Sep 222021
 

€57. Think about that for a minute. That’s how much this rum cost when it was first released in 2005. Good luck finding it anywhere near that, now. By 2019 the bottle price had already climbed past £1800 and as of this writing it is closing in on three grand on the auction listings. And it’s not even the most famed or the best of the Demeraras, because the unicorns most avidly sought after and collected tend to be the PM and Skeldons, and maybe the Albions and UF30E. For some reason, Diamond, LBI, Blairmont and Uitvlugt rums from the canon, even those from pre-1990, are occasionally deemed as “less”whatever that can possibly mean in this day and agethough of course still appreciating nicely on secondary markets.

Photo (c) Velier

The French Savalle-still Guyanese rum released by Velier may not be one of the top-tier three-decade-old grail quests (unless it’s being sourced by a canny and knowledgeable investor-fan who knows better), but I submit it certainly has the pedigree to be included in the pantheon. Distilled in 1988 and aged in Guyana until 2005, it’s a robust 52.9% 17 year old rum whose origin still was housed at Uitvlugt at the time, and four barrels came together to produce 1091 bottles, which, if they used ex-bourbon American Standard barrels, implies an angel’s share so measly as to be impossibleLuca Gargano got back to me and said it was four 200-liter refilled (i.e. consolidated) barrels.

The aromas of this thing were certainly of that rich thickness that marked out others from that far back. The nose was initially spectacularplasticine, furniture polish, fresh paint over new wood; briny and olive-y, offset by a wonderful scent of autumn leaves after a rain, damp aromatic tobacco, and the deep smell of ripe, fleshy fruits. As it opened up molasses and salt caramel ice cream came forward and were joined by darker and oversweet prunes, blackberries, red cherriesthey teetered right on the edge of going off altogether before pulling back from the brink. Crisp and musky at the same time, the nose had just a trace of tannins at the back end, and was, after some time, even faintly bitterthe fruits were there, but so was the hint of something sour, like an almost spoiled lemon.

The palate was a curious beast, again quite briny, which I thought unusual for an Uitvlugt. Too, there were these peculiarif faintnotes of tar and petrol, then the sour-sweet taste of freshly-grated ginger. However, after these badasses came, sneered and then departed, we were thankfully in more familiar territory: molasses, caramel, and burnt sugar took over the stage, to be joined by lemons, chocolate oranges, a freshly baked meringue pie, raisins, dates and prunes. You might think that such notes would present as somewhat oversweet, but the rum never quite overstepped the mark and stayed crisp and flavourful without too much excess in any department. I particularly loved the lingering finish, which was a touch sharp, fruity, warm, redolent of breakfast spices and some olives, as warm and welcome and sweet as Mrs. Caner’s kisses when I promise to buy her that Prada purse she’s been after for so long.

It’s become almost conventional wisdom that the Age’s Demeraras are the pinnacle of everything a Demerara rum could ever aspire to be. Few rums from anywhere equal them, fewer surpass them and they are both summit and baseline for any Demeraras ever made. Given the mania to get one, and the aura of near mythical invincibility surrounding the series, it is difficult nowadays to be objective about any of themthough cold reason suggests that statements of their magnificence are unlikely to be true in every single case.

Still, we have to face factsthe early rums distilled in the ’70s and ’80s really were and are a cut above the ordinary, and there are few weaklings in the bunch, which is why a rum like this can now be found only on secondary markets for four figures. Even parking my cynicism and experience, I have to concede that the Uitvlugt 1988 is so good and so tasty and so approachableand so limitedthat in the years to come, it might go the way of the Skeldons and bankrupt a third world nation. It was and remains a rum seething with the richness of a great spirit in any category, and has added luster to the annals of the Demeraras.

(#852)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • Angel’s share calculation: 1,091 bottles x 0.7 liters/bottle ÷ 4 barrels = 191 liters/barrel, which works out to a loss from the maximum 800 liters (4 x 200 liters for the “standard” ASB) of around 5%. Luca Gargano confirmed (a week after this article went up) that several 200 Liter barrels had been consolidated into the four which were mentioned on the label..
  • The marque on the barrels is SP-ICBU. Tech details from Velier’s site.
  • Not many reviews out there. Single Cask Rum was really enthusiastic about this one (96 points), much more so than I was, while Marco, in one of the first such reviews back in 2014, was less positive in his unscored review and as usual, his historical detail is impeccable. Gregers Nielsen, one of my rum chums, was so horrified by mymeaslyscore that he nearly unfriended me on the spot, since he felt it to be one of the top five Velier Demeraras ever made.
Jun 282018
 

In Part I of this short series I described the trends within and position of the rumworld as it existed before Velier began issuing its Demerara rums, and in Part II provided a listing and some brief commentary of the rums themselves, as they were released. In this conclusion, I’ll express my thinking regarding their influence, and also give an epilogue of some of the characters mentioned in Part I.


So, what made the Age? In a time when independent bottlings were already in their ascendancy, why did this one series of rums capture the common imagination to the point where many of the issues have become unicorns and personal grail quests and retail for prices that, on the face of it, are almost absurd? And what was their impact on the wider rumiverse, then and now?

Part of their fame is certainly the proselytizing dynamism and enthusiasm of Luca Gargano himself. He is born storyteller, very focused and very knowledgeable; when you meet him, you can tell he is enraptured with the subject of rum. He travels constantly to private tastings and rumfests, and is well regarded and well known around the world. The rise of Velier is in no small part attributable to the business acumen and personal force of this one man and the dynamic team of Young Turks he employs in his offices in Genoa.

But Luca aside, I think that the Age was what it was because it really was a first, on many differing levels. It broke new ground, created (or legitimized) many new trends, and demonstrated that the rum folks would buy top quality rums even with a limited outturn. It summed up, codified and expanded principles of the rum world the way Citizen Kane did for film.

One has only to look at the way things were and the way things are to see the influence they had, and while it’s perfectly acceptable to state that Velier was only one aspect of the momentous changes in the world and the rum industrythat it was all inevitable anyway, and maybe they were just lucky bystanders who shone in reflected light of greater awarenessI contend that the Demerara series serves a useful marker in rum history that influenced much of what subsequently came along, and which we now take for granted and indeed, expect from a good rum

The Demerara rums released by Velier were several notches in quality above the equivalent rums produced almost anywhere else and entrenched the issue of tropical ageing as a viable way of releasing top quality rum, because aside from the major brands releasing their aged blends (often at 40-46%), it was almost unheard of to have tropically aged rums of such age produced at cask strength and so regularly. Almost without making a major point of it, the Age enhanced the concept of “pure”, and solidified the idea of “full proof” that otherwise might have taken much longer to get to develop.

The series pointed the way to the future of Foursquare rums, Mount Gay cask strengths, the El Dorado Rares, as well as English Harbour’s and St. Lucia Distillersnew and more powerful expressions. They provided an impetus for the re-invigorating of Jamaican distilleries, some of which were all but unknown if not actually defunct, and it could be argued that there is a line of descent from the estate-based Demerara full-proofs to the movement of these Jamaican distilleries to not just sell in bulk abroad, but to issue estate-specific marques of their own.

The Age also moved the epicenter of the top-echelon rums (not always the same as super-premiums) away from aged blends (like El Dorado’s own 21 and 25 year old rums, or Appleton’s 21 and 30 year olds) to single-barrel or limited-edition, estate-specific full proofs. It gave the French agricoles a boost via Velier’s subsequent collaboration with Capovilla (which is not to downplay the impact of the hydrometer tests mentioned below), and provided small, new rum outfits like Nine Leaves and US micro-producers the confidence that their rums made to exacting specifications, at a higher strength and without additives had a chance to succeed in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

And the Age led to a trend in increased participation of independents and private labels in the greater rum world: new or concurrently existing companies like Hamilton, EKTE, Transcontinental, Compagnie des Indes, Bristol Spirits, Mezan, Duncan Taylor, Secret Treasures, Svenska Eldevatten, Kill Devil, Excellence Rum, L’Esprit, as well as the older ones like the Scottish whisky makers, Plantation, Rum Nation, BBR, and Samaroli, are its inheritors (even if their inspiration was not a direct one and they might argue that they had already been doing so before 2005). Nowadays its not uncommon to see annual releases of many different expressions, from many different countries, instead of just a few (or one).

It would be incorrect to say that the Age of the Demeraras proceeded in isolation from the larger rum world. While these Demeraras were being made, others were also gathering a head of steam (Silver Seal and Samaroli are good examples, which is why their older bottlings are expensive rarities on par with Veliers in their own right). All the larger independent bottlers increased their issue of stronger rums from around the world. And I suggest that the work they have done when considered together has led to two of the other great divides in the rum world – cask strength versus standard, and continental (European) ageing versus tropical. To some extent Velier’s Demeraras raised awareness and provided some legitimacy for this trend if not actually initiating it.

Drejer, hydrometers, sugar and the fallout

One other aspect of the rumworld not directly related to the Age detonated in late 2013 and early 2014, and must be considered. That was the work of the Finland’s ALKO and Sweden’s Systembolaget, closely followed by Johnny Drejer, in analyzing the contents and ABV levels of rums. They used a hydrometer to measure the actual ABV as the instruments displayed, and compared that against the labelled ABVany difference over and beyond some kind of normal variation was an additive of some kind that changed the density. In the main, that was caramel or sugar in some form or other, and possibly glycerol and/or other adulterants.

Five short years ago, nobody on the consumer side of things ever thought to do such a test. Who could afford that kind of thing with a commercial lab? — and if the producers were doing such analyses, they weren’t publishing. For years before that, there had been rumours and dark stories of additives going around, it’s just that public domain evidence was lacking. Many producersexcepting those prohibited by law from messing arounddenied (and had always denied) additives outright, or spouted charming stories about secret cellars and stashes, family recipes, old traditions and rum heritage. Most of the remainder hedged and never answered questions directly.

