “151”.  151s are generally mixers (unlike, say, the SMWS beefcakes), which strikes me as an odd choice to produce – because if one is trying to showcase the ageing potential of the reactor, why make a rum that people have never seen as an aged product? Perhaps it is to try and recreate the taste markers of the style as well – if that’s what was attempted, I stand here before you telling you that the system still needs more work.

That said, let’s just get the stats and background out of the way: the Cuban Inspired is made from baking grade molasses — much like, I guess, Pritchards’ — water and yeast, some interesting tricks with nitrogen deprivation, no additives or colouring, some ageing in charred and toasted American oak barrels, and filtration through a coconut husk filter. So as 151s go, something of a diversion.  I was therefore quite curious whether a Cuban-style profile could be made via technology instead of actually in Cuba.

The light bronze rum nosed quite kinetically, of course, which at that strength was to be expected. Sharp, hot scents of brine, figs, olive oil and tequila led things off with some of the waxy, glue and petrol notes of some serious pot still action.  I set it aside to let the spicy alcohol fumes evaporate, and when I went back to it ten minutes later, things settled down a bit and the scents were much more interesting: huge molasses and burnt sugar, cocoa and vanilla notes were the backbone, upon which rested a sharper, less intense secondary aromas of coarse dry breakfast cereal and stale orange peel that’s been sitting in the sun for too long. Interesting and quite intriguing, for sure, though there’s something lacking here, a sort of middle section to bridge the gap between the sharp higher notes and the deeper and more solid underpinnings.

Putting aside the sheer oomph of this thing – for sure, given its intensity at that strength, I sipped very carefully – I was surprised how much there was on the palate: molasses soaked brown sugar, butterscotch (way too much of these three elements), salt butter, fresh baked dark russian bread (I used to buy one daily for a year straight back in my working days in the ‘Stans).  Too hot and untamed to sip really well, it was damned rough on the tongue.  With water, matters settled down, and additional flavours of overripe plums and peaches, more tequila and olives in brine emerged, weirdly mixed with hot black tea and yes, that stale orange peel made a comeback, all finishing off with a very long exit as befits an overproof, and last hints of wood and sawdust and an old, lovingly polished leather bag.

Lost Spirits Cuban 2So there’s the tasting notes.  Opinion? Well, it has quite a lot of action, that’s for sure.They sort of whirl around in a melee of unfocussed aggression, like a war-movie battle scene where the director is too much in love with his shaky-cam, making nonsense of any attempt to come to grips with an underlying structure.  Tastes just exist, and they do not come together in any kind of layering or synthesis, and where each one should be informing, supporting and melding with others, here what we have is a bunch of rabid individualists who do not know the meaning of teamwork. And honestly, there’s over-dominance by molasses and vanilla and butterscotch – it’s deep and it’s nice and it’s pervasive…perhaps too much so.

Plus – where’s the Cuban by which it was supposedly inspired? I’ve had a few from the island in my time, and the Spanish style, which so many in Central and South American rum-makers have copied over the centuries, was not particularly self-evident in this rum.  Usually, rectified column still spirit further amended by careful barrel ageing is a defining marker; but I didn’t get any of that clean, dry, light, flowery profile with coy hints of molasses and citrus dancing their own little tango, bound together by easy fruitiness – quite the contrary, this was a rapier turned into a fruit-smeared butterscotch bludgeon, not all of which worked. 

Whether we like it or not, when a rum is labelled as something, we expect from our past experiences of similar rums for the promise implicitly made on that promo to be honoured.  As with the Navy 68% I tried before I didn’t feel that really occurred (I sampled alongside the Navy and the Polynesian, and the Cuban resembled the former quite a bit) .  There’s little of the Santiago de Cuba or Havana Club here, to me. I’m giving it the score I do because of originality, some very interesting tastes, and then taking away some points for lack of coherence (but not for not being a Cuban – that one is an irrelevancy and I mention the matter only because the label does).  I like what Bryan Davis is doing, admire his dedication and passion and love of  technology which he is bringing to bear on a very old process, but still feel the process needs work.  From that perspective, it was real smart to call this a “Cuban Inspired” rum.

