Apr 082021
 

2016 seems like such a long time ago with respect to Hampden rums.  Back then we got them in dribs and drabs, from scotch whisky makers (who could rarely be bothered to mention the distillery) and the occasional indie bottler like Berry Bros. & Rudd, Compagnie des Indes, Rom Deluxe, Renegade or Murray McDavid. That all changed in 2018 when Velier concluded a deal to be their worldwide distributor and the PR machine roared into overdrive.  Since then, Hampden has become one of the boutique rums du jour, and they sell out almost as fast as the Foursquare ECS rums.

Back in 2016, though, this wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Hampden was known to the cognoscenti of course, those superdorks who paid close attention to the indie scene, knew their Caribbean distilleries cold and bought everything they could…but not many others from the larger mass market cared enough about it; and anyway, supplies were always low. The distillery was ageing its own stock and continued to sell bulk abroad, so most independents sourced from Europe. That’s how SBS, the geek-run rum arm of the Danish distribution partnership 1423, picked up this barrel.

SBS itself was only created in 2015, seven years after its parent came into being, to cater to the boys’ fascination and love for pure rums. Their business had gone well by this time and they decided to branch out into their first love – “our core DNA,” as Joshua Singh remarked to me – single barrel rums. And they picked up this continentally aged rum which had been distilled in Hampden’s pot still in September 2000 and bottled it in October 2016 in time for the European festival circuit, which is where my rum tooth fair Nicolai Wachmann picked it up and passed some on to me. 202 bottles of this 16 year old rum came out of the barrel and was left as is, at a cask strength of 58.9%.

Clearly, with the explosion of interest in both the SBS range and Hampden over the years, this is something of a find. It’s quite rare, seems to be relatively unknown, and has only turned up once at auction that I could find, and fetched a cool £150 when it did.  But when I tasted it, I thought to myself that these guys knew their sh*t, and chose well.  Consider the opening salvo of the nose – it felt like the Savanna 10YO HERR all over again (and that’s a serious compliment).  It had esters puffing and squirting in all directions, very light and clean.  A warm exhalation of rubber on a hot day, dunder and funk, formed a bed upon which sparkling notes of red currants, strawberries, crisp yellow mangoes, unsweetened yoghurt and over-sweet bubble gum competed for attention. It had that kind of cloying sweet to it, leavened with some sharper brine and olives and rye bread left to go bad and was the diametrical opposite of the rather dour and dark Caronis or PM Demeraras.

It was, however, on the plate, that it shone. This was a rum to savour, to enjoy, to treasure.  It was a solid, serious rum of surprising complexity: just shy of hot, tasting of brine, avocados, kräuterquark, salt crackers, interspersed with pineapple slices, kiwi fruits and the tartness of unripe peaches and more mangoes.  There was a wisp of vanilla in there, some faint white chocolate and nuts and caramel ice cream that somehow stopped just short of softening things too much, and allowed the crisp tartness to remain.  As for the finish, it didn’t falter – it was long and hot (in a good way), and reminded me again of the HERR, though perhaps it was a shade deeper, tasting nicely of salted caramel, bananas, pineapples, fanta, cinnamon and lemon peel.

In short, quite a serious all-round rum, not quite so savage as to scare anyone away, while powerful enough to distinguish it from standard strength rums aimed at the larger non-expert rum drinking audience. 58.9% is a near perfect strength for it, permitting full enjoyment of the nuances without any pain. Could it be mixed? Probably…though I wouldn’t. Hampden has always managed to produce rums that — whether aged in Jamaica or in Europe — set the bar a bit higher than most others; and though nobody comes right out and says so, part of the attraction of a rum so bursting with flavours is to have it neat and wring every tasting detail from every drop. This is the way most people speak of Hampden rums now that Velier is distributing them, but it was no less true in 2016. 1423 sure picked a winner that year.