When the Scandinavians started publishing their results, the roof blew offit quite literally changed the rum landscape overnight. For the first time there was proofclear, testable, incontrovertible proofthat something was being added to some very old and well-regarded rums to change them. Almost at once Richard Seale of Foursquare used his regular attendance at international rumfests to speak to the issue (as did Luca Gargano), and he, Johnny Drejer, Wes Burgin, Rum Shop Boy, 4FineSpirits, Cyril of DuRhum, Phil Kellow, and Dave Russell proved that with some inexpensive home apparatus, you could do your own testing that would at the very least prove something else was in your favourite juice (though not what it was). All the blog owners mentioned above now maintain lists of rums and measurements of the ABV differences and the calculated dosage (that’s where the links direct you).

That direct measurement of, or reference to, a hydrometer test for ABV discrepancies has become a key determinant of honesty in labelling. Conversations in social media that speak to rums known to have been “dosed” (as the practice has come to be called) are more likely than any other to end in verbal fisticuffs and name-calling, and has created a third great divide in the world of rum drinkers.

This may be seen to be at best peripheral to the Age, but what hydrometer tests and the emergent purity movement did, was instantly (if indirectly) provide enormous legitimacy to the entire Velier Demerara line and those of many of the European indies, as well as the whole pure-rums concept Luca had been talking about for so long. With the exception of the pre-2005 releases, the credibility of these rums was solidified at once, and the increasingly positive word of mouth and written reviews moved them to almost the pinnacle of must-have rums. I’m not saying other rums and producers didn’t benefit from the movementJamaican, Bajan and St Lucian rums in particular were were more than happy to trumpet their own purity, as did practically every independent bottler out therejust that Velier reaped a lot of kudos almost without trying, and this helped raise awareness of their Demerara rums. It’s an aside to the main thrust of this essay, but cannot be entirely ignored either.


Epilogue

Many of the players in this short history are still with us, so here’s an update.

The El Dorado 15 remains a staple of the rum drinking world to this day in spite of its now well-publicized dosage. It has received much opprobrium for the lack of disclosure (DDL never commented on the matter of dosage until an interview with Shaun Caleb in 2020, and for the record the practice is being phased out) and has slipped somewhat in people’s estimation to being a second tier aged product. Yet it remains enormously popular and is a perennial best seller, a rum many new entrants to the field refer to as a touchstone, even though DDL has moved to colonize the space Velier pioneered and begun issuing cask strength limited bottlings from the stills themselves in 2016 (the 1997 anniversary editions at 40% were essays in the craft but predated the Age and were never continued).

Photo (c) A Mountain of Crushed Ice

Ed Hamilton has withdrawn somewhat from his publishing and promotional work, and the Ministry of Rum website is a shadow of its glory days, with most of the traffic and rum-chum interaction shifting to Facebook, where his group is one of the top five in the world by user base. Mr. Hamilton is a distributor of many distilleries’ rums into North America and in 2010 began to issue the Hamilton line of rums from around the Caribbean, all pure, all at cask strength. I quite liked the little I’ve tried.

Independent bottlers continue proliferating in Europe and all follow the trail of the Age – full proof, estate (or country) specific rums. When from Guyana, it is now standard practice for the still to be referenced, with the “Diamond” moniker being perhaps the most confusing.

The internet has enabled not just one rum forum on one website, but a whole raft of international rum review websites from the USA, Australia, Japan, France, Germany, Denmark, Spain, and the UK. Oddly, the Caribbean doesn’t have any (and I’m not sure that I qualify, ha ha). There are also news aggregators and online shops in a quantity that astounds anyone who saw it develop in so short a time. Aside from private sales on Facebook, websites are now one of the most common ways to source rums as opposed to walking into a shop. The many Facebook rum clubs are the sites of enormously spirited discussionsthese clubs (and to a lesser extent reddit) are the places to get the fastest response to any rum question, and the best in which to take a beating if you profess admiration for a dosed rum.

Johnny Drejer and the others mentioned above are still updating rum sugar lists. They cover most common rums. The test is now considered almost de rigueur. It has its detractorsit can be impacted by more than just sugar, temperature variations affect the readings, it can be fooled by higher actual ABV being labelled as less, and you never know quite what’s been addedbut it remains one of the strongest tools in the ongoing battle to have additives or dosage disclosed properly.

Luca Gargano of Velier, April 2018, Genoa

Velier has grown into one of the great distributors, enablers and independents of the rumworld (though they remain at heart a distributor), and not rested on their laurels, but gone from strength to strength. Luca, always on the lookout for new and interesting rums, scored a massive coup when he picked up thousands of barrels from the closed Trinidadian distillery Caroni in 2004. Velier has been issuing them in small batches for years, so much so that it could be argued that as the sun of appreciation set over the Age of Demeraras, it rose on the Age of Caroni (at least in the public perception). He has championed artisanal rums from Haiti and anywhere else where traditional, organic and pure rums are made. He has forged partnerships and fruitful collaborations with producers around the world. One, with Richard Seale of Foursquare resulted in the conceptual thinking behind the Exceptional Series, as well as the collaborations of Habitation Velier, which are tensely awaited and snapped up fast by enthusiastic and knowledgeable rum folks. He has an involvement with Hampden out of Jamaica, and when the 70th Anniversary of Velier rolled around in 2017, partnered up with many producers to get special bottlings from them to mark the occasion. Velier has grown into a company with a scores of employees, and a turnover hundreds of times greater than that with which it began.

I appreciate this sounds like something of a hagiography, but that is not my intention. The purpose of this long essay and this wrap-up, is simply to place the Demerara rums issued during those years at the centre of great changes in our world. (Not the Caronis, because I contend that the appreciation for them took much longer to gestate; not so much the Rhum Rhum line done with Capovilla, since they remain something of a niche market, however popular; and certainly not the one-offs like the Basseterre 1995 and 1997 or the Courcelles 1972, which were too small and individualistic). The Age’s rums did not create all the trends noted above single-handedly. But certainly they had a great influence, and this is why we can correctly refer to an Age, even if it is just to mark the time when a series of exceptional bottlings were made.

It is my belief that what the Demerara series of rums did was to point the way to possibilities that were, back then, merely small-scale, limited or imperfectly executed ideas, waiting to be taken to the next level, like Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane did for movies in 1915 and 1941. Velier came in, took a look around and re-imagined the map, then went ahead and showed what could be done. Certainly, like most innovators, Luca built on what came before while amending and modifying it to suit his own personal ideas; others contributed, and Velier did not work outside the great social and spirituous trends of its time. But somehow, Luca more than most gathered the strands of his imagination and used them to tie together all the concepts of rum making in which he believed. In doing so he produced rums which remain highly sought-after, and used the credibility they engendered to put his stamp firmly on the industry. We live in the world that he and his rums helped to bring about. Whatever your opinions on the influence of the Age, we had what we had before they appeared, and now we have what we have which is better. The work is worth acknowledging, and respecting. It is to our regret that the Age was over before we even properly acknowledged its existence.

In closing, I should mention that the Age of Velier’s Demeraras was only called that when it was over (and for the record, it was by the Danish blogger Henrik Kristoffersen who first used the term in a Facebook post in early 2016). And even if you don’t believe the Age was so central, or had the sort of rum-cultural impact as I think they do, I believe there’s no gainsaying that the sheer quality of rums that were issued for those nine years supports the idea that there was once an Age, that it really did existand the current crop of rums from this company remain at a similar level of quality as those first old and bold ones which were once considered too expensive. It’s great that even now with all their rarity, we can sometimes, just sometimes, still manage to drink from the well of those amazing Demeraras, and consider ourselves fortunate to have done so.

***


This series elicited an interesting discussion on Reddit regarding topical ageing vs continental, here.

Jun 272018
 

Part IIThe Rums

Photograph (c) Rumclubfrancophone.fr

2005 – The Age Begins

In Part 1 I gave a rather lengthy rundown of the events and trends leading up to the unofficially named Age. There was a reason for thatbecause I wanted to make it clear how the rum landscape was altered after those rums were issued. And to do that we needed to get a sense of what it was like before.

To briefly recap, the pieces were in place, at the intersection of culture and history and personality:

  • the world was becoming more interconnected and knowledgeable as a result of the proliferation of internet enabled websites and blogs, books being written and the Ministry of Rum website; in short, communications had undergone a sea change.
  • rums had moved from being primarily blends and cocktail fodder to sharing space on shelves with generously aged expressions;
  • people were starting to know more and had more choice; independent bottlers helped move that along, as did the emergent rum festival scene started by the Miami Rum Renaissance
  • and Luca Gargano, having bought a small Genoese spirits-distribution concern, started issuing a relatively large number of Guyanese rums, which were relatively unsucessful but which crystallized his thinking on what he felt the characteristics of good rums were.

Now, we could argue that since the world was ripe for an expansion of cask strength single editions from all points of the compass (the concept was not, after all, particularly new), that Luca Gargano just did it with more verve and panache, and that everyone else was going to do it anyway. The development was inevitable. History is replete with stories of groundbreaking ideas being developed simultaneously in multiple places (Newton and Leibnitz with calculus; Darwin and Wallace with evolution; Einstein and Hilbert with relativityand so on).

Maybe so. But I argue that nobody ever did it better, or in such volume and he was there at the right time with the right rums, just as interest was catching on. The rumworld was ready for something new and interesting and dynamic, and Luca filled the niche both in what he produced and who he was.

The Rums, by date of issue

As noted in Part 1, after a few years of developing the company and broadening its portfolio, Velier began its move to craft spirits in 1992 (which may not be a coincidence), by beginning its selection of barrels of rum for its brand. This led, in 1996, to the issuance of three Guyanese rums – all issued at 40% (see next paragraph) and using a third partly bottler (Thompson & Co.). All were continentally aged.

Note the two editions of the Diamond 1975 at different strengths. I double checked the labels and the images, and yes they clearly note the separate ABV. This then was the first demonstration of something Velier would become famous for: issuing the same rum at varying power (though likely from different casks), which culminated in the multitudinous variations of the Caronis that so amuse, enthrall and irritate the accountants.