(#283 / 83/100)


Other notes

I know this review will be somewhat divisive (it’s not meant to be dismissive), so here are some references to give you more positive points of view, if you’re interested:

Nov 252015
 
LP_Navy

Photo Courtesy of duRhum.com

Leave aside the hype and controversy, and try this without preconceptions. You may be surprised, intrigued and even pleased with the result.  I was, I was and I wasn’t, not entirely…but you might be.

If by now you are not aware that Lost Spirits out of California has developed a “molecular reactor” that supposedly mimics the ageing of a twenty year rum in six days, then you have not been paying attention (or aren’t that deep into rum geekdom).  The idea is not itself altogether new, and detractors have sniffed that snake oil sellers have been talking forever about using magical means, family recipes and all kinds of fancy methods to speed up ageing and the profile of old spirits, in products that aren’t actually aged.  Still, with the continual advances in modern tech, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that some smart guy in a garage somewhere can perhaps do such a thing. Certainly Lost Spirits makes that claim.  They have intense enthusiasm, hand built stills, and a good knowledge of chemistry and biology to assist in replicating more traditional methods of production without actually using many of them. The output is more important than the process, you might say.

The Navy Style rum they have made is a booming near-overproof rum that smartly elevates the North American drinking public’s perception of rum by issuing it at 68%, and which comes in a tall slim bottle that has an old fashioned label channelling the aesthetic design philosophy of both technology and 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery (that’s what Josh Miller called “steampunk” in his own recent review of the rum). Just to get the background out of the way, this thing is unadulterated, without additives of any kind, including colouring.  It is made from baking grade molasses and evaporated sugar cane juice (I suppose we could call that “honey”).

The nose was intriguing: an interesting fusion of very hot aromas, both familiar and strange.  Initially it presented with vanilla, prunes, black grapes, some molasses, a faint hint of anise, some oak, and a bit of clean citrus.  But sharper ethanol and less appealing mineral notes of wet charcoal and saltpetr emerged at the back end, and here I was left wondering where the meld of Jamaican dunder and fruitiness of the Demeraras and Bajans was hiding itself.

Similar thoughts came to mind as I tasted it. Yes it was bold and very heated – we could hardly expect less from a rum this strong – I just thought it was all a bit discombobulated.  There were salty, green-olive notes, some soy and grappa and red wine, all mixed up with an undercurrent of molasses.  It was quite rough, and stampeded across the palate without the finesse that other rums of that strength have shown is possible.  Adding water ameliorated that somewhat, and brought other flavours out of hiding – brown sugar, vegetals, dried grass, more undefined citrus zest, and a tang of more red grapes, caramel and molasses, all tied up with sharper oak tannins and ginger root.  The finish, as befits such a strong drink, was long and dry, with little that was new arriving onstage – oak, some wet coffee grounds, more of that strange mineral background, and a twitch of herbs.

Lost Spirits have made a rum that they want to show off as a poster boy for their technology: whether they succeeded in creating a Navy rum is questionable. There are quite a few variations of the type – Lamb’s, Pusser’s, Wood’s 100, Potter’s, the Black Tot to name but a few – so much so that true or not, right or wrong, those are the profiles that the consuming public sees and expects to be represented by the sobriquet “Navy”.  On that level, the Lost Spirit rum doesn’t come up to snuff.  And while other reviewers have remarked on the esters they sensed (which is part of the selling point of the rum, that genuflection to old-style dunder pits), I didn’t find there were that many complex spicy, fruity and floral notes that would give any of the more traditional rum makers cause to choke into their tasting glasses.

