Mar 042021
 

If two rums from the same company were made the exact same way on the same still, there are just a few things that would explain any profile variations. There’s the still settings themselves, because one rum might have different “cuts” than the other, or from higher or lower plate; there’s the proof point, stronger or weaker, at which either is bottled; and then there’s the barrel strategy, which is to say, the barrel itself and the duration of the rum’s slumber therein.

Last week I looked at a 12 year old Flor de Caña Nicaraguan rum from Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua, which came off their column still in some undisclosed year and was then aged in ex-bourbon barrels in Central America for more than a decade before being diluted down to a milquetoast 40%.  The 335 bottles of this Nicaraguan rum released by the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society were also 12 years old but allowed to flex the glutes at a solid 55% ABV, was in so many ways a better rum that one can only wonder at the difference. After all, isn’t tropical ageing supposed to be better? Stuff made at the distillery of origin from cane to cork should be benefiting from the voodoo of location, yet clearly that didn’t happen here.

I mean, consider the profile from start to finish.  This SMWS rum was deep and forceful from the get go.  Caramel and toffee melded well with a woody component.  Dark fruits and raisins waft across the nose and combined with some apple cider, threatens to overwhelm the smell…but the toffee, caramel, oak, chocolate and tart yoghurt end up carrying the day.  It’s a bit sweet, with some bitterness after a while, and an emergent strain of coconut and marzipan, with the whole thing getting both darker and sweeter the longer it’s nosed

Palate?  Not bad at all. It’s woody, more so than the Flor de Caña product (and this is something  about their rums many have commented on before); caramel and bitter chocolate wrestle for dominance with dark Russian peasant bread. “It’s kind of like a thin Blairmont and without the complexity,” remarked my friend Marco, who was tasting it unenthusiastically with me (he was not a fan). I disagree there, because when you leave the rum alone for a while (okay fine, I forgot about it and checked it again an hour later, so sue me) it actually provides some nice notes of coffee, brown sugar, apples and vanilla – these temper the slight oaky bitterness we sensed, and while overall I think it is rather simple and the finish just repeats the chorus of notes from above, it’s a pretty powerful statement for the company…and what it could be doing.

I have no way of knowing in which year the Flor 12 was made – company-made blends like that stay stable for long periods and are tweaked to make them that way – and so a comparison between a continentally aged rum from a single barrel selected by a whisky maker, and a blended, easier product continuously being made by the distillery, lacks true comparability or real meaning; and will without question taste differently. And that’s even without going into the oft-repeated doubts as to whether even back then, their rums truly aged for X years.

And yet, and yet….perhaps it should not taste that different. The shared DNA should be clear, there should be points of similarity that would permit a reasoned comparison to be made, the family tree to snap into focus. Here, that’s hard. If pressed, I’d say I felt this one was less like the 12 and more akin to the superlative blue-bottled 15 year old “21” I’ve always liked — but that one was also quite different from other Flor products (it was an anniversary bottling, never repeated).

So taking all that into account, what made the SMWS rum from Nicaragua so relatively good? Maybe they really were made at different times and in different ways and came off the still already more like second cousins than brothers. But assume for a minute that they were the same up to that point:  given the similarity in age, similarity in barrels and assumed sameness off the still, the only thing left to consider is the wide divergence of the proof point, and the ageing location. The 40% TA variant is faint, lacklustre and ultimately boring – it in no way provides the complexity and solidity of tastes the CA 55% does.  

I’m not trying to make a case for continental over tropical (aside from pointing out how pointless the discussion is from a taste perspective) – but I will go on record for suggesting that maybe one reason Flor de Cana can’t seem to increase its market share or get a bigger footprint on the connoisseur’s mindset, is because they have not had the guts to stake out the full proof market for their products, or even issue a limited edition series of single cask releases. And what that means is that other, smaller independents are stealing the thunder and reaping the rewards that by right should have been theirs. All because they couldn’t be bothered to move away from the traditional philosophy of their blenders.

(#806)(85/100)


Other notes’

  • Simon over at the Rum Shop Boy liked the rum, and made some interesting comments in his conclusions: he suggested that its quality disproves the oft-cited myth that lighter column still spirits require dosage to be truly palatable; and also, that a higher proof is a completely acceptable way of delivering more flavour punch to the rum.
Feb 252021
 

Back in 2013 when I wrote about the Scotch Malt Whisky Association’s release R3.4 Barbados 2002 10YO “Makes You Strong Like  Lion”, several people went on FB and passed the word around that it wasn’t a Foursquare rum, which was hardly needed since I noted in the review that it was from WIRD, and the Rockley Still. Four years later the SMWS did however, decide that the famed Barbados company shouldn’t be left out and bottled an aged rum from Foursquare (the first of two), named it R6.1, and gave it one of their usual amusing titles of “Spice At The Races.” One wonders when they’re going to try for a Mount Gay distillate, though I’m not holding my breath.

Now, for years, every rum geek in the observable rumiverse (bar a few of my acquaintances who don’t drink kool aid) has formed up behind the oft-repeated idea that there is no way a continentally aged rum is the equal of one left to sleep in its island or country of origin. I’ve always taken that statement with a pinch of salt, for two reasons: one, its adherents always talk about taste and age, yet it’s actually touted for social and economic reasons, which is a point often lost in the shuffle; and two, I’ve simply had too many aged rums that ripened in both places for me to be so dogmatic in my assertions, and I’ve seen as many failures as successes in both. Ultimately, it’s the taste that counts no matter where it’s bottled.

This pale yellow rum cost around £75 when initially released, was 57.3% and with a 210 bottle outurn, aged for a solid 14 years old (yes, in Europe) , illustrates the problem with making such sweeping “four legs good, two legs bad” generalizations, because it’s a really a fine rum in its own peculiar way, and one I enjoyed a lot.

Consider first the nose, which opens with the firm assertiveness of my primary school teacher wielding her cane. It smells of sawdust, dusty cardboard, glue, has an odd medicinal touch to it, and also a nice smoky-sweet sort of background. Then the fruits begin their march in: orange peel, strawberries, bananas, pineapple, some light cherries and peaches. The citrus line, augmented with other sharper aromas of persimmons and ginnips provide a lovely through-line, and the smokiness and leather lend an intriguing edge.

The taste is admittedly odd at the inception; my first notes speak of a pair of old, well used, polished, leather shoes (with socks still in ‘em). This is not actually a bad thing, since it is balanced off by ginger, mauby and some rich fruit notes – apples, guavas, almost ripe yellow Thai mangoes – and these make it both tart and delicately sweet, gathering force until it becomes almost creamy at the back end, with a sort of caramel, port, molasses and vanilla taste to it. This is one of these cases where the finish lingers and doesn’t do a vanishing act on you: it’s slightly acidic and tart, with vanilla, oak, smoke, unsweetened yoghurt and a touch of delicate florals and fruits. Nice.