  • Diamond 1975 20 YO (1975 1996), 40%
  • Diamond 1975 20 YO (1975 1996), 46%
  • Port Mourant 1985 21YO (1985 1996) 40%
  • Versailles 1991 5 YO (1991 1996), 40%

Luca was dissatisfied with this, and four years later tried again, with three more rums from Guyana. These were bottled by a Holland-based subsidiary of DDL themselves (called Breitenstein), because by this time Velier’s association with DDL had become much firmer and it was felt to be more cost effectivethough they remained continentally aged. Of particular note was Luca’s find of the LBI marque, quite rare, though which still produced it remains an open question. The Enmore also comes in for mention because of its strength – it was the first attempt to issue at full proof…why he did not follow on from this concept here is unknown, but considering that the Damoiuseau 1980 only got released two years later, perhaps it was nerves, or caution, or simply a lack of confidence (though that would seem doubtful to anyone who’s ever met the man).


By the time the third batch of rums was issued in 2002, now all at 46%, Luca knew something had to change. While he was happy with the ages of the rumson three separate occasions rums had been released at close or equal to 20 yearsthey were continentally aged and simply not exciting enough, unique enough, in a field where other independents were issuing similar versions, if not in such quantity. But they were all sipping at one well, that of the European brokers, and he felt he had to get his rums from the source. It was this 2002 series that began to do exactly that: all three rums were fully tropical-aged and selected directly from DDL’s Guyana warehouse, which was a first for any independent bottling to that time. Luca himself dates the Age from this release season, though he admits he lacked the courage to go completely full-proof for it, and told me that Yesu Persaud would probably not have countenanced it either at the time.

As an aside, attention should be drawn to the label designeach release season (1996, 2000 and 2002) is clearly distinct from the others. The wild and joyously near-abstract paintings echoed local artists, and we would not see their like again until Simeon Michel was contracted to provide the artwork for the clairins many years later.

  • Albion 1984 18 YO (1984 2002), 46%
  • Diamond 1982 20 YO (1982 2002), 46%
  • Port Mourant 1982 20YO (1982 2002), 46%

Photo (c) Ministry of Rum

My feeling is that the classic portion of the Age started in 2005. The now famous black bottles and simplified labels were introduced in that year and remained constant for nearly a decade. The level of detail on those labels was unprecedented, by any maker, at any time, for any rum. For the first time consumers got the year of distillation and bottling; the casks, the outturn, the strength, the still and the marque, even (sometimes) the angel’s share. And serious strength was on display for once, real full proof, from-the-barrel power.

In the years leading up to 2005, Luca forged a firm personal alliance with DDL (and its chairman, Yesu Persaud). They showed him select barrels from their ageing warehouse and he chose some to bottle. 2005’s Diamond and Uitvlugt releases are considered good rums but they were relatively young and lacked an element of gravitas. But one day as he was walking with Mr. Persaud through the ageing warehouse, he spotted five or six barrels mouldering quietly in a corner. They were from a long defunct distillery of the Skeldon estate (the easternmost estate in Guyanathe distillery is long closed though it still makes sugar), and their age took his breath away. He tried the 1973 and it was such an impressive dram that he almost begged to be allowed to bottle it as it was. For the only time in this partnership, permission was granted and he was allowed bottle all the barrels himself, and the 1973 proved to be one of the most amazing rums ever issued (myth has it that he also got the single barrel of the Caputo 1973 at this time, but that’s another story entirely).

Photo (c) Barrel-Aged-Mind

The three barrels of the Skeldon 1978 were a different matter. There was insufficient volume to make a decent outturn (whatever that might mean, given that the 1973 only produced 544 bottles from four barrels), and so it was mixed in with some 1973 — and therefore this is a blend, not a rum conforming to Velier’s usual standards. Still, all of these rums were tropically aged and released at cask strength, and this was what he wanted. (I have heard another story that DDL themselves blended the 1973 and 1978 and didn’t tell him, admitting it only when pressed because he recognized a difference in the profile after the fact).


2005 and 2006 together saw the issuance of not only eight different Guyanese rums but nine and eight Caronis respectively. None of these received especially wide acclaim or attention, though my feeling is that the 1991 Blairmont was definitely one of the better rums I’ve tried from the stable and the one occasion I tried (without notes) the PM 1993, it was equally impressive, though relatively young compared to its siblings issued in those two years.


2007 was an odd year, when everything issued was under ten years old, which may just have been a function of what was put in front of Luca to inspect and select. The first Versailles rum since 1996 was issued in 2007, and somehow another LBI rum was foundit would prove to be the last.

In this year some of the first reviewing websites began to go live: however, these were primarily American, with oneRefined Vicesfrom Australia, and showed the slowly building interest in quality rums (perhaps also aided by the Miami Rum Renaissance which started around this time). But while rums commonly available in North America formed the bulk of the writing on such sites at this stage, the European bottlings Velier was making received little or no attention, and remained on sale primarily in Italy.


When it came to releases, 2008 was a banner year for the company, when eight Demerara rums were issued at once. Yet widespread acceptance remained elusive: costing out at over a hundred euros per bottle, most consumers in Europe, where distribution was primarily limited, felt this was still to expensive (bar the Italians, who I was told were snapping them up). One can only imagine how frustrating this must have been to Luca, who knew how good they were. The standouts from this year’s collection were undoubtedly those amazing 1970s Port Mourants, which are now probably close to priceless, if they can even be found. (And even the others are becoming grail questsI saw an online listing in June 2018 for the Albion 1983, at close to two thousand euros).


Something interesting happened in 2010, overlooked by many, ignored by the rest. For the first time reviews of the Velier Demeraras start to appear in the blogosphere, and they were all from Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun. He had begun in 2009 with a raft of generally available rums, and in 2010 issued his first review of Velier rumsEnmore 1988 and 1990, Albion 1989, Uitvlugt 1990 and Blairmont 1991. Andnobody noticed; those who did hardly cared. He was a whisky guy daring to dabble in rums? Shame on him. The reviews sank out of sight; nobody else would write about these spectacular rums for nearly three years and modesty be damned, when the next round of reviews were published, they were mine.

That same year Velier only issued two rums, though I have not been able to establish why such a small release. (The Blairmont was offered for sale in June 2018 on FB for €2300, for those who’re interested in pricing their collection).


2011 was another skinny year, with only three rums being released, two of which were from Albion. Why DDL would sell off barrels of defunct distilleries like LBI, Blairmont or Albion is a curious window into their commercial mindset at the timeit’s possible that they simply didn’t see any margins in such niche products which might cost more to bring to market than they would sell for, though Velier clearly showed this was not so. Since Velier maintained a low profile outside Italy, they probably didn’t see such rums adding value to the DDL brand, and were okay letting them go. The Albion 1994 is particularly fine piece of work and I’ve heard it bruited about that 2018/2019 Release 3 of the DDL Rares will have one.


The Diamond and Port Mourant releases from the 2012 season were rums Luca liked a lot…but when he saw three barrels from Uitvlugt marked UF30E (for East Field #30 – perhaps the first incidence of parcellaire (a specific parcel of land within a terroire) ever found) he immediately snapped them up and produced 814 bottles. It remains, in the opinion of this writer, one of the best Guyanese rums ever made, perhaps even better than the Skeldon 1973. The PM 1997 was also a very very good piece of work, but could not eclipse the UF30E and it’s just a shame that I never managed to try the 30+ year old Diamond.


Nothing was issued in 2013 (the reasons remain obscure), and by the time the 2014 came around, things were slowing down: although we did not know it, the end was drawing nigh. While still being shown barrels to choose from, Luca felt the quality and age was no longer as spectacular as the early rums he had found just a few years before (that might be because he cleared out all the best juice already, I humorously remarked to him some years later). This led to some experimentation of various blends (Diamond-Versailles, PM-Diamond and PM-Enmore) which were positively received, but whose interesting development was never followed up on. That said, these have become as pricey and hard to find as any other of the classic Demerarasand, reputedly, every bit as good.

Diamond 1999 15YO (1999 2014), 53.1%
Diamond 1999 15YO (1999 2014), 64.1%
Uitvlugt 1996 18 YO (1996 2014) (Modified GS), 57.2%
Uitvlugt 1997 17 YO (1997 2014), 59,7%
Port Mourant / Enmore Experimental 1998 16YO (1998 2014), 62.2%
Port Mourant / Diamond Experimental 1995 19YO (1995 2014), 62.1%
Port Mourant / Diamond Experimental 1999 15 YO (1999 2014), 52.3.%
Diamond / Versailles Experimental 1996 18 YO (1996 2014), 57.9%

(Note that in 2014 and 2015, when the Velier Demeraras were beginning to become more well known, both Cyril of DuRhum and Henrik of RumCorner were starting to write about themboth described the Enmore 1995 from the 2011 seasonand it was from that point that the Europeans started to sit up and take notice and prices began their climb as Velier’s reputation gained momentum.)

In late 2014 DDL’s chairman, with whom Luca had had such a sterling relationship, retired, and within months the new chairman informed him (Luca) that they themselves would be releasing “Gargano-style” rums, and the arrangement Velier had with DDL would come to an end. The rums listed above are therefore among the last ever issued by the collaboration (until the 70th Anniversary bottling in 2017, which falls outside the scope of this essay).

Nothing was released in 2015, and in 2016 Demerara Distillers came out with the Rare Collection. This led to a lot of grumbling and online vituperationsome thought it a cheap shot by DDLbut in the main, such annoyance as was expressed focused mostly around the pricing, which was felt to be exorbitant (and continues this day, with the 2018 El Dorado 12 year old wine finished editions which are also considered to be overpriced). But what the Rares did was seal the fate of the Velier Demeraras. Once those came out the door, we knew that there would never be any more.

And just like that, the Age was over.


Other Notes

In Part III I’ll wrap up this short series by assessing the trends and impact which the Age had (at least in my opinion), and provide an epilogue.

 

Jun 252018
 

Part 1 – Influences & Developments to 2005

Introduction

Take a look at the rum world in 2018, and several aspects jump out immediately. The top-end rums getting most of the press and user approbation are almost all rums issued at cask strength; many, if not most, are made by an ever-increasing stable of independent bottlers, with Foursquare being one of the few primary producers making such strong rums as part of their core lineup, and others hastening to catch up. Rums are often being made “pure,” which is to say without additives, labels are much more informative than ever before, and unaged whites are becoming more and more popular (and appreciated). The major large-company rum brands of ten years ago – many of which were and are aged blendsremain enormously popular but have almost all been relegated to second-tier status in the eyes of knowledgeable aficionados. And the dissemination of information regarding rums – whether via news stories, magazine click-bait, blogs, review sites, Reddit forums or Facebook rum clubs – has enabled the trend in this direction exponentially.