Recently mon ami Cyril of DuRhum took apart three Lost Spirits rums, and flat out declared that in his estimation they could not possibly class with the very rums they were seeking to supplant.  Both Josh at Inu-a-kena and Tiare over by A Mountain of Crushed Ice were much more positive in their evaluations, as was Serge at Whiskyfun. I am neither as displeased by Lost Spirits as Cyril was, nor as enthusiastic as my other friends – to my mind the company and its tech still have quite some way to go if they intend to take on really aged big guns made by master blenders with many generations of experience backing them up. Western nations are great proponents of the notion that technology can conquer everything, and maybe they’re right…but only sometimes.

However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, and give Lost Spirits credit for what they have achieved. I liked the strength and intensity, for example – LS has had the balls to take American rums past the 40% that dominates their market.  The taste was intriguing, original, not entirely bad, and there were many aspects of the profile I enjoyed. Where it fails is in its resultant product, which wanders too far afield while failing to cohere.  And therefore it falls short on its promise: the promise that they could produce a profile of any aged rum without actually ageing it. That simply didn’t happen here.  

I’m a firm believer in technology and its potential – but as with many brand new ideas and their execution, the hype so far is greater than the reality. The subtleties of a great aged rum are so multi-faceted, so enormously complex, and so chaotically intertwined with age and barrel and distillate and fermentation and even terroire, that while one day I have no doubt a combination of physics, chemistry and biology (and chutzpah) will fool a taster into believing he’s got an undiscovered masterpiece on his hands, this rum, for today, isn’t quite it.

(#242. 83/100)


Other notes:

  • Control rums this time around were a few old Demeraras, the BBR Jamaica 1977, Woods 100 and of course the Black Tot. It’s in the comparison that the LS Navy 68% snaps more clearly into focus and you see where it both succeeds and falls short.
  • Note that Navy rums, according to Mr. Broome’s informative booklet on the ‘Tot, only had a small percentage of the blend come from Jamaica (sailors didn’t like it).  Yet most of the online literature on Lost Spirits places great emphasis on how they are recreating the resultant profile of dunder pits and high ester counts (more or less associated with Jamaica), when in fact this was not the major part of the navy style of rum.
  • Also… just because I don’t (thus far) endorse or highly praise this line of rums, doesn’t mean others don’t.  North Americans are quite positive in their assessments, while European writers thus far remain silent (perhaps due to availability). So some references for your research, should you be curious:
Jul 082015
 
Photo copyright Prichards Distillery

Photo copyright Prichards Distillery

I’ve given Prichards somewhat of a bruising with my indifferent reviews of the Fine and the Crystal, but let me assure you that the Private Stock is quite a leap forward: because while the others were essays in the craft, this one got it absolutely right.

Prichard’s company website entry for their own supposed top-of-the-line rum is massively unforthcoming, if not outright unhelpful.  I mean, here’s a rum I want to write about with enthusiasm and knowledge so as to inform the readers, share my wonder, and yet a key data point is missing – how old is the thing?

Perhaps I should be grateful that we do have the following: pot still rum, made from the same Louisiana Grade A Fancy molasses as the other Prichard rums, in an effort to recreate the colonial style of rums as they were made back in the day; aged in charred 15-gallon new white oak barrels; and ⅔ lossses to the angels were sustained.  Based purely on these facts and the way it tasted, I’m going out on a limb until Prichards responds to me, and suggest the rum is a ten-to-fifteen year old.  Oh, and it has a nifty bottle quite different from the other rums in the lineup, again to separate it from the crowd.

And separated out it should be, because while none of the lingering suspicions I have about them loving bourbon more than rum have been allayed, I put all such notions aside: things started swimmingly from the moment I poured the amber rum into a glass and took a snoot.