So, a couple of points.  Marco Freyr of Barrel-Aged-Mind, who was sampling it with me, and who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the various Bajan rum profiles, wondered if it was even a Foursquare at all (I chose to disagree, and accept the rum as stated).  Also, It’s unclear from the labelling whether it’s a pure pot still distillate, or – more consistent with Foursuare’s own releases – a blend of pot and column.  Rum Auctioneer classed it as a pot-column blend.  The bottle remains silent. The Rum Shop Boy, one of the few who’s reviewed it, noted it as pot still only in one part of his review, and a blend further down (and didn’t care much for it, as a matter of interest). However, he further noted in an earlier Kintra Foursquare review some months before, that Mr. Seale had confirmed some 2002 pot still 4S rum had indeed been sold that year. My own initial take was that it was a blend, as I felt it lacked the sort of distinctiveness a pot still distillate would impart and I didn’t think Mr. Seale shipped his pot still juice over to Europe. However, Simon’s quote from him, and Seale’s subsequent note on FB put he matter to rest – he confirmed it was a pot still spirit.

All that aside, it was a really good rum, one which shows that when they want to, the SMWS can pick rums with the best of them (especially with more familiar and more famous distilleries – their track record with less known and less popular marks is a bit more hit and miss).  If various laws and regulations being pursued stop indies from getting continentally aged juice in the years to come (though this is unlikely given the extent of Scheer’s stocks), I think the Society can still rest comfortably on its laurels after having issued a rum as fine as this one, young as it may be in tropical years.

(#804)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Rum Shop Boy scored the rum 67/100, so about 83 points by my scale and 3½ out of 5 on Wes’s.  Like Marco, he commented on how different it was from the Foursquare rums he knew, and rated it “disappointing”.
  • Angus over at WhiskyFun liked it much more and scored it 87, rolling out the tongue-in-cheek “dangerously quaffable” line, and meaning it.
  • Ben’s Whisky Blog (near bottom of page) rates it a “Buy” with no score
  • Post details regarding source still is updated based on a conversation on FB the same day I put it up.  It could indeed be a pot still rum, but the jury remains out.
Dec 282020
 

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) has always had a peculiar turn when it comes to labels and tasting notes. The original bottlings didn’t always have permission to use the distillery names on the bottlings — at the time, blends were big, and distilleries did not always want their names to be associated with some off-the-wall, left-field bottle from a strange outfit, when this might shed a poor light on what they were more famed for…the consistency of their blends. This led the SMWS to the use of numerical identifiers for their outturns, and a whimsically titled name that had no relation to reality, really (almost every reviewer makes some reference to how they ignore those names, or don’t understand them).

What that does, though, is force the buyer / drinker / reviewer to actually pay attention to the product and discard preconceived notions at the door. Most will deny this to the heavens, but I firmly believe that few can divorce their expectations of a rum based on the label it sports, from the experience they expect to have, and then actually have. Which makes sense: if you see “Port Mourant” on a label, you expect to drink one, not some weird agricole or a Spanish style ron and your mind will bend that way. SMWS takes away this crutch – not completely, because by now everyone knows what the numbers mean – but enough so that the rums stands or falls upon your relatively clean experience.

So we walk into this rum, knowing only it’s from Panama. We don’t know if its from PILSA / Las Cabras or Don Jose / Varela Hermanos, the two main distilleries (my research suggests the latter); it has a 62% strength and 12 years of ageing in refill ex-bourbon barrels that resulted in 243 bottles. And that’s it.

But what these bare-bones notes don’t tell you is how impressive the dram actually is.  You’d think an industrial column still mass-produced swill can’t aspire to something greater than its origins, yet here it tries hard, it really does. The initial column-still blandness it starts out with is rescued by good barrel activity and some serious cask strength. Notes of coconut, caramel, some boot polish, licorice waft up from the glass, some blancmange, bon bons, chocolate mints and there’s even the hint of an old, well-loved and much-abused leather sofa.  After resting, it opens up to some nice truffles and chocolate notes, vanilla and florals, pineapples, oranges.  Pretty good for a region that has much fallen from favour in the last years as the New Jamaicans, Bajans and other distilling regions forge ahead.

In spite of the high ABV, which lends a fair amount of initial sharpness and heat to the tongue until it burns away and settles down, it’s actually not that fierce. It becomes almost delicate, and there’s a nice vein of fruity sweetness running through, which enhances the flavours of apples, cider, green grapes, citrus, coconut, vanilla, and candied oranges. There’s also some of that polish and acetone remaining, neatly dampened by caramel and brown sugar, all balancing off well against each other. It retains that delicacy to the finish line and stays well behaved: a touch sweet throughout, with caramel (a bit much), vanilla, fruits, grapes, raisins, citrus, blancmange…not bad at all.

I’ve been indifferent to Panamanian rums of late.  My initial enjoyment of their rums from the first years of this site’s reviews — of the Rum Nation 18 and 21 year old rums, the Abuelos (especially the Centuria) and the Panamonte XXV, none of which I would now score as high as I did back then — have given way to a more critical and rather impatient judgement as I see them treading no new ground, not issuing anything particularly interesting and staying with the same old song. These days I don’t buy many and the way Las Cabras has become a distiller-for-hire for small time brands who don’t themselves produce anything ground-shaking or innovative has done little to change that opinion.

Yet somehow the SMWS seems to have bucked the trend of milquetoast anonymous blends produced by the tankerload by equally anonymous brands and third parties. This 12 year old rum strikes me as a midpoint between the soft voluptuous sweetness of the Abuelo Centuria and the rather sterner and more focused AD Rattray, and is really a fine rum for anyone to try. Unless the great Panamanian distilleries up their game and go in different directions it’s unlikely they will every recover my unbridled affection from the early years – but this one gives me hope that the potential for good rums remains.  Even if it’s only in the occasional single barrel, ferreted out by some enterprising indie in Europe. We can hope, I guess.

(#789)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun didn’t dislike it, but wasn’t entirely blown away either and awarded it 78 points. Simon, over at TheRumShopBoy was more enthusiastic, to the tune of 88.
  • As usual, the name is a challenge.  Paddington is a bear beloved of British childrens’ books dating back from the 1950s, but his origin was clearly stated to be Peru, not Panama (though neither, as far as I know, have bears of any kind). So how the SMWS got from that to this is anyone’s guess…perhaps it’s his love of marmalade sandwiches, as Simon slyly pointed out.
May 272020
 

Anyone from my generation who grew up in the West Indies knows of the scalpel-sharp satirical play “Smile Orange,” written by that great Jamaican playwright, Trevor Rhone, and made into an equally funny film of the same name in 1976.  It is quite literally one of the most hilarious theatre experiences of my life, though perhaps an islander might take more away from it than an expat. Why do I mention this irrelevancy?  Because I was watching the YouTube video of the film that day in Berlin when I was sampling the Worthy Park series R 11.3, and though the film has not aged as well as the play, the conjoined experience brought to mind all the belly-jiggling reasons I so loved it, and Worthy Park’s rums.