When one considers the state of the rum world prior to 2005, this ninety-degree turn in the drinking habits of the tippling class seems well nigh unprecedented. It is my considered opinion that the Demerara (and to a lesser extent the Caroni) rums issued by Velier in the years 2005 to 2014 were instrumental in altering the rum landscape in a way few rums before ever had, or ever will again. To this day, many consider them among the best rums from Guyana ever issued, and that includes the independents (of which Velier was surely one in spite of being primarily an importer). Many of the concepts we take for granted when choosing top-shelf rums from Guyana – indeed, from anywherewere encapsulated and brought to a wider audience by the Demerara series. We live in the world they helped make, and it is our loss that they ceased being issued almost before we even properly acknowledged their existence.

In this first portion of a rather long three-part essay I’m going to look at the trends, influences and developments that I believe laid the foundations for what is unofficially called the Age of Velier’s Demeraras. I argue that these were the release of the El Dorado 15 year old in 1992, the rise of the internet, three books, a website, proliferating independent bottlers in Europeall of which led to a more informed and rum-educated drinking cadre, some of whom went on to form the first websites devoted to rums and reviews. Also, oh yes….there was a small Italian importer….

As it was then

The rum world in the 1980s was a rather staid one, moving along very much as it had for years before. Major rum companies from around the Caribbean were issuing more or less the same rums they had been for decades – then as now, 40% ABV was practically a standard, age almost uniformly under ten years (if mentioned at all), and the market was full of familiar brands, similar recipes, incremental development, and with column still blends being the majority of sales.

As with all such general conditions, there were exceptions at the margins. Many small companiesmaderum for sale around the worldbut they were really rebottlers and independents, not primary producers with sugar estates and/or distilleries of their own. Too, although 40% was a common sort of strength (especially in the United States), it was not an absolute. The French Caribbean islands made more than their fair share of rums around 50% ABV and rums made for export to European countries often boosted the strength to 43-48%

When it came to market domination, Bacardi was the undisputed leader, and lighter Spanish-style rums seemed to be everywhereI even found them and not much else in Central Asian bazaars in the early 1990s. The great Asian houses like McDowell’s and Tanduay were unknown except in their region. Most rums in production at the time were considered mixing drinks at best, which was a state of mind deriving from the misconception that it was a pirate’s booze, a sailor’s hooch, a drink to have fun with…not something to be taken seriously. Not to be had by itself, or to be savoured on its own. Unlike, for instance, whisky.

Although some independent bottlers issued more seriously aged rums in limited quantities, they didn’t expand production or really take it furtherthe market was a small one, and such bottlings were mostly bought by whisky aficionados and some hard core rum enthusiasts-cum-collectors, who were intrigued by the variationspeople like Steve Remsberg, profiled here and here or Luca Gargano, or Martin Cate or the Burrs. Rum culture in the general publicboth in perception and consumptionwas primarily about cocktails, the mythmaking of Hemmingway-esque muscularity…today’s social-media-enabled rum clubs, where reviews of the latest bottling of a favoured company go up in days, hours or even minutes after formal release, where minute variations of favourite styles or individual rums are endlessly bickered over, and where discussions about additives erupt every other post, were not even a cloud on the horizon.

This is not to say a wide variety of rums was not being made – quite the opposite. South and Central America had a long and proud history of rum production. Companies like Varelas Hermanos, Vollmer, Zacapa, Zaya, Dictador, Travellers, Flor de Cana, Juan Santos, and Cartavio were issuing softly blended and solera-style rums since the early 1900s and some even predated the turn of the century. Cachacas had been made for hundreds of years in Brazil. In the East there were almost unknown rums from India and Thailand and Indonesia. Cuba had its national production arm sending rums to Scheer and began working hand in hand with Pernod Ricard to produce the Havana Club line in the 1990s; and while booted out of Cuba itself, Bacardi was selling rums by the tankerload globally (largely due to subsidies provided by the US government). The French islands, with their plethora of small and fiercely individualistic distilleries sold primarily to the European market (France in particular), and even with the slow demise of sugar and rum production, distilleries in Jamaica, Trinidad, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Guyana, Antigua and Barbados (to list but some) struggled gamely on.

Aged rums made by primary producers from the pre-1990s eras were on the market, sure, and there was no shortage of them….but one had to look carefully for the specific trees in the forest (nowadays even more so when most exist in private collections or in memory alone). Fernandes Distillery in Trinidad made the Ferdi 10 Year Old from as far back as the 1930s and was still making it in the 1960s and 1970s; Appleton produced a 12 year old and a 20 year old from way back in the 1960s, issued a limited 25 year old in 1987, and old gaffers will remember the Dagger 8 Year Old and Three Dagger Jamaican 10 Year Old from J. Wray, also hailing to the 1930s; and going back even further in time, Jamaica at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, 1886 by Sir Augustus J. Adderley lists 10, 15, 25 and 31 year old rums from merchant bottlers like D. Finzi & Co. and Wray and Nephew (before they acquired Appleton). I know there was an 18 year oldOld New England Rumfrom the USA in 1934; Beenleigh in Australia made a five year old rum (and supposedly supplied the Royal Navy); Banks DIH in Guyana made a five year old as far back as the 1950s (though I don’t know when the 10 year old first appeared). La Favorite on Martinique had a ten year old back in the 1950s and 1960s, but like most agricole makers, were much more into millesime rhums, and while I’m sure the agricoles had more than my research uncovered, their naming convention of vieux, tres vieux and XO makes it difficult to see what is aged beyond, say, six to ten years. Most aged rums around the world seemed to be ten years old or less. A twenty year old was unheard of, thirty the stuff of dreams. (We had to wait until 1999 for the G&M 58 year old, another ten years for the Courcelles 37 year old).

Anyway, much of the primary producersrum production went to Europe in bulk (a lot went to E&A Scheer, which was and remains one of the largest brokers buying rum stock in the world) and was then blended into European producers’ rums, of which there were many, none of which achieved any sort of lasting fame (unless it was the navy style of rum made by UK companies like Watsons for the local market). There were many small merchant bottlers, shops and back-street independents who released extremely limited and now-often-forgotten bottlings of aged expressions into the marketplace. And so the West Indian distilleries consolidated, shuttered, closed, changed focus, modernized, diversified, found new markets…and somehow the rum continued to flow.

But underneath this relatively placid existence of blends and unquestioning rum-is-fun-no-questions-need-be-asked, several seemingly unrelated events occurred which were to lay the foundations of whole new directions for the rum world.

1992 and the El Dorado 15 Year Old

In 1992, what proved to be an enormously influential rum came on the scene – the El Dorado 15 Year Old and its brothers up and down the line, the 5, 12 and 21 and (later) the 25s. It may not seem so now, when so many aged brands are sold around the world, and where every distillery has a few in its portfolio. But it sure was then.

Bearing in mind the (very) abridged list of older rums mentioned above, it doesn’t entirely surprise me that whatever the age, few or none seemed to ever make a huge worldwide splash. The market wasn’t there, the connoisseurship was lacking, and information interchange was by magazines and snail mail, not the internet (see below). People just didn’t know enough and had few avenues open to self-education that characterizes today’s fanboys. Remember also, most of the aged rums were issued by small rebottlers in Europe or their agents in the producing countries/islands on behalf of the originating distilleries, and that kept outturn relatively small. Independents like Samaroli and Veronelli had been making such rums since the 1970s, and Scottish whisky makers and re-bottlers certainly issued their fair share, though they were rare in the pre-1992 era.

And a downside to the independents was that they didn’t always made it clear where they originated – bought directly from the distillery of origin, or through a European broker like Scheer. Only occasionally was it unambiguously stated where the ageing had taken place. They varied from expression to expression, and long term consistency was rare. They were not always specific, and commonly labelled as “aged” or “country” rums – Superior Rum, Extra Old Rum, Barbados Aged Rum, Guyanese Rum, Jamaican Rum, and so on. The concept of making the estate the selling point was almost ignored. Many were, in fact, blends of uncertain age, mixing several estates’ marques into a single product. The consumer was certainly not helped to make an informed choice in the matter because exclusivity was the key selling point – you took what you got, trusted the skill of the producing company, and were grateful.

What made the El Dorado 15 (and its brothers) so seminal is that for the first time and over an extended period, a rum was made the same way every time, with an outturn not of a few hundred bottles, but in the tens and hundreds of thousands, year in and year out. Consumers were getting a true fifteen year old rum of distinctive taste and consistent profile, not some supposedly exclusive and high-priced limited edition of a “Manager’s Reserve” or “Private Family Stock” or “My Dog Bowser’s Anniversary Blend.” Now anyone could buy this rum, which was a cut above the ordinary, had really cool antecedents, and was an absolute riot to drink neat. Best of all, the El Dorado 15 was approachable – it retailed at an affordable price, had a taste the average consumer would like (toffee, caramel, licorice, citrus and raisins remain in the core profile), could be mixed, swilled or sipped, had great marketing and was issued an unthreatening 40%. The greater rum drinking audience went ape for it.

Within a few years, just about every primary rum producer with a well known brand caught the wave, and the 1990s and 2000s saw an explosion of older rums. Companies all over the western hemisphere rushed to bring out aged expressions, and such rums soon became staples of many companies’ lines (and Appleton finally got the respect for its 12 YO it deserved, as well as beginning the regular issuing of older variations). The South and Central American and Spanish Caribbean islands’ rum makers took their time with it: they were blenders for the most part, a few solera-style makers, and they saw no reason to go full bore in this direction (many still don’t). The French islands with their millesime approach and their own ideas on what constituted a good aged rum dabbled their toes, but with a few exceptions (I saw a 12 YO dating back to the 1970s once, so they certainly existed) they rarely ventured over ten years old – and bearing in mind the quality of what they achieved and the recognition their brands already had and have always maintained in their primary markets, it was and remains hard to fault them for this choice.