It had a billowing, solid, fruity nose.  Again that cheese and crackers scent I seemed to find in all three Prichards tried so far (and that’s a brie, by the way, not a cheddar); warm and easy-going, with the 45% strength well tamed.  The molasses were held in check and presented as a burnt sugar and light anise smell, not anything raw and unrefined; sugary notes emerged, vanillas (again, quite restrained), with some unidentified fleshy ripe fruits lurking, unidentified, in the background. Raisins, maybe, and some dark ripe cherries.

I liked the taste as well. It was warm but not hot, powerful as the contents of a Transformer’s trousers, smooth and very well balanced.  Here the fruits that the nose suggested were allowed to shine – blackcurrants, blackberries dusted with sugar and doused with the slightest bit of zest; and also plums, dates, figs, cinnamon, rosemary…with smoke, and leather and oak flexing their biceps at the back end, without trying to take over the joint.  Complexity and balance which the Fine (and the Silver) had failed to do, were achieved with grace here.  And the finish did not disappoint – the 45% was really the right choice for the Private Stock, and while there was nothing new to introduce in terms of taste and scent and last lingering notes, the aforementioned harmonies did not tear themselves to shreds and go off the reservation, but died with a sort of slow voluptuous sigh that left you with great memories and the desire for another sip.

The curious thing about the Private Stock is that it is being released in really limited quantities and not at all in retail or online stores – if you want this thing, you have to go to the distillery to get it, and therefore I envy people like Jared (he shared a comment or two on FB with me about Prichards, thanks mate), who lives down the road from the joint and can go get some whenever he feels the need. I don’t know what’s behind that strategy, but if they were to release this on the open market, they might have to put up a sign saying “Only one per customer, please.”

Over the years, I have not had that many rums from US producers that enthralled me, and to some extent that has made me somewhat cynical about what is being made over there (not least the stubborn fixation with 40%). We are so accustomed to industrial American rums that exist only as middling-quality liquid conduits for social diversion, that it comes as something of a shock – a pleasant one to be sure – to find one in which the simplicity of its construction, the balance of its components and the tastiness of its content, makes a statement for itself.  That’s no small feat, and is the reason why I think it’s a really excellent product, deserving an unqualified recommendation. This rum will give other craft makers a real run for their money. It’s that good.

(#221. 86/100)


Afterword: As I was editing this review for final posting, I lost patience with emails, picked up the phone and called Prichards directly, probably waking somebody up in the process: the very pleasant lady who answered told me without any waffling around that the Private Stock is a blend of rums aged 12-14 years.


 

Jul 012015
 

D3S_8946

Neither attempt — to make an ersatz agricole (from molasses) or a white mixing agent to take on the more established brands — really works.

Prichard’s is that outfit from Tennessee which has been quietly and busily putting out rums for nearly twenty years, ever since Phil Prichard decided to make rum in whiskey country.  And while it is now common for new entrants to the market to sell white unaged rum from their stills to cover startup costs and provide cash flow while they wait for more favoured stocks to mature, Mr. Prichard didn’t do anything of the sort, and so his white rum – called Crystal – came later to his company’s portfolio (the first review I’ve seen is dated around 2007).

White rums (or “clear” or “silver”, or “blanc”, pick your moniker) come in several varieties, to my mind: agricoles (of which clairins are a subset), cachacas and filtered white mixers, with a new field of unaged pot still whites beginning to gather a head of steam. The question to me was which target the Crystal was taking aim at, and if it succeeded at any. The evocatively named rum is apparently distilled five times using the same sweet Louisiana molasses as the Fine Rum, which is a major selling and marketing point for the company; it is unaged and comes straight from the barrel (though I’m curious – if it was utterly unaged, what was it doing in a barrel in the first place?).

Anyway, one thing I remarked on right away after pouring it out, was a certain clear crispness to the nose.  No real complexity here: green apples and vanilla for the most part, and remarkably sweet to smell: the origin molasses were detectable in spite of the filtration. The vanilla was really quite overpowering, though, even if  some cream and saltiness emerged at the back end…overall, nothing too difficult to tease out.