You see, Hampden catches a lot of kudos and eyeballs and attention these days – their publicity blitz for the last few years is second to none, and they are rightfully renowned for the quality of their pot still rums issued with and by Velier, the ones that fans collect with a sort of obsessive good cheer which perhaps Ringo Smith might admire (and plan a long con around). But this leaves the other New Jamaican distillery of Worthy Park and its own pot stills seeming to pick up footprints, when in fact its rums are equally good, just different. Their confidence is, in my opinion, not at all misplaced, since the SMWS R11.3 — fragrantly named “Crème Brûlée Flambé” — is the best of those first three WP rums (I own but haven’t tried the second trio so far).

Consider how it opened, with a nose of pencil shavings, sawdust and wood chips in a sawmill, glue and bright sweet-sour acetones that made me look rather amusedly at the bottle to confirm it wasn’t an R2.x series Enmore or something. It developed real well from there: honey, cardamom, cloves and ginger to start, followed by a wave of tart fleshy pears and apricots.  There was a nice hint of avocados and salt and citrus juice, and when I let it stand for ten minutes (was watching the waiter training scene), I got last and light aromas of salt caramel ice cream, chocolate chip cookie, and butterscotch bon bons.

I remarked on the R 11.1 and R 11.2 that they were young and somewhat raw at times, not entirely cohesive, and Simon Johnson in his review of the R 11.2 also noted they lacked a certain elegance which the aged blends released by WP themselves displayed.  This was not an issue here at all – the palate was more approachable and rounded than its two predecessors – lots of both tart and ripe fruits, plus citrus, mint, salt caramel, rye bread, cream cheese and flowers in a good combination.  The taste is not quite as complex as the nose had been but it was close – at any rate it was both meatier and slightly thicker and sweeter than those, and for once, I think the SMWS had the title of the thing exactly right.  Finish was long, flavourful and zesty, mostly flowers, honey, fresh baked cheesecake, caramel, and some dry dusty notes of jute rice bags.

The distillation run from 2010 must have been a good year for Worthy Park, because the SMWS bought no fewer than seven separate casks from then to flesh out its R11 series of rums (R11.1 through R11.6 were distilled May 1st of that year, with R11.7 in September, and all were released in 2017).  After that, I guess the Society felt its job was done for a while and pulled in its horns, releasing nothing in 2018 from WP, and only one more — R11.8 — the following year; they called it “Big and Bountiful” though it’s unclear whether this refers to Jamaican feminine pulchritude or Jamaican rums.

Anyway, this is a rum that matches its siblings and goes a step beyond them. “Grace under pressure under a hot sun” wrote Richard Eder of the New York Times about the film “Smile Orange” in 1976, describing Ringo’s equanimity towards his travails.  The way the R11.3 cheerfully unfolds, without hurry, without bombast, taking its weaknesses and strengths in stride, suggests that the phrase could equally apply to the rum. After all, the best rums aren’t only the ones that are well made and taste good, but those which enrich and enhance life experiences, call back great memories of times gone by, allow you to skate past the problems and vicissitudes of reality. My experience and enjoyment the day I drank this rum, completely proved that point.

(#730)(88/100)

May 172020
 

It sounds strange to say it, but the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, aside from ushering in changes in the whisky world, had its impacts on rums as well. What made the Society stand out back in the day and initially made its name, was the focus on single cask fullproof bottlings, which at the time was only sporadically addressed by other whisky makers (and hardly at all with rums, except perhaps by the Italians like Samaroli and Velier, who were practically unknown outside Italy). At the time I wrote about the Longpond R5.1 and the WIRD R 3.4 and R 3.5, 46% was about the most I ever saw outside of the 151s, so juice that went for broke at cask strength was eye opening.

Well, fast forward some years and what I saw as groundbreaking in 2012 is now standard practice, and while the Society has expanded its rum selection to 50+ (all at fullproof), its lustre has been eclipsed somewhat in the competing glare of the many other rum makers (indies or producers) who are doing the same thing, and who, let’s face it, specialize in rum – they don’t see it as an adjunct to their main business. That and the SMWS’s pricing model, of course, which many can’t or won’t pony up for (full disclosure: I’m a member of the Society and buy my bottles).

But anyway, preamble aside, let’s keep on disassembling the R-11.x series of rums released by the Society, with the second release from Worthy Park distillate, which is called, without irony and perhaps tongue-in-cheek, “Absolutely Fabulous!”  Like the R11.1, it is 57.5% ABV, distilled in 2010 and bottled in 2017, 309-bottle outturn from ex-bourbon barrels.  And like that one, it’s nice and original.

The nose – sweet, fruity, subtly different from the R11.1. Orange zest, papaya, pineapple, ripe yellow mangoes, plus toblerone, white pepper, honey, cereals, and again that sly hint of glue coiling around the background.  It remains dusty, but also laden with spices like cinnamon, massala, crushed black peppers and there’s a subtle oily iodine-like smell wafting around that really makes the thing original. There’s a slight suggestion of rubber, not so much like a vulcanizing shop in hot weather as an old basketball’s air leaking out.  Like I said – original. I guess it takes all kinds.

The palate presents as hot and quite dry, a little wine-y, and also salty – brine and olives, and even salt fish with a few good ‘obstacles’ of cassava and eddoes.  It’s funky and a bit off the reservation, I grant, but there’s more: well-oiled leather, aromatic tobacco, sweet chilis and cucumbers and apple cider – I really didn’t know what to make of it, except that it sort of makes you smile and try some more, see if there’s any other element of crazy hanging around waiting to ambush your tongue. Here I did add some water and it quietened down and other flavours crept out, including the fruit that the nose had promised: pineapple, mangoes, unripe peaches, caramel, nutmeg, toffee and the acrid smoke of water-doused fire, if you can believe it. Finish was nice and long, somewhat bitter, mostly tobacco, leather, smoke, not too much in the way of sweetness or fruits except for a whiff of Fanta that permeated the entire experience.

This rum is clearly from the same tree as the R11.1 but seems like a different branch…and good in the same way, and its own way. That musky salt fish and iodine was odd to say the least (if not entirely unpleasant)…and what it shows is that rums made at the same time and aged for the same period – probably in the same place – can have discernibly different profiles.  Worthy Park sold the SMWS a number of barrels (none of the SMWS bottlings come from Scheer) so there’s both tropical and continental ageing in these things. And what it demonstrates is that like for all other indie bottlers, getting several barrels means one has the opportunity (takes the risk?) of having one barrel be different than its neighbor but both showing something of the character of the source estate. For my money, the R11.1 worked, and made my ears perk up, and my nose twitch. The SMWS took a chance with the R11.2 and it paid off, because this one, happily, does the same thing…not fabulously, perhaps, but with originality, and very nicely indeed.

(#727)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • Serge Valentin scored this 88 points and felt that were it not for two off notes it would have hit 90
  • RumShopBoy, the only other person in the rumisphere who has written about the SMWS bottlings, rated it 74/100 on a 0-100 scale, so his evaluation is about the same as mine.  His comments are worth noting: “This is not as good as Worthy Park’s Single Estate Rums that are commercially available. Although those editions do not carry age statements, they are more refined blends that are easier to drink. That leads me to my biggest problem with this rum… it is a real challenge to enjoy it properly. There is no doubting the quality of the rum and its production but it is hard to really enjoy it. Unusually for me, I found it needed some water to make it more enjoyable.”
May 142020
 

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is no longer, as outlined in the brief biography of the organization, quite any of those things, not really.  It has offices way beyond Scotland, it’s not restricting itself to bottling malts, has moved past releasing only whiskies, and can just barely be considered a society (more of an independent bottler). This is especially so since they have begun to not just buy aged casks from whisky producers but also new-make spirit so they can age their own.