So the aged rum market almost by default landed, and has remained, with some exceptions, in the British West Indies, led by Appleton and also DDL, the company whose work would produce the next great wave of rums ten years down the road….but not under its own banner.

Books

One development that also raised the profile of rum was the publishing of three bookstwo in the early 1990s, the other nearly ten years later. To some extent they have been overtaken by events, yet they remain quiet classics of the genre, and carried with them not only the promise of other books written in the decades that followed, but a resurgence of interest in rums as a whole. They remain cornerstones of the literature, not least because they were among the first to try and provide a deeper background to the variety of rums represented without overwhelming the readers in technical minutiae of the rum-making process most neither wanted nor understood.

Released in 1995, Ed Hamilton’s book “Rums of the Eastern Caribbean” was a rich and varied survey of as many distilleries and rums as Mr. Hamilton found the time to visit and try over many years of sailing around the Caribbean. Because of its limited focus, it lacked a global perspective, but it was a treasure trove of information of the rum producing world in the eastern Caribbean at that time, it was based on solid first hand experience, and many rum junkies who make distillery trips part of their overall rum education are treading in his footsteps. If nothing else, it elevated the knowledge of the curious and made it clear that there was an enormous breadth in rums, so much so that historical info aside, anyone could find something to please themselves. (It was followed up in 1997 by another book calledThe Complete Guide to Rum”).

Dave Broom’s 2003 book “Rum” was a coffee-table sized book that combined narrative and photographs, and included a survey of the rum producing nations and islands and regions to that time. It was weak on soleras, missed independents altogether and almost ignored Asia, but had one key new ingredientthe introduction and codification of rum into styles. Then as now, the debate over how to classify rum was a problem. Colour was still used as a main marker and gradation of type (the additives and coloration debate had yet to reach wide attention, and was all but unknown to the drinking public), stills were not considered a way to distinguish rums. Mr. Broom’s contribution to the field was to at least attempt to stratify rums: in his case, regions that had broad similarities of production and profile: Jamaican, Guyanese, Bajan, Spanish and French island (agricole) styles. Cachacas were not brought into the classification and there was no real way to incorporate multi-regional blends or rums from outside the system (like, oh, Australia) – but it was an remains enormously influential, though by now somewhat dated and overtaken by events (he issued a follow-up “Rum: The Manual” in 2016, the same year as “Rum Curious” by Fred Minnick came out).

What these books did was make rum interesting and more appreciated in the eyes of the larger public, in a pre-internet world where whisky prices were just starting to climb. They showcased something of the variety that rum provided, and educated many neophyte rum lovers into the foundations of their favourite drink. It showed them the varieties and differences and production methods that allowed a more sophisticated understanding of the spirit. Rum was clearly not just some blended bathtub moonshine for the sweet-toothed who didn’t appreciate a single malt, or a bland and boring mixing agentbut a spirit with a long and technically rigorous, geographically broad-based history that deserved mention, if not respect.

The Internet

To some extent the remarks here are a subset of larger cultural shifts around the world which were enabled by the internet and the world wide web itself. Access was available in 1995, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as it became over the subsequent decades. The internet enabled web pages, those pages enabled blogs, blogs became review sites and fora for interactionand all of it created a communications revolution for rum lovers. What this allowed and promoted was a new understanding of the spirit, a grasp of its enormous stylistic range and geographical dispersion, as well as quick dissemination of information on rums, brands, companies, personalities, reviews, and opinions. It’s no accident that the sugar imbroglio (see a brief discussion in Part 3) arose only after the internet permitted such exponential interaction and news-exchange among drinkers; or that the first rum festivals began springing up just as the first review sites did, in the mid 2000s. The importance and impact of the web on rum appreciation simply cannot be overstated.

It took more time for the first write ups of Velier to come out the door on such websites, but before that happened there came one website that proved to be enormously influential, which all bloggers from that era remember.

Ed Hamilton and the Ministry of Rum

It took years after its launching in 1995 for the Ministry of Rum to acquire the central status it held for the next decade, and in its heyday it was one of the key places for aficionados to meet and share information (Capn Jimbo’s site was the other), and likely the most popular. While it possessed a fair amount of articles and searchable information on distilleries, brands and countries – a first at that time, and a godsend to the researchers – the real basis for its influence and popularity was the forum and discussion area, and, to a lesser extent, the Connoisseur’s Cabinet where occasional reviews would be posted (with Ed’s permissionand for the record he refused it to me when I asked after passing review #50, notingcorrectlythat too many new and aspiring writers folded after a couple of years). At its peak, there would be new discussion threads and posts springing up daily, sharing information, raising issues, offering advice and opinions. Even now in 2018 there’s a steady trickle of people on that site, posting “Hi I’m a new rum lover from ____”.

In these days of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flipboard, Tumblr, Pinterest, blogs, aggregators, instant messaging and full-time online presences, it’s difficult to remember how groundbreaking this trend actually was. Now rum lovers did not have to create websites (a difficult and often confusing task in the early 2000s) and then hope that they would be found – they could simply post on the Ministry. Many of the older names in the rum writing game started their careers by commenting – extensively – here. This one original website did more than most other avenues to help disseminate information and news about rum, and introduced the vocal, dedicated fans to one another, a process that has accelerated with the advent of social media.

Independent Bottlers / Private Labels

If you put aside the 151 overproofs that Bacardi, Lemon Hart, Cruzan, Don Q, Goslings, Matusalem and a handful of others were releasing, the limited edition “cask strength” market was all but nonexistent until a decade ago, and these 75.5% mastodons were all you got. All were considered cocktail bases, not rums in their own right: they were certainly not premiums. Such cask-strength rums as were considered a cut above the ordinary were mostly issued by independents, not by major producers (who limited themselves to powerful cocktail mixers like the 151s), and the independents weren’t looking to make overproofs but echoed whisky maker’s full-proof ethos.

Almost alone in the world, then, the Europeans issued a few high-proof bottlings, released by re-bottlers and spirits companies such as Cadenhead, Gordon & MacPhail, A.D. Rattray, Berry Brothers & Rudd among others; as well as smaller concerns like Illva Saronno (Italy), Vaughan-Jones (UK), EH Keeling (UK), Antoniazzi (Italy), John Milroy (UK), Frederic Robinson (UK), Austin Nichols (USA), A.A. Baker (US), Nicholson (UK), Watson’s (UK), Sangster, Baird-Taylor, Gilbey & Matheson, Henry & White, Lemon Hart, (among many many others). The Germans had their own such companies such as those around Flensburg (Rendsburger, Dethleffson and Berentzen Brennereien for example, who made long forgotten rums under brand names like Asmussen, Schmidt, Nissen, Anderson and Sonnberg). And there was a scattering here and there, like Walter Reid in Australia, la Martiniquaise and Bardinet in France, a smattering of Americans…and quite a few small outfits in Italy.

It was a lonely occupation for these rebottlers and small operations, because the rums they createdwhether aged, blended, high-proofed or all these at oncenever really sold very well even at standard strength. Fabio Rossi, who started Rum Nation in 1999, told me it took more than two years to sell the first Supreme Lord and Demerara series of rums he started off with; and as recently as 2012, one could get the entire Velier Caroni outturn to that point for a couple thousand euros (on ebay’s Italian site), a situation which could certainly not happen today. It was the hard-to-shake perception of rum as not being “premium” that was at the bottom of it, a situation it took another ten years to rectify, and it was the small, nimble companies who we now refer to as “independents” who led the way.

A word should be spared for the work of the Martinique and Guadeloupe rum producers which don’t conform to the title of independents, but which also laid some of the groundwork for the renaissance of strong and singular rums that was about to take off. These small estate distilleries sold their rums primarily on the local market and exported to France through their own distribution arms there. Among all their lightly aged rums and blends and whites, they also and occasionally produced millesimes which were specific years’s limited productions, bottled when such outturns were considered a cut above the ordinary. And while these were never very consistent (each one was different from the last), never really aged beyond all reason, only occasionally issued beyond 50% – they did showcase that a particular year’s output of rum might be considered a connoisseur’s drink and could be said to be grand-uncles of the single barrel releases by others. And that is why the Clement 1952 and 1976, the Damoiseau 1953, Bally 1939 and 1960 and 1970, Montebello 1948 remain hugely expensive, yet still-sought-after exemplars of craft rum making by the producers of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

However, it’s the Italian companies which were to some extent key to the emergent Age, because although many were simply importers and distributors, some also dabbled in blending and reissuing of rums under their own labels. They created the culture of Italian independents that dated back to the 1960s when sweetened “rhum fantasias” were in vogue in Italy, produced by companies like Pagliarini, Toccini and Seveso; they were accompanied by importers and rebottlers (Veronelli, Soffiantino, Martinazzi, Antoniazzi, Pedroni, Illva Saronno, and Guiducci are just a few examples) which led to their more successful inheritors, Samaroli, Moon Imports, Silver Seal and Velier, just about all who started with single barrel whiskies before turning their attention to rums.

Which leads us to that little importing company from Genoa, and its ownerLuca Gargano.

Luca Gargano and Velier

In the 1980s, Velier was a small family-owned Genoese spirits distributor with perhaps a quarter million dollars a year turnover and a staff of less than ten. It had been formed in 1947 by Casimir Chaix and concerned itself primarily with importing and distributing wines, spirits, brandy, tea and cocoa. Luca Gargano changed all that by buying it in 1986, when he was still only in his twenties. He had been a very young brand ambassador for St. James (from Martinique) and the experience had left him with a deep appreciation for rums, especially artisanal ones. When the time came for him to start a company of his own, he used Velier as a vehicle for his deeply held beliefs and the outpouring of his ideas.

Luca, who came from a family that was both close to the land and well connected in Italian commercial and political society, had spent years traversing the Caribbean in his time with St. James. His filial connection with traditional farming and agriculture, his observation of the way technology was changing the world (not necessarily for the better), his feelings about politicians and the slanted biases of the news, led him to create his now-famous Five Principles: nothing happens in specific chunks of time; newspapers and the media are there for sales and not truth; politicians are in it for themselves; telephones tie you to themselves but offer little except conversations that were better and more enjoyably conducted in person; and why stress out about driving a car when one can use taxis? And as a consequence he stopped watching TV, didn’t waste his time with newspapers or personal vehicles, chucked away his watch and never bothered with a cell phone of his own.