Even at 40% it kinda grated on the palate: it was sharp, too raw – that was the lack of ageing making itself felt.  It wasn’t precisely light either, and the initial clarity of the nose dissipated early, to become a slightly heavier, oilier drink.  When it opened up, other, less appealing tastes stepped up to show themselves off – still a lot of sugar and vanillas, yes, but also harsher iodine and metallic notes, with some crackers and brie teasing the senses without ever taking centre stage. And it was oddly dry as things wrapped up, with those vanillas and fresh-cut green apples returning to take a last look around before disappearing in a short finish.

D3S_8946-001

I review all spirits as if they were meant to be had neat – right or wrong, that’s my cross to bear in an attempt to use the exact same methodology to evaluate every rum I try.  To have different techniques in evaluating different rums based on any idea of what a rum should be used for (sipping drink, cocktail ingredient) is to introduce a bias, if not outright confusion.

So by the standard of whether it works as a neat rum, then, the Crystal doesn’t succeed (and even Prichard’s website doesn’t imply otherwise and plugs it as a mixer).  The very slight acidity of the fruit I tasted, mixed up with the lingering molasses, the vanilla, the jarring metallic notes, creates a discordant taste profile which destroys the sipping experience.  As a cocktail ingredient, then? Probably much better.  Not with a coke though – something sharper is needed to take the vanillas off, so I’d suggest ginger beer, lime, Angostura bitters, something in that direction. Prichard’s own website gives some examples.

Since I’m not into tiki or cocktail culture, such white, bland, filtered rums don’t do much for me, and that’s why in over five years I’ve reviewed almost none (I’ve gotten hammered on them quite often, mind you).  This one’s okay, I guess: it’s just a sweet-molasses-based silver, lacking sufficient complexity or blending artistry to make it as a solo drink. My low score should not be seen as a blanket indictment, then, since its failure as a neat sample does not invalidate it as a cocktail ingredient where it may shine more. I’ll leave it to experts in that field to argue the case for the Crystal, which unfortunately I myself could not and cannot make.

(#220. 78/100)

 

Jun 282015
 

D3S_8944

A paradox of the mid range: a pot still rum that fails at very little…except perhaps excitement.

I’ve been writing and rewriting this review for almost three months: each time I came to grips with it, I thought of something else to add (or delete), or some new and interesting product eclipsed the Prichard’s and made me want to publish that first. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, maybe.

Prichard’s has been in business since 1996 when they became the first new distillery in Tennessee since the 1940s and have quite a stable of output, including some interesting rum products to their name – they produce three real rums, one spiced rum, three flavoured rums….plus six whiskies and five liqueurs.  So, as with many such outfits in the ‘States, I occasionally wonder if their love isn’t primarily given elsewhere and they make true rums only in order to branch out a little.  However, the website and interviews suggest the opposite, so maybe I’ve got it wrong. And I don’t mind that…I’m just curious about it.

Small companies making rum in the USA sometimes try to recreate the American rums of yore by varying their input or production methods.  In this case, Prichard’s use not blackstrap molasses (the black sticky residue after most of the sugar has been extracted), but sweet Louisiana Grade A molasses, of the sort that could be put on your pancakes the morning after.  The rum is then aged for four years in fifteen-gallon barrels of new oak (another point of departure from more traditional techniques) Whether that works or not is up to the individual.  I don’t think it’s all bad, just not something I’d remember enthusiastically a week from now either. It somehow results in a symphony of ho-hum in spite of some off-kilter moments.

Perhaps starting with the aromas might make the point clearer: initially the amber liquid as decanted from the squat long-necked bottle presented clearly, with chocolate and toffee leading the fray.  A little patience, a drop of water, and spices began to come forward – cardamon, fennel, apples, a cherry or two, and sly twitch of lemongrass for zest – before being blattened into the ground by a ridiculous amount of emerging iodine, leather, caramel, burnt brown sugar that dominated the nose from there on in.