This last development has not yet occurred in the fields of their rums, though it wouldn’t really influence my purchasing decisions – I’ve been a fan for years, ever since I was fortunate enough to snap up three of their rums in Canada in 2013. That’s around the time when they started to take rums even marginally more seriously than before, and now in 2020, they have 13 different distilleries’ rums, of which the R 11.1 represents one of the New Jamaicans many fans are currently salivating over.

The Society is no stranger to Jamaica – the very first release R1.1 was a Monymusk, and thereafter they added R5 (Longpond, from 2012), R7 (Hampden, from 2016) and in 2017, they scored with Worthy Park as R11. And since I’ve unconscionably ignored the ‘Park for quite some time, I think I’ll begin the slow accretion of SMWS rum reviews with them – also because they’re pretty damned good. This one is a relatively young 7 years old, bottled in 2017 at a firm 57.5% (308-bottle outturn) and has the evocative title of “Spicy Sweet Goodness”, which is very much in line with the Society’s equally amusing and puzzling label descriptions that many have drunk themselves in to stupors trying to understand or follow.

Nose first. Yep, it’s definitely a Worthy Park and a pot still rum, such as I remember with such fondness from the Compagnie des Indes’s two 2007 WP editions, the 7YO and the 8YO, both of which were really good. It’s sweet and crisp and snaps across the nose with a light and sharp esteriness: my first written notes are “fruits, flowers and honey on white bread, wow!” But there’s also a light glue background, some cereals, ginger, cumin, lemon peel and pineapple all coming together in a very precise amalgam where each note is completely distinct. It has the freshness of a newly sun-dried white sheet with the sunshine still aromatic upon it.

This is one of those rums where the taste is even better than the nose. What it does is settle down a bit, and if it loses something of the initial clean clarity that nose displayed, well, it gains a bit in depth and overall complexity. The white bread has now been toasted, the cereal is almost like Fruit Loops, but the honey (thankfully) remains, golden and tawny and thick. These core notes are joined by brown sugar, toblerone, almonds, fleshy fruits like papaya, peaches, apricots and ears, as well as a peculiar background of beef bouillon, maggi cubes and crackers and (if you can believe it) powdered laundry detergent, y’know, like Tide or something. The light citrus (it really does remind me of Fanta at times) is there to balance everything off, acting as something of an exclamation point to the palate. The medium-lasting finish is surprisingly simple in comparison to the smorgasbord we just waded through, but it is elegant and has the main food groups well represented – fruity, sweet, salty and tart, all at the same time. 

Well, this was quite something. I liked it a lot. I have no idea how so much was stuffed into the ex-bourbon barrel the rum was aged in, especially given such a young age and what was (I believe) a continental ageing regimen. There are discordant bits here and there (minor ones) in the way the flavours don’t always harmonize completely; and sure, you can taste the youth in its brash liveliness and the initial sharply crisp attack – yet I’m not convinced that a few more years would have done much more than enhance it marginally. 

Most of the rums I’ve tried from WP are relatively young, and relatively good — it seems to be a real peculiarity of the estate to produce rums that other companies ageing their rums for twice as long would have been proud to bottle. In fine, the SMWS R11.1 is a jaunty young rumlet, made with verve and style by an outfit which seems somehow to regularly put out single-digit aged rums – for themselves and for others – which are consistently and uniformly better than conventional wisdom says they should be. To do that is to Worthy Park’s credit. To recognize it and bring it to us, is that of the SMWS.

(#726)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • Inadvertent loss of my original photo required me to make some adjustments which I’ll replace when I retake that picture.
Apr 012020
 

Introduction

If ever there was a hook, a cachet, a point of distinctiveness, something that set apart an independent bottler’s rums from the crowd of baying pretenders, surely the SMWS has nailed it. Here is a bottler of primarily whiskies, that does no advertising, issues barely any rums, and yet whose rum-cred can be said to be up there with any of the Big Names. And this is in spite of their relative obscurity and rarity, and their cost. Their rums are never available on supermarket racks, only on the shelves of its own Members’ Rooms, its partners or online — plus, you have to be a member to get one, and pay for the privilege then too.  Quality-wise, I can’t speak to their whiskies, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say the rums are on a level with the mastodons of our world – but their reputation even so is nothing to sneeze at.

That reputation rests partly on the distinctiveness of the tall green bottles which embrace the various rums – in my experience only Velier has anything near to this kind of  presentation and then only with the main lines of the Habitations, the Demeraras and the Caronis. Then there is the Society’s marketing masterstroke of never saying which distillery produced the liquid inside, just a number, which drives newbs into transports of ecstatic confusion as they dive in to the lore of the Society and start to do their research.  And lastly, perhaps most tellingly, are their bottle labels, which have not only gotten more informative (within the limits of the distillery obscuration noted above) – but also more amusing. I challenge anyone to tell me what some of their evocative titles mean, and yet, who can blame them for such a method to their madness? For, once seen and laughed at – or even agreed with – who could possibly forget?

That said, for an independent bottler as renowned as the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society (hereinafter referred to as the SMWS, or the “Society”), it is peculiar how little is known about it in the rum world. Oh, whisky fans certainly know of it, and I have several friends in the rumisphere who are members, but general rumfolks?  Less. And yet, it’s not an old and proud production house dating back from the quiet halcyon days of Before, from the days of Scottish bottlers of the 1950s, or Italians in the 1960s or the rum torpor of the 1970s when Bacardi ruled all with a light-rum mailed fist. It was formed, quietly and without fuss, in 1983 and based on many of the same desires and reasons that inform the modern marketplace for indies.

Beginnings

Phillip “Pip” Hills (c) SMWS

As with many such organizations we have covered in the Makers series, the Society began as an idea in the mind of one man, Phillip “Pip” Hills, a tax consultant. Raised in Grangemouth close by Falkirk, he grew up knowing pretty much only blended whisky, which he didn’t really care for. This was in the 1970s, at which point scotch whisky was in the same doldrums as persisted in rum until the mid 2000s – blends were everything, cask strength the exception, and each brand went for long term taste stability.  Fortunately for his taste buds, two of his friends had a farm way up north, next to a gentleman who would on occasion buy quarter casks of Glenfarclas from George Grant, and passed samples (supposedly filtered through a towel, goes one – disputed – anecdote) around generously — and those tastes from the cask that Hills tried were so entrancing for him and his own friends with whom he shared it (or to whom he spoke to about it), that they pooled their resources, and had him get in touch with Grant. He was lucky enough to fill in the spot of one of their “regulars” who had had the misfortune to pass way without passing on his annual cask allocation, and managed to buy that quarter cask for £2,500.