(#811)(88/100)

Aug 032020
 

The three wooden stills now all gathered at DDL’s Diamond facility are called Heritage stills, their wooden greenheart components regularly serviced and replaced, and the questions they pose about the matter of Theseus’s ship are usually ignored. That’s not really important, though, because they may be the three most famous stills in existence, and the taste profiles of the rums they create are known by all dedicated rumistas, who enjoy nothing more than relentlessly analyzing them for the minutest variations and then bickering about it in a never-ending cheerful squabble.

My own preference has always been for the stern elegance of the Port Mourant, and the Enmore coffey still produces rums that are complex, graceful and sophisticated when done right.  But the Versailles still is something of an ugly stepchild – you’ll go far and look long to find an unqualified positive review of any rum it spits out.  I’ve always felt that it takes rare skill to bring the rough and raw VSG pot still profile to its full potential…none of the familiar indies has had more than occasional success with it, and even Velier never really bothered to produce much Versailles rum at the height of the Age.

This brings us to the Danish company 1423: it makes many mass-market rums for the broader supermarket shelves in Europe, but is perhaps better known worldwide for its boutique rum arm the Single Barrel Selection, which specializes in single cask, limited bottlings. These aim squarely at the connoisseurs’ palates and wallets, and have gained a quiet reputation (and a following) for their quality rums and geographical range.  The Diamond 2003 is a case in point – it’s 12 years old (bottled in 2015), has a finish in marsala casks, comes off the Versailles single wooden pot still and is bottled at a completely solid 62.8% with an outturn of 264 bottles. And it’s quite a hoot to drink, let me tell you

“Something is rotten in the State of Diamond,” I wrote cheerfully after a good deep sniff, “…and just enough to make it interesting.” Which was quite true – it smelled of fruits and vegetables starting to go off, and added some deep oak tannins which thankfully did not get overbearing but receded rapidly.  To this was added almonds, peaches, prunes, anise, strawberries, some light vanilla and raisins, all tied together in a neat bow by a briny note and some zesty citrus.  

The palate was also quite good, irrespective of how much (or how little) additional taste the finish provided.  It had the creaminess of salted caramel ice cream, the dark fruitiness of raisins and prunes and black cake and overall struck me as a deceptively simple, very solidly-constructed rum. The good stuff came from around the edges – you could sense some fennel and licorice and vanilla, and perhaps some nuttiness, red wine, indian spices and cloves, all dancing around that central pillar without taking center stage themselves. The finish didn’t try for anything new or exotic, but was content to sum up all that had gone before, and gave last notes of toffee, cumin, masala spice, caramel, dark fruits and brine, a nice sweet-salt amalgam, without any sharpness or bite on the exit at all.  Nice.

There has been occasional confusion among the stills in the past: e.g. the SBS Enmore 1988 which I am still convinced is a Versailles; but this is (in my opinion) neither a PM nor an Enmore and if there’s any further confusion it may derive from the marsala cask whose influence is faint, but enough to skew one’s mind away from a pure VSG kind of aroma.

And it’s good, very good indeed. Even Duncan Taylor with their 27 YO 1985 couldn’t better it, DDL’s own Rare Release wasn’t significantly better (I’ve heard the Mezan and Samaroli variations are excellent but have not tried them). But it seems to me that the VSG marque is really not meant to be a standalone except for purists and deep divers – it works much better as part of a blend, which is indeed what DDL uses it for in its aged releases, rarely issuing it on its own.  

Summing up then, with all those difficulties in trapping the best profile out of a notoriously temperamental still, it’s completely to its credit that 1423 managed to wring as much flavour and class out of a relatively young Versailles distillate aged in Europe as they did.  Perhaps their 1988 Enmore was in fact from that still also, but this one is no slouch on its own terms, has less ambiguities about its origins to boot and is an all ’round fine drink to have on the shelf.