The rum was medium bodied, neither fierce nor fawn.  It slid smoothly on the palate, just a little bit of burn from the standard proofage. I dunno, it seemed diffident, good ‘nuff, like a Three Bears of a rum, neither too much or too little.  Again mocha and dark chocolate, coffee, toffee.  And after it opened up, black grapes, overripe apples, more iodine, and a thin kind of vanilla thread through the whole business, with anise, molasses and caramel really taking ownership at this point and carrying the whole experience through to a lacklustre finish with just more of the same — unexceptionally so, in my opinion.

That grayness of my opinion has to do with the fact that while the Prichard’s Fine Rum  is a workmanlike product by any standard — competently made and reasonably executed — it doesn’t have that extra edge of oomph that excites.  It lacks any single shining point of distinction or originality upon which I can hang my hat and say “this part is freakin’ great,” hence my continual suspicion, however unjustified, that bourbon is what they really want to be making, and rum is an indifferent afterthought. Still…that it’s a drinkable, even sippable rum, with perhaps a shade too much Grade A hanging around in there, but worth the outlay — that’s all beyond dispute; it’s the question of whether it’s a must-have that’s is a bit more open to doubt.

See, some rums trumpet their badassery to the world, while others tick over quietly like swiss watches, the undercurrents of their quality self-evident to those who look and enjoy.  Here’s a rum that neither leaves you turning cartwheels in transports of drunken exuberance, nor shaking your head sadly as you mumble about a piece of junk you wasted time trying – but walking away from the experience, remarking to your friend, “That, mon ami, is a plain old rum.”

(#219. 81/100)

 

Dec 232012
 

Fair warning: the wine is strong on this one.

(First posted on Liquorature, December 23, 2012)

I would like to wax rhapsodic on this 40% rum; spout literate encomiums to its puissance and scintillating quality, write heady metaphors with words like “ambrosia,””zoweee!” and “wtf”. I’d like to share with you, reader, the happiness of Unicaworld (“would place this alongside my good Martinique rums on my top shelf”) or the Whatsnewinbooze blog (“…a great product from a new distillery…” and “This is an absolute must try…”) or the remarks of the Big Kahuna, when he referred to this rum as one of two shining standouts he tried from Downslope Distilling.

Unfortunately I can’t. And the short version is that in my opinion the rum, sorry to say, doesn`t work. At all.

Have you any idea how frustrating that is? Here I am, tasting rums in their tens and hundreds on mostly my own dime, month in and month out, fighting the long defeat in a desperate championing of rums in a resolutely whisky drinking country (and as part of a primarily whisky drinking book club in a whisky mad province), plaintively trumpeting the case for distilleries to go beyond, seek new horizons, rise above 40%, push the envelope, experiment…and now this rum comes along from an enthusiastic bunch of guys in Colorado who’re trying to do everything I ask for, and it…just….fails. Aaargh. It’s enough to drive a man to drink, honestly.

Downslope Distilling is an outfit set up in Colorado in 2008 partly because of some peculiar laws regarding making and distributing spirits in that state, and partly as a consequence of the rabid interest of its founders in producing what one might term craft spirits: reading around I get the impression their real interest is whiskey and vodkas, perhaps gins, with rums almost an afterthought, but maybe that’s just me. At end, I see it as a logical evolution of micro-breweries which took off in popularity some years back. Hey, we can make a decent beer…let’s try something different.

Now, with respect to its rums, DD uses unprocessed Maui cane sugar as the base from which to distil its blend, running it through a pot still twice, and then, without any filtration, chucks it right into a barrel that once held wine – each barrel used (or set of barrels) held a different wine so output is not only limited to several hundred bottles per individual run, but widely divergent from batch to batch depending on the wine it once held. I suspect that the bottle I got was aged in Merlot casks from the Napa valley where they host those popular limo tours (other bottlings are aged in Tokaji casks which is a sweet dessert wine from Hungary, or in California Chardonnay casks).