Clearly those people who came together in Edinburgh to get their share of that first cask didn’t stay silent, because subsequently, complete strangers would stop Hills and ask him to participate in his next purchase. This was sufficient for him to go back to Grants for two more casks, and the network effect of the participants over the next years was sufficiently strong for Hills to realize he was onto something. He felt that these whiskies were way better than the bottled blends, and if this expanding group of middle-class professional folks which comprised the buying circle – the syndicate – were turning into such aficionados, then perhaps selling single cask bottles on a more formal, paying basis was a good idea.  

To do that he required an entry into the commercial whisky world, and as luck would have it, a fellow climbing enthusiast introduced him to Russel Sharp, also a climber, who at the time was head chemist at Chivas, responsible for quality. Sharp gave him a primer on the difference of the cask whiskies from bottled fare, and remarked that even if he (Hills) were to try doing this kind of semi-private bottling, legal issues such as trademarks would prevent him from using distilleries’ names on the labels. Though, he didn’t feel there was a market for it, as did all other contacts within the “regular” whisky world with whom Hills later got in touch. 

Photo (c) OldLeith.com – The Vaults, when JG Thompson owned it.

The syndicate — including Hills, actor Russel Hunter, contractor David Alison, playwright W Gordon Smith and architect Ben Tindall — was incorporated into the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Ltd in 1983, with Gordon Smith, who wanted the position, installed as Chairman of the Board, even though Hills made it clear it was a co-operative sort of undertaking since all had equal shares. The Society had the mixed blessing of being able to buy the premises of J.G. Thomson (a wine merchant) called “The Vaults” which were to be vacated as Thomson moved to Glasgow (the top two floors were condemned).  It was acquired by contributions from these members of the syndicate, but as it required major repairs and upgrades, by the time restoration was done they had all lost their investment – however, by then the Society was doing very well via its membership dues and bottle sales, so it’s a fair bet nobody lost their shirts, and the SMWS continues to operate from that base to this day (note: for further background reading on the The Vaults, see here; and for JG Thompson’s history, here.)

Having premises, a registered society, members and a mandate, Hills now required product, and went around to the distillers of the day to source casks for the Society releases. This was a time when many distilleries – Port Ellen, Glenugie, St. Magdalene and Brora are some examples – were closing and others were in dire financial straits, so there was no shortage of excellent casks to chose from. But he also found, not entirely surprisingly, that operating distillers at that time saw themselves as only expert selectors, suppliers of quality ingredients to make trademarked blends of consistent profile, rather than individualized whiskies with their own special distinctiveness and quality — which is very similar to the way Caribbean rum makers, until very recently, rarely saw their own rums as unique, or their estates’ production as selling points, in their own right. This then allowed Hills to go around and buy casks which did not match the profiles for the blends the distilleries participated in, did not know how to market, and wanted to get rid of.  And, perhaps as important, to get them for reasonable prices based on liters of pure alcohol per year aged, not in any way related to the cask, its type or provenance, or the quality of the whisky itself (a situation which would seem utterly insane today, for any quality spirit).

Release 1.1 with handwritten details by P. Hills

Product in hand — 1.1, the first one, was a Glenfarclas 1975 8 YO sherry cask and there were also 2.1 (a Speysider) and 3.1 (an Islay) — bottling came next. Fortunately, there was a small bottling plant in Commercial Street (a few corners away) which agreed to do the necessaries. It was decided to preserve an old fashioned, antique ethos to the appearance, and so green bottles were selected (these were common in the 1950s but being phased out by the time the Society was formed, and so also available at a much more reasonable cost). All four of the initial outturns were provided, then, in March of 1983; regular expressions were planned to be released monthly thereafter, and that has been going on almost without interruption ever since.

Hills and the first members were prepared to market the enterprise, figuring the quality of what the Society was offering in exchange for membership would more than speak for itself – but as it turned out, he got help: one of his business partners knew the food and wine correspondent for The Scotsman newspaper and it was suggested that a whisky tasting be organized for him and his journalist friends (although the focus of their writing, for the most part, had been wine). Hills mentions this tasting with fondness as a seminal event, possibly the first of its kind, and certainly Mr. Wilson wrote a sterling encomium of the drams he had tried, not just after that first tasting in 1984, but again a year later. I do not doubt that the word of mouth engendered by those well-connected media personages, and Wilson’s pair of articles, must have more than paid for the cost of the tastings.

 

That first session turned out to be such a success that the format was copied for the initial get together of the Tasting Committee, held in the kitchen of Hills’s house in Edinburgh, and he rather ruefully admits that it was a “motley bunch”. On paper, there was nothing wrong about getting together a set of people who worked with words and knew whisky – the committee included a historian, a professor of Celtic Studies, a professor from LSE among others – but the vocabulary simply wasn’t there (that took time to be developed – another similarity this story shares with rums) and so the quirky characteristic of the Society, that of metaphorical descriptions, was born that evening. That said, in the years that followed, Hills often wrote his own tasting notes, and the insouciant descriptions of all their bottlings has continued down to the present time, becoming part of both the lore and the cachet of the SMWS. And when you’ve got a wordsmith of the stature of David Mamet confessing that these descriptors gave him a bigger kick than the whisky…well, then you know you have something there.

Growth

Unsurprisingly, there were problems. One of the first was alluded to before and was an issue right from the start: distilleries refused to give permission to use their names, fearing trademark infringement and the dilution of their own brand by some fly-by-night cut-rate newbie on the scene who would sell substandard whisky and make them look bad.  We see the same thing today with Rum Nation or That Boutique-y Rum Co. and the Compagnie des Indes, who occasionally chuck a “Secret Distillery” moniker on their labels (even though we all know it’s Heisenberg distillate, ha ha). That’s where the concept of numbering came into play – each distillery was assigned a number and as more casks from the same distillery were bought, a period separator provided the detail.  So, when one drinks from a bottle numbered 111.3 (assuming it’s available), then that’s a Lagavulin, and their third cask purchase. Inevitably, it was a great marketing tactic as well, and it even became something of an underground mark of erudition to know which was which, and what the numbers meant, and that too became something of a trademark of the Society, redounding to their benefit.

An early meeting of the Tasting Committee (c) SMWS

Another issue was one that afflicts many fast growing enterprises: the inability of management to keep things under control, easier in a smaller concern than the sort of large operation the SMWS was rapidly becoming. Initially, as was natural, everyone knew everyone else and there was a familial, almost clubby atmosphere to the whole thing – the “fun” that was so important to Hills. This became impossible as membership grew. A year after 1.1 was released, the society already had well over 500 members and was bottling from Distillery #10.  By the end of 1984 this was up to #16, and 1000 members – and the 10,000th member was signed up a mere four years later, by which time the distilleries number over fifty.

The Board composition changed – Smith ended up resigning after a couple of years as his management style clashed with the other members, to be replaced by Mr. John Lamotte who was no more successful: like his predecessor, he was more into social advancement and a staid, stuffy gentleman’s club style, rather than simply letting things be as a gathering of cheerfully like-minded friends and irreverent aficionados. Hills, seeing that if his own vision was to prevail, finally took over the Chairmanship in the late 1980s, and stayed there until 1995.