But there was a sixth principle, not often stated, yet deeply held. And that was that food and drink should be as natural as possible, organic, free from the interferences of technology, fresh from the land. When one applies that to food it’s one thing, but few before him sought to apply the concept to rums (except perhaps out of necessity). He felt that rum should be bottled as it either came off the stills or out of the ageing barrel without further messing around. He may have known more than we did in those more innocent times, because although it is now common knowledge that many old favourites which came to the market in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s were dosed with additives, back in the day there was a lot more trust going around between consumers and producers.

Whatever the case, Luca wanted to put his name on pure rums that were as close to the still as possible, and if aged, fresh out of the barrel. He started by finding some old Guyanese rums, continentally aged, and put them out the door in 1996, with a further set of three in 2000. Neither entirely satisfied him, because the first set was diluted down to 40% and the second to 46%. A third series was released in 2002, also at 46% by which time he was in a better position to negotiate barrels with DDL.

And he needed to go further with his ideas on rums, because these early Demerara rums, to put it bluntly, made no mark, no splash, and fell flat. They sold, but not well (I’ve been able to pick a few up as late as 2017), and in any event were not exactly what he wanted. The continental ageing and dilution in particular dissatisfied himhe felt something of the intrinsic character of the underlying distillate that showcased the stills and their uniqueness, had been lost. He pulled in his horns, gave it some thought and was much more personal and involved in his future selections. He wanted to issue a rum that was at the full proof of the barrel, not some milquetoast please-the-most rum which he himself did not appreciate.

He was still wrestling with whether this was a workable commercial concept when he found a stored 18 year old rum at Damoiseau in Guadeloupe which was so spectacular, that he released it at 60.3% ABV in 2002, crossing his fingers as he did so. The success of the Damoiseau 1980 made it clear that among people who knew their stuff, such rums would sell and find their own audience and he not limit himself in the future, as he had with the past three releases.

He issued no new rums for the next three years, and then emerged with the next outturn in 2005. Four rums, one of them almost a legend. The Age can be said to have begun here.

In Part 2 I’ll look at the rums of the Age, and in Part 3 make some points about the aftermath of their issue and revisit some of thesehistoricalfigures to see where they’re at in 2018.


Notes

Much of this is written based on my own writing and thinking and life experiences, though I have dipped into other bloggerspublished work here and there (like Matt Pietrek’s essay on Scheer and Marco Freyr’s background essays on Barrel Aged Mind). The research done in writing my own rum reviews and company biographies for nearly ten years has provided much of the remainder.

It’s hard to find people whose memories stretch back that far, to recapture the flavour of what the pre-1990s rum world was likeso some artistic license has been used to describe those times, though the facts are as accurate as I could make them.

The section on older aged rums and independents is by no means exhaustive. It’s surprising how difficult it is to find exactly when a particular ten- or twelve- or fifteen-year-old rum first emerged on the scene, and to find discontinued variations becomes an exercise in real Holmesian diligence. I used my own photographs from Velier’s 4000+ rum warehouse for some of the examples in this section, and I would be remiss if I did not mention Peter’s Rum Labels in Czechoslovakia, which is an amazing resource, the best one of its kind in the world. I hope that people with large rum collections built up over many decades will one day allow people like me access to their stocksto photograph and catalogue them (and maybe even to try a few) and for sure to write about them, as I do for the Rumaniacs. Too much history is being lost just because we don’t know enough, forgot too much, and never thought to record things properly.

Needless to say, if any mistakes or errors (especially of omission) are noted, please let me know and I’ll make amendments where required.

Jun 262017
 

#375

Velier rums have now become so famous that new editions and collaborations disappear from the shelves fifteen minutes before they go on sale, and the “classic” editions from the Age of the Demeraras are all but impossible to find at all. Still, keeping one’s twitchy ears and long nose alert does in fact get you somewhere in the end, which is why, after a long drought of the company’s rums in my battered notebook (if you discount the legendary Caputo 1973), I managed to pick up this little gem and am pleased to report that it conforms to all the standards that made Velier the poster child for independent bottlers. It’s one of the better Port Mourant variations out there (although not the best – that honour, for me, still belongs to the Velier PM 1974, the Norse Cask 1975, with the Batch 1 Rum Nation 1995 Rare PM running a close third), and drinking it makes me wistful, even nostalgic, about all those magical rums which are getting rarer by the day and which speak to times of excellence now gone by.

And how could I not be? I mean, just look at the bare statistics. Guyanese rum, check. Full proof, checkit’s 56.7%. Massively old, double-checkthe thing is 32 years old, distilled in May 1975 (a very good year) and bottled in March 2008 (my eyes are already misting over), from three barrels which gave out a measly 518 bottles. The only curious thing about it is the maturation which was done both in Guyana and Great Britain, but with no details on how long in each. And a mahogany hue which, knowing how Luca does things, I’m going to say was a result of all that king-sized ageing. All this comes together in a microclimate of old-school badass that may just be a characteristic of these geriatric products.

How did it smell? Pretty damned good. Heavy and spiced. A vein of caramel salty-sweetness ran hotly through the fierce dark of the standard PM profile, lending a blade of distinction to the whole. The first aromas were of anise and wood chips, tannins, leather, orange marmalade. The wood may have been a bit much, and obscured what came laterherbs and molasses, raisins, raw untreated honey from the comb, with a bit of brooding tar behind the whole thing. Lightness and clarity were not part of the program here, tannins and licorice were, perhaps too much, yet there’s nothing here I would tell you failed in any way, and certainly nothing I would advise you to steer clear of.

On the taste, the anise confidently rammed itself to the fore, plus a bunch of oak tannins that were fortunately kept in check (a smidgen more would have not been to the PM’s advantage, I thought). There were warm, heavy tastes of brown sugar vanilla, caramel, bananas, and then a majestic procession of fruitiness stomped along byraisins, prunes, blackberries, dark cherries, accompanied by nougat, avocado and salt, orange peel and white chocolate. All the tastes I like in my Demerara rums were on display, and with a warmth and power conveyed by the 56.7% that no 40% PM could ever hope to match, undone onlyand ever so slightlyby the oaken tannins, which even carried over to the finish. Fortunately, the anise and warmer raisins and salt caramel came along for their curtain call as well, so overall, all I can say is this is a hell of a rum, long lasting, tasty and no slouch at all. Frankly, I believe that this was the rum DDL should have been aiming for with its 1980 and 1986 25 year old rums.

So, how does it rate in the pantheon of the great Demeraras from the Age? Well, I think the oak and licorice, though restrained, may be somewhat too aggressive (though not entirely dominant), and they edge out subtler, deeper flavours which can be tasted but not fully appreciated to their maximum potentialthe balance is a bit off. This is not a disqualification in any sense of the word, the rum is too well made for that; and in any case, such flavours are somewhat of a defining characteristic of the still, so anyone buying a PM would already know of itbut for those who like a more coherent assembly, it’s best to be aware of the matter.

Just consider the swirling maelstrom of cool, of near-awe, that surrounds this product, not just for its provenance, or its age, but for lustre it brings to the entire Age’s amazing reputation. It’s a rum to bring tears to the eyes, because we will not see its like again, in these times of increasing participation by the indies, and the <30 year aged output. Who would, or could, buy such a rum anyway, at the price it fetches nowadays (I saw one on retail for €2000 last week)?

At this stage in the state of the rumworld, I think we should just accept that we can no longer expect to be able to source full bottles those original monsters with which the giants of the subculture made their bones. Anyone who has one of these is holding on to it for resale or for judicious sharing among the hard core rum chums who have pictures of every Velier bottle ever made hanging on walls where the Lamborghini Countach or Pamela Anderson was once posted. You can sort of understand why. They are all a cut above the ordinary and this one is no exception. In its own way, it’s great. And even if it does not ascend to the stratosphere the way I felt the 1974 did, then by God you will say its name when you taste it, and all your squaddies will doff their hats and bow twice. It’s simply that kind of experience.

(89/100)

May 212015
 

D3S_1673

When you drink full proof and overproof rums for a long time, many forty percenters can seem, wella shade pusillanimous. No such issue afflicts the 62.7% full proof of Albion 1989, ‘cause that thing looks and feels and samples like it’s about to father a nation.

The Albion 1994 was power and passion and style all wedded together in a remarkable fusion, and my only regret has always been that I couldn’t get more. It was preceded by a version from 1983, 1986, and this one from 1989. These days, the only place you’ll find either is from a collector or on the secondary market. And that wasn’t helped by the paucity of output for the 1989 either.

I’m always whining about craft makers bottling too few rums in their single barrel or cask strength issues, yet this one is bordering on the ridiculousVelier only issued 108 bottles of the Albion 1989. Still, points must go to Luca Gargano, who resisted the temptation to blend this miniscule output with something else, and simply took what he could from the single barrel in 2008, added nothing, took away nothing, diluted nothing, tampered with nothing. And there you are.

When I poured the dark amber rum into my glass in Paris a while back (I was shamelessly pilfering tasting notes on anything in grabbing range, nearly knocking over poor Serge Valentin in my haste to get my grubby paws on this one), it was like coming home. Nosing it, I was struck anew how amazing it was that a rum can be made at that kind of strength and yet still maintain a smoothness of profile that doesn’t do a rabid dog imitation on your senses. The rum’s nose was immenseit smelled thick, creamy, like a melting licorice waterfall; black grapes, anise, caramel, burnt sugar billowed up, being chased by the sweet fresh honey from a cracked comb. I thought I’d get some wax or rubber notes, but nope, none here.

The taste of the 1989 was wired up, juiced up, and electrified like the Tokyo downtown, and you got into it immediately. I remember just shaking my head with admiration, even awe, after the first sip. The palate was full bodied, without equivocation. Thick and creamy, surprisingly sweet, and not dry or brinybut there was tobacco and rubber floating around in the background, some furniture polish and tar (actually quite similar to a Caroni). Dried fruits emerged, mango and papaya, some salt in the back taste. I added some water and it continued providing new, strong notes of vanilla, nuts, aromatic pipe tobacco and smoke, leading to a long, long finish, with rubber, melting tar, more smoke, more caramel, more vanilla. I kept a glass charged with this stuff for literally an hour, always coming back to it, always finding something else and still probably missed something.