When I poured this light blonde spirit into my glass, what I smelled from three paces was a cloying reek of enormously beefed up Muscatel grapes, as if the Legendario from Cuba had enhanced itself by snorting enough coke to keel over a Himalayan yak. I mean, it was so pervasive that I could barely make out anything else – not even the usual burnt sugar and caramel notes that so characterize most rums. That’s not surprising, since they use sugar, not molasses to begin with, so to some extent what we’re getting here is a faux-agricole (true agricoles (a) are allowed to use the term and (b) start with cane juice, not sugar). It was raw and harsh and burning, grudgingly gave up a hint of nutmeg and grassy notes, before morphing into a wine on the edge of turning to vinegar, or overripe oranges just starting to go. Sharp and unappealing.

I was not reassured by the palate either: yes the wine aged rum was sweet, but also briny, and as sharp and grasping on the tongue as a vindictive ex-wife’s lawyer. It was dry as a bone and even after several minutes, all one could ascertain taste-wise was more grapes and more table plonk — way, way too much — that flooded the taste buds with their own omniscience so intensely that eventually I just had to give up, because nothing was gonna make it through those three hundred Spartans of wine. About the only thing that even marginally redeemed what I was tasting was the attendant finish, quite long, with banana, cinnamon and bitter wine notes. Not enough to save it. If they had not labelled the rum as such, I wouldn’t have known it had it been placed before me blind.

Part of the issue here is the ageing. Rums are aged in oak for years – at least one, preferably three to five, and good ones for many more – and then finished in wine casks for a few months. To try and combine the two processes for six months in barrels that impart such enormous influence is too little of one and too much of the other, and it sinks this drink utterly. No, really – it’s too raw to have neat, and I could not find a mix that even remotely ameliorated the overarching wine bedrock. This is a product in need of severe oak support for at perhaps another five years. It was a mistake to issue it so early, since what it accomplished was to give startup rum makers a bad name and makes buyers avoid rum-creating micro-distillers on principle (to the detriment of all of us boozers). Compare this hastily issued rum to the years of preparation St Nicholas Abbey did in the late 2000s before issuing their first rum, and you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

In fine, Downslope Distilling’s wine aged rum is too sharp, too young and too far out to lunch for me to even admire its adventurousness much as I usually applaud such efforts. What this padawan needs is a Yoda to guide it to adolescence, and a little less enthusiasm from online writers or distillery visitors who should be more stinting with their praise and more comparative in their approach (come on, are you seriously trying to tell me this rum compares magnificently to a top Martinique agricole? gimme a break). In years to come, Downslope Distilling may grow into something, and I really hope they do, because at least they’re trying, and have the advantage of enthusiasm, obsession, perhaps even love for what they do (so more power to them for that); however, right now, they’d do better to be more self-critical about the hooch they’re passing off as quality. They may have thought they were putting some James Brown into their spirit: what they got was his sweat instead of his style.

(#137. 71/100)


Other Notes

  • As of 2021, the Downslope Distillery continues to operate and, like so many other small outfits in the States, wrings the most out of its equipment, and makes a plethora of spirits on its “double diamond” pot still: agave, gin, whisky, rum and vodka. I’ve made my disapproval of this kind of lack of focus clear before before, and to repeat: being a jack of all trades makes you a master of none, and your products suffer for it, as this one does.

Sources

Because this is a small distillery not really that well known, and because I’m quoting directly, I’m including my references here: unfortunately, seven years later on, two of the three websites I quoted were already defunct.. You will have to take my word for it that the quotes were (and remain) accurate as posted.