Aside from his ideas about the social raison-d’être of the Society, two aspects of his tenure were, for him, non-negotiable. One was that of releasing blended whiskies of their own, which he refused (at the time) to countenance. “There was an element on the Board which just wanted it to make money and provide them with a place in Scotland’s dull whisky establishment,” Hill wrote to me in 2020, with just a twinge of remembered impatience. “I opposed both blended whiskies and vatted malts on the grounds that […] it would have diluted the Society’s message – which in those days was much harder for folk to grasp, since nobody else had done what we were doing.”

Label and bottle designs remained relatively consistent from 1983-2006

Another inviolable rule of the Society which Hills refused to budge on was the advertising, which to him meant – none. He fought many battles with the Board to prevent it…but that did not preclude canny publicity-seeking and brilliant PR, such as the previously noted tasting with journalists. Another coup of this kind was cold-calling Jancis Robinson, a notoriously unimpressible wine writer for the Sunday Times Magazine who finally agreed to meet him, perhaps to just shut him up – he flew to London with five whiskies in a suitcase and she must have really liked what she drank, enough to write a full Sunday feature. In the years that followed, he took author and journalist Paul Levy on a tour of the Speyside distilleries (in a vintage 1937 diesel Lagonda no less) for a spread in the Wall Street Journal; and there was that five-page article in Playboy by David Mamet, among others. 

All these efforts raised the profile of the Society and membership not only rocketed up (10k by 1988, remember) but expanded beyond the UK – the French, Japanese and US branches were begun in 1993, followed in the subsequent decades by Canada, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Germany and many others – clearly, the formula was a winning one and had an enormously wide geographical spread.  I am unclear as to the exact financial and operational relationships such branches have with the mothership, but as Hills remarked, when the Society expanded into other countries, it raised costs. 

Sourcing and stocking barrels, bottling and mailing — the entire logistical foodchain — became harder as the whisky world changed around them. Hills stayed on but understood his creation had perhaps outstripped him and wasn’t as interesting as it had once been, and the price demanded by RBS in 1995, for additional funds to keep the organization afloat, was more responsible financial management (meaning, it was implied, “not you”) and a concomitant loss of control…he called it quits and resigned in August of that year. Since then he’s been writing and indulging his own interests, but emerged from a sort of self-imposed obscurity to be part of the SMWS’s 35th Anniversary celebrations in 2018 (he relates an anecdote about the doorman to The Vaults asking him for his membership ID but alas, neglects to say what the reaction was when he said it was Number 001).

Maturity

Even without him, however, the SMWS continued and went from strength to strength. They purchased two more venues in London (2000) and Edinburgh (2004), funded by a share scheme from members; Japanese whiskies were introduced for the first time in 2002 and, without Hills there to block it, the first vatted malt was released the following year. The biggest thing to hit the Society came in 2004: in a move that surprised many, the SMWS was acquired by (or sold to) Glenmorangie. The exact rationale was never stated outright, but it is likely that as it grew perhaps money became a more overriding concern and “fun” conclusively retreated. Glenmorangie allowed a larger selection of whiskies to be released, for one, and with LVMH (the parent company) having rather deeper pockets, some of the financial issues the company evidently continued to have, could be addressed.

What was the cause of these issues that might have precipitated the sale? Having to some extent created – or at least participated in – the modern renaissance of individualized single-cask Scotch whiskies released at full proof, they may have been overtaken by other independents, or distilleries themselves, who didn’t require membership to sell such products and priced them more cheaply. The expansion overseas was another factor, and the logistical difficulties of buying more whiskies to satisfy this demand was surely a third. 

What this pointed to was that the Society had become less a membership club than a true independent bottler of international scope. However, this required being nimble and agile in an increasingly competitive marketplace for single cask whiskies if one wanted to retain relevance. It is therefore probably no coincidence that the earlier “standard” green bottles were replaced by the first generation of uniquely-shaped now-iconic tall green ones in 2008, possibly in an effort to lend more pizzazz and originality to their outturns and distinguish them from others made by all the competitors (I can assure you, that succeeded). That same year “Unfiltered” magazine debuted.

New Bottles & Label Design in 2017 (c) SMWS

But by 2015 Glenmorangie had other things on its mind, and their own dedicated whisky brands they wanted to concentrate on, and so the SMWS was sold on again to a group of private investors, thirty in all, some of whom were Society members themselves. The return of members to the management had a number of immediate impacts: reassurance of the rank and file membership that corporate interests were not affecting the brand, and that members themselves were at the helm; a web presence; and, perhaps more importantly, a professional warehousing scheme – the society had become a stockist of some note and instead of simply buying already-aged casks they liked, partnered up with many of the distilleries and were able to buy new make spirit, put them in their own casks, practice rigorous wood management and in all ways expand their potential outturn (as an ancillary note, it would also require a very long term outlook for their maturing stocks). In 2017 they also did another redesign of the bottles – they kept the shape and colour but tinkered with the label, making them, again, a bit more bold and energetic.

Today’s Society

These changes did not come without a price.  Older members groused that the “brand” had become less than what it had been and recalled, as most will (and as Hills had) the good old days, that it was no longer fun, no longer that private, small, chummy and collegial atmosphere which had so characterized its first years. 

An older version of the logo

Also, many new and more sophisticated drinkers of whisky — who, like rummies, are now able to revel in a selection of product that a generation ago was both unthinkable and unavailable — complained about a drop in quality and an increase in prices, forgetting or ignoring how far whisky as a commercial drink had come in that generation. Some even grumbled (or at least remarked on) that the expansion of the Society into other spirits like armagnac, cognac, gin and (heaven forbid!!) rum has been emblematic of its loss of focus. 

By 2020, the SMWS was and remains the largest membership club for whiskies – or any spirits, for that matter – in the world. They boast some 28,000 members in 24 countries, release whisky bottlings from over 140 distilleries — and if the speed at which their current outturns sell out is any indication, then no matter how many people resign in protest or bitterly denounce their pricing and marketing strategies, there is no question in my mind that in their own way, they have changed the whisky world irrevocably with their green bottles, and have a legion of purchasers for just about every one of them. 

I should know – because while my own belief is that they spent years mucking about with that obscure Scottish tipple before coming to the True Faith of rum (did I say I was a wee bit biased? I might have), I’m a member also, and have not regretted it, if only because it allows me to lay hands on at least some of those fifty or so rums they’ve put out the door, and to write long historical essays like this one, as well as the reviews for the ones I’ve had.  And I have to admit, had a lot of fun doing it.

The Rums

Possibly the most significant change to their whisky-only ethos Phillip Hills had so long championed and defended, came just before, and during Glenmorangie’s tenure as the owners, and that was the expansion of the lineup to include not only rum, but cognac, rye, bourbon, gin and armagnac and (in a decision that probably caused him a sleepless night or two) blended malt whisky as of 2017. 

The first rums I can find any trace of were released as far back as 2001, and the strange thing is that nobody at the SMWS seems to be able to recall anything about them (other than that they existed). The Society has no online master list of everything they’ve ever issued (“I think your record keeping is much better than the Society’s!” noted Richard Goslan rather wryly, when looking at my own rum list) and photos and anecdotes are all I have.