Albion 1989

I’ve always enjoyed experiments in the craft like this, where the makers change just a single coordinate in the standard equation of the rum universe just to, I dunno, mess with it and see what’ll happen. Here, that’s a hell of a lot. Even with the overall excellent stable of rums Velier makes (and that’s plenty), there are rums and then there are rums. This, in my opinion, is one of the latter.

See, a rum like, oh, a Bacardi for instance, sells so much that it creates its own weather system in the spirits world. The Albion 1989 is nowhere near that leagueat best it’s an intense, localized twister with a shard of lightning thrown in. Can you see yourself rushing out to experience that? Not likely. But if you’re a person looking at the world through slightly askew lenses, the phenomenal power and quality of something this spectacular cannot be overstated and after you’ve experienced it, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever worry too much, in rum terms, about another cloudy day, threatening rain.

(#215 / 91/100)


Other notes:

  • Like the 1994, it is remarked as being from a wooden continuous still, about which I have my doubts. If true, though, that would make it the famed Enmore Wooden Coffey Still, and I don’t think it was at the Albion estate back in 1989.
  • Distilled 1989, bottled 2008, 108 bottles.
Mar 112015
 

D3S_9323-001

An assembly of two rums that are great on their own, made even better by being blended before ageing.

Permit me a brief box-ticking here: Velier issues cask strength monsters akin to top end whiskies (but which cost less); they hearken to individual distilleries, sometimes to individual stills within that distillery; and Luca Gargano, the maitre, has stocks of Guyanese rums and the Trini Caronis that beggar the imagination; and while occasionally there are rums that don’t quite ascend to the brilliance of others, the overall oevre is one of enormous collective quality. Here, Velier has taken something of a left turnthis rum is what Luca calls an “experimental”. Which is to say, he’s playing around a bit. The price of €150 is high enough to cause a defense contractor to smile, and reflects the rums rarityonly 848 bottles are in existence (as an aside, compare this price to the 7000 bottles or so of the thousand-dollar Black Tot).

Blending of rums to produce the final product which makes it to our shelves usually takes place after they have slept a while in their wooden beds. Ever-willing to buck the trend and go its own way, Velier blended the core distillates (from the Port Mourant double-pot still, and the Enmore wooden Coffey still) right up front, and then aged the mix for sixteen years (it’s a 2014 release). The theory was that the disparate components had a chance to meld from the beginning, and to harmonize and age as one, fully integrating their different profiles. It’s a bit of a gamble, but then, so is marriage, and I can’t think of a more appropriate turn of phrase to describe what has been accomplished here

D3S_9329

Appearance wise, box is decent; bottle and label were utterly standard, as always seems to be the case with Velierthey have little time for fancy designs and graphics, and stick with stark minimalism. Black bottle, white label, lots of info, plastic tipped cork, surrounding a dark amber rum inside. When that rum poured, I took a prudent yet hopeful step backwards: prudent because I didn’t feel like being coshed over the head with that massive proof, hopeful because in remembering the PM 1974 and the Skeldon 1973, I was hoping that the aromas would suffuse the atmosphere like the police were quelling a good riot nearby.

I wasn’t disappointed on either score. That nose spread out through the room so fast and so pungently that my mother and wife ran to me in panic from the kitchen, wondering if I had been indulging in some kind of childish chem experiment with my rums. It was not as heavy as the Damoiseau 1980 which I had had just a few hours before (I was using it and the Bristol Caroni 1974 as controls), but deep enoughhot, heavy to smell and joyously fresh and crisp. Tar, licorice and dried fruits were the lead singers here, smoothly segueing into backup vocals of black bread and butter, green olives, and a riff of coffee and smoke in the background. It had an amazing kind of softness to it after ten minutes or so, and really, I just teased myself with it for an inordinately long time.

Subtlety is not this rum’s forte, of courseit arrived on the palate with all the charming nuance of a sledgehammer to the head, and at 62.2% ABV, I was not expecting anything else. So it wasn’t a drink for the timid by any stretch, more like a hyperactive and overly-muscular kid: you had to pay close attention to what it was doing at all times. It was sharp and heavy with molasses and anise at the same time, displayed heat and firmness and distinct, separable elements, all at once: more molasses, licorice, chopped fruit, orange peel (just a bit), raisins, all the characteristic West Indian black cake ingredients. Adding some water brought out cinnamon, black grapes, ginger, flowers, tannins and leather, with some aromatic smoke rounding out an amazingly rich profile.

D3S_9324-001

Man this thing was an immense drink. I said I expected three profiles, but it was practically impossible to separate them out, so well were they assembled. There was just no way I could say how much came from PM, and how much from Enmore (Velier provided no information on the ratios of one to the other, merely remarking that the Enmore is dominant). It was the sort of rum that when you fully drop the hammer on itwhich is to say, drink a gorilla-sized two ounce shot, hold it down for a few seconds, before slugging it down and asking for a refillits flavours bang away at your throat like the Almighty is at the door (and pissed at you). Even the finish displayed something of that brooding Brando-esque machismolong lasting, heated, with closing notes of strong black slightly-bitter tea, raisins and anise. It is a brilliant bit of rum-making, and answers all questions people have when they wonder if 40% is the universe. When I see my friends and commentators and reviewers and ambassadors wax rhapsodic over spiced rums and the standard proof offerings from the great and old houses, all I want to do is smile, hand them one of these, and watch their reaction.

Sooner or later, no matter how many Demerara rums I try, I always circle back to Veliers from The Age. I think of the company’s products almost like James Bond films, following familiar territory time after time, differing only in the details. It’s always fun to try a new expression of an estate specific Guyanese rum, if only to see what madness La Casa Luca has come up with this time. And here, I think we may just have the brilliance of a film like Skyfall, with its originality and uniqueness intact, hearkening back to all that has come before, recalling not only all the old glories of times past, but the remarkable synthesis of those same elements, combined into something startlingly and wonderfully new.

That was a film to treasureand for the same reasons, so is this rum.

(#206. 91/100)


Other notes

  • Velier has also issued a Diamond+PM 1995 blend in 2014.
  • This was the third of four samples Luca Gargano sent to me personally (unasked for) in September of 2014 when he heard I would be in Europe in October of that year. He has agreed that I pay for them either in cash, or with a really good, high priced dinner in Paris.
Jan 032015
 

D3S_9377

Velier has created a heated, tasty, toasty Demerara rum that in my opinion takes its place alongside the UF30E and the Skeldon 1973 as one of the best rums they have ever made.

More than “42”, here’s the answer some of the great and grand questions of the universe. When asked by the inquiring, “What makes anything you say worth hearing?” or “Why should I sleep with you?” or “Why’s the front door smashed in?, all you need to do is smile, shrug, and point to this rum.

Velier’s rums sometimes seem similar when described (look how many Caroni rums they’ve put out the door, for example): but their lines are unique, each one depending on its own specific characteristics, closely observed, exactingly made, powerfully executed. Any serious sojourn into the world of rum sooner or later arrives here. And this Diamond estate rum from Guyana is no exception.

As before, Velier adhered to their starkly minimalist presentation, and continued their admirable practice of providing a fair bit of information on the stiff cardboard box: fifteen years ageing in situ, metal-coffey-still distillate set to age in 1999 and bottled in 2014, with an outturn of 1137 bottles from four barrels, and a 72% angel’s share loss. Note that the barrels in this case where charred new oak, which might be an effort to impart more and intense flavours to the distillate, in a shorter time period.

D3S_9379

If that was their intention, they sure as hell succeeded. I thought the UF30E and the Skeldon had deep and intense aromas, but they had been aged for a century in rum years, were bottled at greater than sixty percent, and it was to be expected. Here we had a 53.1% ABV rum aged for half as long, and yet the scents just poured and billowed out of the bottle even before I had a chance to tip some in my glass. The dark, smooth and heavy nose (which mirrored the dark, smooth and rather heavy liquid) was immediately redolent of plums and apricots, vanilla and nutmeg. No notes of citrus here, but pineapple, and cloves, then backed up by raisins and some very faint licorice, coffee and a whiff of mocha. It had the rich, plush nasal glissades akin to the soft crumpling of your disposable income, and was the kind of nose one just wanted to continue savouring.

As for the taste, oh man, this dark red-mahogany rum jiggled the jowls and rattled the rump like a revel dancer tramping down Vlissengen Road on Mash day. It was smooth with some spice and heat (both proof and oak showed their biceps here), thick, oily, tarry, full bodied. Licorice, smoke, vanilla (not much), raisins, black grapes, rounded out with lighter floral notes started off, darkly sweet and all-round excellent, displaying a kind of exquisite zen-like brutality I couldn’t help but appreciate. And it didn’t stop there either, but continued providing flavours of dark chocolate, coffee, hibiscus and poinsettias in full bloom, as if you were at some kind of tropical Starbuck’s. I think Velier’s tamping down the volts on this rum was the right decisionI don’t believe that a higher proofage would make this as good a dram as the current strength doesmore intense, yes, but not necessarily as memorable. And closing things off, the finish was fittingly long, warm, providing that last fillip of leather and oak, smoke, red wine, licorice and anise.

D3S_9382

Honestly folks, I was impressed as hell. Just to be sure, I ran the Diamond 1999 past four other Veliers in my stash, and still it stood up damned well. It was somewhat like the Diamond 1996 (but better), and, as with the Blairmont 1991, it developed over subsequent sampling. It rewards re-tasting and comparisons, astounds and amazes, and like my wife, grows better with time and experience. It growls and gurgles and purrs hard love down your throat, never crosses over to malignant sharpness and bite, shows the heights to which rums can aspire when made with verve and flair and daring, and is simply one of the most phenomenal rums I’ve tried in the last two years. If after two minutes of sampling this thing you aren’t jumping around the room rocking your air guitar like my nine-year-old son and looking for online big-hair wigs, carefully peruse the mail from your insurance carrier. It might haveDeceasedstamped on it.