  • Unica World “…would place this alongside my good Martinique rums on my top shelf.” As well, the “James Brown” comment. (As of 2021, this site is dead).
  • What’s New In Booze “…This is a great product from a new distillery…” and “This is an absolute must try…” He rated it 90 points. I can only raise my eyes to heaven.
  • The Big Kahuna commented that this was “…wonderful with two shining standouts…” referring to both this one and a vanilla flavoured variant. (As of 2021, this site is also defunct, and the link redirects to a Chinese site (Ziyang Apple Equipment Co).)
Nov 022012
 

Light gold rumlet, lightweight in what counts, with an oddly discombobulated flavour.

Some time ago I reviewed an intriguing product out of Hawaii, the Kōloa Gold Rum, which impressed me by having some interesting (if thinner than average) flavours emerging out of an utterly unaged rum. The Old Lahaina “Original Formula” Premium Gold Rum is another in this vein, with a similar taste profile, yet somehow it failed to come up to snuff, where the Kōloa succeeded (both companies produced their first rums in 2009).

Maui Distillers began construction of their distillery in 2003 around Maui’s plantation town of Paia, where the HC&S plantation leased them an old building on the site of the Old Paia Sugar Mill. According to their website, rum is distilled on two steam-fired 500-gallon pot stills originally built for the Boston New England Rum Company in 1946, one of which has a multi tray fractionating column added to it (I suspect to increase the output, and decrease variation in that output…the bugbear of pot stills’ batch production methodology).

Anyway, housed in a thick bar-room style bottle, the Old Lahaina opened its presentation with a herbal, grassy nose that was a shade heated and yet oddly unaggressive at the same time. Delicate is a term I’d use. As it opened up I smelled citrus peel and freshly peeled tangerines mixed with white flower petals….and some faint honey whiffs. My boy, the Little Caner, took a sniff, compared it to the Kōloa and said “Same, Daddy…Lahaina is a bit stronger.” (All he did was sniff, before you ask).

Ummm…okay. Moving along, the coppery brown and amber coloured Lahaina was surprisingly astringent on the palate, dry, sere, a shade briny, and not as sweet as most rums. I wondered whether it had been aged or not (I doubted it). Initially it was hard to pick anything out from under the briny backnote, but gradually vague tastes of vanilla and honey made themselves known, until they were overpowered by – get this – rye bread and creamy butter (I am not making this up!). I tried it again and again over three days, but no, there it was. It’s a first for me, I assure you.

The finish was heated, and a little too raw, the exit too sharp, and much too short – you could barely make out more than a faint cinnamon spice at the back end. It wasn’t bitchy, you understand, and didn’t hate me or claw at me on the fade, it was just…indifferent. It shares a lot with the Koloa, which also had a fade utterly lacking in melodrama.

Really, this was just uninspiring. I liked that the scents and flavours were a shade stronger than the Kōloa, just not what the tastes actually were. Maui Distillers claim that each batch is hand blended and each variety (Dark, Gold or Silver) made from an in-house developed formula. Meh. What I have noticed is that these two rums, which I tasted side by side to effect a decent comparison, have certain characteristics in common: a mouthfeel more delicate than usual, some harshness, and an overall lightness that may either come from a lack of ageing, or the specific characteristics of the Hawaiian sugar and molasses used – or both. I make the comment because I’ve noticed that other rums from other lands outside the Caribbean or Central America (like Old Port DeluxeBundaberg or Tanduay) also have marked differences in taste that I sometimes attribute to the variation in base ingredients and cultivation…a sort of terroire-specific thing.

As a mixer the Old Lahaina Gold is pretty good and can do well in whatever bar serves mai-tais and tiki drinks (its relative lack of sweetness makes it particularly suited that way). Me, my evolution goes towards rums I can sip by themselves and enjoy alone without enhancement. So while I can make a very good cocktail with this so-called premium rum, were I to come upon it neat in a glass I’d probably scurry for the pantry hunting for the chaser right away, no matter what the website tells me about it being equally a mixer and a sipper. Because that one I really don’t believe.

(#128. 75/100)