The first rums – I believe these to be R1.1, R2.1 and R3.1 (but this remains unconfirmed)

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised but they were from three Big Guns of rum: Jamaica (Monymusk), Barbados (WIRD) and Guyana (Port Mourant) – I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest they were Releases R1.1 for the Monymusk, R2.1 for the Port Mourant and R3.1 for the WIRD, largely because, even though the bottles don’t look to be numbered, what else could they be?  (Note: Troyk890 on Reddit’s /r/rum comment to this post, suggested not, and gave reasons – he felt they may have been special editions). Nothing else preceded them and for many years nothing came after, until a Trinidadian bottling from Providence Estate (which is not Caroni) was released in 2006. Who pioneered the move within the Society, to deal with rum, is a mystery. The source of the casks is unknown. Rum Nation might have found a rum barrel or two mouldering in Scottish distilleries years ago and bought them, but that was an exceptional case, and those days are over – so most likely Scheer or some European broker was involved, which squares with the process most others independents go through.

In any event, the initial issues of rums in 2001 appear to be nothing more than essays in the craft, and excited probably zero interest, much as Velier’s initial offerings from the Age of their Demeraras did.  People just weren’t ready for them, and whisky lovers didn’t take rum seriously – it pains me to admit, but they had a point (back then, anyway).  Even Serge Valentin, that doyen of the crisply miniscule tasting note, only took note of rum in 2010 himself. So three rums from 2001, a couple from around 2006 and then dead silence until 2012 when eight rums were offered for sale.  I have no evidence that diversification and the desire for potential additional revenue streams were behind that decision – that was the year people started to pay rather more attention to rums, you might recall – but to me it seems reasonable, even if the effort died for another four years while Glenmorangie negotiated the sale and the boys in Scotland scratched their sporrans wondering what to do with that annoyingly non-specific but very tasty drink from the Caribbean.

All funning aside, 2016 was the year we can see rums really become a part of the SMWS pantheon. The amount of distilleries got expanded to ten, from all the traditional locales like Guyana, Jamaica, Panama, Nicaragua, Trinidad and Barbados.  One wonders why St. Lucia is not part of the lineup, or, for that matter anything from Antigua, Mauritius, Reunion, Japan, Asia or Australia, but we must accept that rum is a vanishingly small part of the SMWS’s knowledge base and they are, remember, primarily a whisky bottler.  I’m not saying we should be pulingly grateful, but maybe a shade understanding. They don’t have anyone like us working for them (yet).

A few of The Caner’s Collection of SMWS rums….

Anyway, as of February 2021, there are some 63 rums in the master list (see below for my best effort), with more to come. There is no schedule for the Society, and remember, one has to be a member to buy them when they do come out. That membership fee might have only been £23 a year back in 1983 but it’s more now, plus the cost of the bottle itself – few new entrants into the rumworld are likely to spend that much money for something so erratically released, from a company whose specialty is not even rums. 

My own opinion is that there is great potential here for the Society if people ever get bored with its whiskies; and even the rarity of the rums gives them a certain reputation and elicits grumbles of thwarted desire. We need more, not less, and affordably priced, easily available.  If the SMWS ever went big time into this corner of the spirits worlds, I think there’s no telling how large that market for its rums would become or where it could end up. Although I have to admit that, like Mr. Hills, I started off by treating them as enormously enjoyable fun drinks, and wrote each of my initial reviews in that vein: if they were to become just like every other indie out there, some of that might conceivably be lost…and that’s even with the insouciant and enjoyable naming of their bottles, and those amusing tasting notes.


Sources


Other Notes

  • An article this long will invariably have some errors of omission, or inadvertent (hopefully minimal) factual inaccuracies – those are entirely my responsibility, and where pointed out, I’ll make corrections. 
  • I have focused most of this bio on the activities of Mr. Hills as a lynchpin, but that should not diminish the contributions of the many others who were involved in the Society — directly, indirectly, peripherally or in-between — over the years: the original Syndicate of founders, the farmer named “Stan,” John Lamotte, Anna Dana, Denise Nielson, Adrian Darke, Richard Gordon, Ritchie Calder and many others.

Rum Master List (as of February 2021)

Distillery R1 – Jamaica / Monymusk

  • R 1.1  1976-2001  25 YO 73.1% <Unnamed> *assumed*
  • R 1.2  <Unknown>
  • R 1.3  1991-2012  21 YO 67.4% “Take Your Time Not Being Lazy”
  • R 1.4  1991-2012  21 YO 66.2% “Gets your juices flowing”
  • R 1.5  2007-2019  12 YO 62.8% “A Little Extravagant

Distillery R2 – Guyana / DDL (Various Stills)

  • R 2.1  1989-2001  12 YO 66.7% <Unnamed> *assumed*
  • R 2.2   1991-2012  21 YO 71.4% “Too Much of a Good Thing”
  • R 2.3   1991-2012  21 YO 69.5% “Visiting a Gothic Art Gallery” (PM)
  • R 2.4   Xxxx-Xxxx  22 YO 67.8% “Sweeney Todd in a Victorian Kitchen”
  • R 2.5   Xxxx-Xxxx  22 YO 67.8% “Parfait Amour”
  • R 2.6   2003-2017 14 YO 51.3% “Banana Flambee”
  • R 2.7   2004-2017 13 YO 63.4% “Pleasing and Teasing
  • R 2.8   2003-2018 15 YO 58.3% “Out of Our Comfort Zone”
  • R 2.9   2008-2019 11 YO 62.0% “Demerara Deliciousness”
  • R 2.10 2004-2020 16 YO 59.2% “Explore, Experience, Enjoy!”
  • R 2.11 2003-2020 16 YO 59.1% “Goat Farm, Esers & Vinyl Funk”
  • R 2.12 2004-2020 15 YO 57.2% “A Precious Treasure Trove”
  • R 2.13 TBA
  • R 2.14 2003-2020 17 YO 59.4% “Caribbean Crab Cakes”

Distillery R3 – Barbados / WIRD

Distillery R4 – Trinidad / Providence Estate

  • R 4.1  1990-2006  16 YO 50.9% <Unnamed> *assumed*

Distillery R5 – Jamaica / Longpond

Distillery R6 – Barbados / Foursquare

Distillery R7 – Jamaica / Hampden Estate

  • R 7.1  2000-2016  16 YO 54.0% “Welcome to Jamrock”
  • R 7.2  2000-2016  16 YO 52.8% “Jamaica Me Crazy”

Distillery R8 – Nicaragua / Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua (Flor de Caña)