(#749)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • The length of finish in marsala casks is unknown, if SBS responds to the query I sent, I’ll update.
  • Thanks to Nicolai Wachmann for the sample.
Apr 202020
 

It’s not often we see a multi-country or multi-style blend released by an independent bottler. The trend in IBs in recent years has more been towards the exacting individuality of a single cask from a single place (or a single still, in the case of the Guyanese rums). And that makes sense, especially for up-and-coming new micro-indies, who work with one barrel at a time, for economic reasons if nothing else.

That hasn’t stopped some companies from trying to push the envelope, of course, in the never ending Red Queen’s race to wring a few extra points of taste out of a barrel. Finishes or second maturations or fancy-cask ageing regimes have been the most common method and have grained broad (though not always uncritical) acceptance — that technique is practiced by many companies, old and new, large and small (like Renegade, or Foursquare). Blends from multiple stills, pot and column, are more common now than they used to be. And in some cases, blends have indeed been made by IBs, though quite specifically — multiple barrels from a single distillery. Velier, Rum Nation and others have all practiced this, quite successfully.  In a more restricted fashion, they follow the blending practices of the large international producers who keep their house marques stable for long periods and deal in hundreds or thousands of barrels.

Occasionally this tried and true recipe has been tampered with more fundamentally.  Navy rums from whoever have mixed up Guyanese, Jamaican and Trini pieces in differing proportions on an effort to cash in on the famed profile.  A few brave souls have messed around with different “style” blends, like mixing British and French island rums, or bringing Spanish-style rons to the party. The winning entry so far might be Ocean’s Distillery, which mixed nine different rums from across the Caribbean to produce their Atlantic Edition, for example.

1423, the Danish indie, has taken this concept a step further with their 2019 release of a Brazil / Barbados carnival — it comprised of 8- and 3-year old Foursquare rums (exact proportions unknown, both column still) to which was added an unaged cachaca from Pirassununga (they make the very popular “51” just outside Sao Paolo), and the whole thing left to age for two years in Moscatel wine casks for two years, before being squeezed out into 323 bottles at 52% ABV.

What we would expect from such an unusual pairing is something of an agricole-Bajan marriage. Those are devilishly tricky to bring off, because the light, clean, crisp cane juice taste of an unaged cachaca needs careful tending if it wants to balance itself off against the molasses profile of an aged column-still Foursquare. 

What surprised me when nosing it, is how little of the cachaca was noticeable at all – because it was new make spirit none of those peculiar Brazilian woods were part of the aromas, but neither was any sort of serious cane juice clarity. I smelled caramel, chocolates, a bit of light lemon zest, some ginger, and weak molasses.  When rested somewhat longer, there were dates, brine, some low-key fruity notes, brown sugar, even a touch of molasses. Were you to sniff it blind you would not be entirely sure what you were getting, to be honest. Not a Barbados rum, for sure.

All this did not entirely work for me, so I turned to the tasting, where tawny brown flavours mixed themselves up in abundant profusion.  The palate was not sweet or clear, so much, but like having a dessert meal of dates, nuts, nougat, and a strong latte doing a tango with a weak mocha.  The moscatel wine finish was problematic because here it become much more assertive, and provided a sweet red-grape and floral background that contradicted, rather than supported, the softer muskier flavours which had come before.  And as before, separating out the Barbados component from the Brazilian one ended up being an exercise in frustration, so I gave up and concentrated on the finish. This was relatively tame, medium long, mostly latte, breakfast spices, ginger, some pears, nothing really special.

When I asked why such an odd blend, Joshua Singh of 1423 remarked that they had such success with a Calvados aged rum in a previous advent calendar, that they thought they would try expanding the concept, and more were likely coming in the years ahead. Clearly 1423 were after a more adventurous taste-profile, and wanted to push things, go in interesting directions. Well…“interesting” this certainly was.  “Successful”, not so much, unfortunately. But for a company that has bottled as many good rums as they have, I think it might be worth following them down a dead-end rabbit hole once or twice, for the destination at least, if not the journey.

(#720)(79/100)

Jun 172019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#633)(86/100)


Other Notes

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