  • R 8.1  1998-2016  18 YO 57.5% “Sneaking a Tot into Woodworking Class”
  • R 8.2  1998-2016  18 YO 57.5% “The Hunt Master Before Lunch”
  • R 8.3  2014-2016  12 YO 55.0% “Fruit and Nut Case”
  • R 8.4  2014-2019  12 YO 57.5% “Campfire in Nicaragua”
  • R 8.5  2014-2017  13 YO 68.4% “Sheer Opulence”
  • R 8.6  1998-2017  19 YO 68.9% “Nicaragua WD40 Dunderfunk”
  • R 8.7  2014-2020  14 YO 67.5% “The Volcanic Spirit”
  • R 8.8 1999-2020   21 YO 57.2% “Limbo Dancing In A Kilt”
  • R 8.9  2004-2020  15 YO 67.4% “Beef Twerky”

Distillery R9 – Panama / Varelas Hermanos

  • R 9.1  2004-2017  13 YO 61.8% “Music for the Rockers of Rum”
  • R 9.2  2004-2017  13 YO 62.0% “Paddington Bear’s First Sip”
  • R 9.3  2006-2017  11 YO 60.8% “Caramel Custard Doughnut”
  • R 9.4  2004-2017  13 YO 62.1% “Chocolate Chili Combo”
  • R 9.5  2008-2017    9 YO 64.4% “Stem Ginger and Treacle Tart”
  • R 9.6  2004-2019  15 YO 61.6% “Sugar Sweet Sunshine”
  • R 9.7  2004-2019  15 YO 62.0% “Patacones with Pikliz”

Distillery R10 – Trinidad / Trinidad Distillers (Angostura)

  • R 10.1  1991-2016  25 YO 63.4% “Carnival Concerto”
  • R 10.2  1991-2017 26 YO 61.3% “Three Spice Creme Brulee”

Distillery R11 – Jamaica / Worthy Park

Distillery R12 – Belize / Travellers

  • R 12.1  2007-2017  10 YO 66.2% “Morello Cherry Delight” 
  • R 12.2  2007-2018  11 YO 65.7% “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of”

Distillery R13 – Trinidad / Caroni

  • R 13.1  1998-2018  20 YO 62.3% “Deep dark and Brooding”
  • R 13.2  1998-2020  20 YO 62.1% “Ready Made Marmalade”
  • R 13.3  1998-2020  20 YO 62.5% “Havana, Madagascar & Tahiti”

 

Jun 222016
 

SMWS R3.5 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

SMWS R3.5 3

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

(#281 / 86/100)

Mar 272013
 

 

The most searingly powerful rum you are ever likely to try. Do not simultaneously bloviate and drink this, or spontaneous combustion may occur.

(#119. 81/100)

Don’t be frightened. A rum like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s R5.1 Longpond 9 year old, bottled at a grinningly ferocious cask-strength 81.3%, isn’t really out there to kill you: it just feels that way.  I used to laugh at the way Bacardi 151 and Appleton 151 made wussie forty percenters run a hot chocolate delivery into their pants…well, here’s one that takes it a step further and indulges itself in a level of industrial overkill and outright belligerence one can only admire. It’s a Longpond, it’s cask strength, its over 160 proof of tail-whuppin’ badass.  Tread warily, because it smells your fear.

For rummies out there who, like me on occasion, are not so much into whisky lore and tend to flip an insouciant bird at the maltsters (for my whisky loving friends reading this, it’s the other guys, not you), it should be noted that the SMWS has a stated philosophy of taking what is in the barrel out of the barrel, and bottling it as is.  Bam.  Take that. No muckin’ about, no weak-kneed nonsense like “drinking strength” or “dilution with distilled water” – what you had been ageing is what you get (you can just see the boys at the Society politley ignoring the rums of Cadenhead and Renegade).  As for the R5.1, much as you might think this is an amped-up Audi supercar, it just means it derives from the first barrel of rum bought, and the 5th distillery from which they have bought it, in this case, Longpond out of Jamaica.

The corked green bottle was marked with the SMWS logo, details of origin, and tasting notes (clicking on the photo above will enlarge it so you can read, if you wish), but since I don’t read others’ tasting notes until I’ve made my own, I just went straight ahead and decanted a hay-blonde spirit into the glass.  And here I must warn you that while it smelled fantastically original, you simply could not ignore 162.6 proof – that’s not far away from pure alcohol and the aroma is therefore, a shade nuts.  Medicine, grass and freshly turned sod, with strong briny and iodine overtones, yet not so much as to make me suggest peat, more like a weird plasticine some crazy kid wants to play with (note to my friends – I refer to others’ children, not yours).

The arrival was strongly heated, as if Satan’s brimstone-flavoured pitchfork was smoothly stroking my palate.  Yet there was a trace of honey and chocolate mints there also, among the medicine and the grass, and while the turpentine evident in the taste suggested a failed artist had breathed on this baby, I have to acknowledge its overall complexity, even if it wasn’t really to my taste – I’ve continually whinged about rum moving above 40%, but 81.3% is simply too much. Maybe regular cask-strength whisky drinkers would drool over this powerful drink more than I would.  It does make a cocktail that is simply incredible, mind you.

And I must say this — the finish is, quite simply, awesome: it goes on and on and on like a pornstar on a performance bonus…I’ve never had anything remotely like it.  Five minutes after my first swallow, the fumes were still meandering up my throat in what may be the longest finish I’ve ever had, even if it does remind me somewhat of iodine flavoured camphor balls. And then, just when other rums (Lemon Hart 151Stroh 80 or Bacardi 151) run out of steam, the R5.1 burns hotter, pushes harder, gives more. This experience quickly exhausted my curses in six languages and I was reduced to weakly muttered childish wows and holy cows. Trust me, after several glasses of this monster, your eyes wobble and your sphincter seizes up, and still the rum keeps on coming.

So: the taste is biblical, the arrival is extraordinary, and the finish so strong that if it was more it would be practically nuclear and be banned by all free nations: it’s a tonsil tearing, all-out assault on your sanity. This rum should be issued with not only health advisories, but camo-green (oh wait…).  It may not be the best rum you’ve ever had (though it’s probably the strongest you’ll ever try), but you can believe me when I tell you it’s absolutely among the most original.

“If in your travels you see God,” says a modest Hattori Hanzo, the ultimate sword-maker in “Kill Bill,” when the Bride was selecting a katana, “God will be cut.”  I like this kind of becoming humility in a craftsman.  It’s a kind of reverse arrogance, acknowledging a self-evident mastery so overwhelming, so off the scale, so beyond mere hyperboles like “fantastic” or “zoweee” that there’s actually no need  to mention it at all — the product speaks for itself.

The makers of R5.1 Longpond 9 year old fall into this group of such self-deprecating uber-senseis.  It’s not that they have made a rum excellent enough that God will smile, help himself to a second roti and curry goat and pour you both another shot, no (although this is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility) – it’s more like they created a concoction so incredibly powerful, so fearsomely, mind-numbingly strong (and good, let’s not forget) that if, in your travels, you did meet God in a beer garden down by de backdam, then trust me…God would get drunk.


Other notes

Yes, there are rums stronger than this one: the 84.5% Sunset Very Strong out of St. Vincent for one. I tasted that one in late 2015 and it’s not half bad…as long as one exercises all the usual cautions. Oh and there’s the Marienburg 90% from Suriname, which is stronger in proof but weaker in quality than both. In 2020 I finally listed the 21 strongest rums in the world in an article of their own,