(#195. 92.5/100)


Other notes

  • Velier has dropped the “Full Proof Old Demerara Rum” from the labelling for some reason.
  • The <S> on the label relating to the marks on the barrel is obscure. Marco’s phenomenal essay on the Guyanese distilleries speculated it might be related to the diamond logo <> surrounding the single initial of the plantation’s previous 18th century owner, Samuel Welch. Or maybe that of M. Steele, another 19th century proprietor. The question remains open.
  • This was the second of four samples Luca Gargano sent to me personally in September of 2014 when he heard I would be in Europe in October of that year. Next time I’m out in the real world I’ll pick up a couple of bottles of my own, I think. Maybe even three or four.

 

Oct 162014
 

D3S_9388

An exceedingly well-made, clean, relatively light rum with remarkable depth of flavour and beautiful mouthfeel.

Velier, as its barrels mature in Guyana, issues annual releases when they feel they are ready, much as Rum Nation and other craft rum makers do. This presents a particular and peculiar problem to rummies, because there is no consistency to any of them: in other words, while a DDL El Dorado 21 Year Old will be more or less the same no matter when you buy it, a Velier PM 2013 release will not be the same as a Velier PM 2014 release, even if they are both fifteen years old. This, to my mind, highlights a great strength and great weakness of craft bottlers, because while it allows for amazing creativity and variety, it also limits the issuance of a particular bottling to a few thousand bottles at best, and it forces consumers to shell out a lot more money for favoured companies’ productsas I have.

D3S_9390That aside, let’s start at the beginning with some core facts about the subject under review here. Velier issued this new (2014 year) release in July, with 1404 bottles deriving from five barrels; it was distilled on a Savalle still, it’s an experimental versiona lighter distillate from a still which can produce both light and dark variations, hence theULR”, which stands for Uitvlugt Light Rum (thanks, Cyril). The labelling on bottle and cardboard case is excellent, by the way: no fancy frippery or outlandish graphics, just pertinent facts about the rum (including evaporation losses of 77%), as brief and stark as a haiku. Just about everything you might want to know is there.

 

Nose? Wow. Just lovely. The ULR 1997 was a darkish-honey colour in the glass, and emitted heated vapours of soft clarity that was reminiscent (if not quite as spectacular) as the that McLaren that was the UF30E. Vanilla, herbal tea and white flowers right off the bat, not fierce on the attack, just clean and strong, and persistent to a fault. Vague caramel and salt biscuits followed on, and easy notes of fruit jam and sweet, ripe black grapes closed off the noseit was so succulent that I felt I had just roped in Monica Bellucci in a teddy.

You can tell a masterful rum when, as you sip the thing down, 59.7% doesn’t really feel like it. It was as exciting and well made as a Gibson guitar, with notes that hummed and vibrated in harmonyI honestly don’t know how this is accomplished so well. The white chocolate, cafe-au-lait, pastries, and creamy buttery notes slid smoothly past my taste buds and there were some oak tones winding their way around the palate, though not enough to spoil the drink. Nougat and hazelnuts shimmered around the edges, moving to a lingering, warm finish with final fumes of raspberries in cream.

D3S_9389Uitvlugt was a West Coast Demerara sugar plantation which Bookers McConnell mothballed decades ago: it means “outflow” in Old Dutch (yes, like New York, Guyana was once a Dutch colony), and it usually has marques of ICB/U, ICB/C and ICB associated with it (most notably by DDL itself), possibly by reference to the original owner of the plantation, Iohann Christoffer Boode; it’s unclear when this new moniker of ULR began. Its rums, made from a metal Savalle still, are usually characterized by a distillate which is not so heavy as the dark brooding machismo of, oh, Port Mourant. This one may be even more so.

 

Summing up, the Uitvlugt 1997 is immensely enjoyableI went through three tasting glasses of it in next to no time, it was so pleasant. It’s cleaner and lighter than other Veliers (like the Albion 1994), has perhaps more in common with the Blairmont 1991, and stands singularly apart from the remarkable Diamond 1999 (2014 edition); it’s a UF30E in waiting, maybe. It might not be the most charismatic or powerful exhibit in this sub-universe of the equine-endowed full-proofs, but it isn’t a shrinking violet in the greenhouse either, and compares exceedingly well with all its other siblings.


Other Notes

This was one of four samples provided by Luca Gargano to me personally when he heard I would be in Europe in October 2014. I stand by my sterling review because it really is that good (see the review for Old Man Spirits’s Uitvlugt 16 year old next week for an interesting counterpoint). I have outstanding query from my email to himI’ll get into that when I deal with the Old Man. See you next time.

D3S_9392

 

May 102014
 

Skeldon 1971 bottle

It’s official. Velier has raised the bar for super premium rums, with an extraordinary 32-year old blast from the past that will excavate a punt-wide trench in your wallet if you ever find one.

The 544-bottle run of the Skeldon 1973 Old Demerara Rum has, since being released in 2005, become something of an object of cult worship. In 2012 a single bottle went for sale on eBay for close to €500. I searched for three years before I found a gent in France willing to part with his (and at a cost I’m glad my wife never found out about). It isn’t very well known, except among rabid collectors, and the only reviews I’ve ever seen were in Italian and French. It is without doubt a rum from further back in time than anything else Velier has ever made, or perhaps will ever make. And it is worth every penny. Yes, I love Rum Nation, yes I have soft spots for Cadenhead, Berry Brothers, Secret Treasure, Plantation, El Dorado, Pussers, Young’s Old Sam and a score of others. But this thing is a cut above the crowd, and part of that is the way Velier mastered and balanced the subtleties trapped within the enormous tastes of a 32-year-old beefcake.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone outside Guyana who knows about Skeldon, or where it is. It’s a plantation on the far east of the country, right close by the Corentyne RiverI visited the area many times in my youthand not, as some have mentioned, on the Demerara (all Guyanese rums are often noted as being Demeraras, but the pedant in me disputes the moniker). The original distillate was made in Skeldon before the still was shut down, and I’ve heard that the barrels were transferred to Uitvlugt before finding their final home in Diamond Estate, where Luca Gargano found the last four barrels from that year ageing quietly away in DDL’s warehouses, perhaps even forgotten by them: he snapped them up, and from that stock, made an old, bold bastard of a rum, eschewing the softness of a standard strength and allowing it to be issued at a mouth ravaging 60.5%.

The Skeldon 1973 was remarkably dark, molasses brown, deeper in hue than the PM 1974 I looked at not too long ago. Such was the skill of the makers that almost no time needed to be spent waiting for the spirit to open up in my glass: almost as soon as I poured it out, rich, powerful fumes of coffee, burnt cocoa, and smouldering sugar cane fields billowed out. Mellow aromas of peaches, nuts and licorice provided exclamation points of distinction, and these were followed by notes of honey, pecans and toast. And it wasn’t over yet: after half an hour, when I went back to it, I detected yet other traces of cherries, blackberries, and even a sly waxy taste that was far from unpleasant. And each component was clear and distinct, crisp and vital as tropical morning sunshine.

If the nose was extraordinary, so was the palate: intense without sharpness, heated without pain, and not so much full bodied as voluptuous. Cumin, tannins and a certain muskiness attended the initial tasting, with a briny undertone, all in balance. As these receded, other flavours came to the fore: coffee again, unsweetened cocoa, walnuts, some caramel, burnt sugar cane (as from the nose), almonds, hazelnuts and at the very bottom a wink of eucalyptus oil. Many rums I have tried often seem to come from the recycle bin: reblends, a new finishing regime, a little tweak here or there, but with the venerable core formula always intact. The Skeldon 1973 does a difficult thing: it feels original, cut from new cloth and yet structured around blending basics so seamlessly that it samples phenomenally well. It’s got a certain sumptuousness to it, a sense of extravagance and out of sight quality, as rich as the silk in the lining of a Savile Row suit.

As for the finish, well, its persistence may be as unique as, oh, the Albion 1994, or the SMWS Longpond 9. Fumes and final flavours continued to make their prescence felt for minutes after a taste, as if unwilling to let go. Coffee was prevalent, toasted hazelnuts, some caramel, all melded together into a fade that was a function of 60.5%, and lasted a very very long time, none of it wasted. So good was the overall experience that I must have had four or five tasting glasses of the stuff, just so that I could savour and sample and extract the very last nuance, and even then I’m sure I missed something.

Skeldon 1973 Label

Everything works in this rum. Nose, palate, mouthfeel, exit, the whole thing. Usually I’m ambivalent about one point or another in a review – good points in one area are marred by small disappointments in others and this is why the “intangible” part of my scoring goes down and not up like all the others – but here there is such a uniformity of excellence that it made me feel re-energized about the whole business of reviewing rums (and, as an aside, that I may have underrated even the phenomenal UF30E which is about on par, and which I used as a control for this review).

What an amazing, fulfilling rum Velier has produced, indeed. Yes it’s extraordinarily hard to find, and yes its damned pricey. Good luck finding one in the States or Canada (or even in Europe, these days). I’m remarkably fortunate in that I was able to source an unopened bottle given its rarity. Luca Gargano, the maitre of Velier, has a track record with his bottlings that many can only envy, and is used to dealing lightning with both hands; and for no other reason this is why sourcing his products, old or new, is recommended. If you want to see what the industry can accomplish if they really try, spring some pieces of eight for what Velier is making, if even just the once.

Or try getting a taste of mine, if you’re ever in my neighborhood. I’m almost sure I’d share it with you.

(#181. 93.5/100)


Other notes

  • Distilled in Coffey still in August 1973 and bottled in April 2005
  • Velier, in 2004, bought a stake in DDL (per their website) – Luca notes in his interview with Cyril of DuRhum that it was in 2003.

Updates

  • There is a slightly younger version of Skeldon distillate, the 1978 edition – also bottled by Velier – which I have not managed to source as yet (though I finally tried it at the Tasting of the Century in 2018). It was selling on Ebay as of September 2014, for €800 and ended up fetching €1200. In January 2016, another 1978 was on offer for €2000, and by June 2021 the price at auction was £9,500. The 1973 was, by this time only ever offered once on the RumAuctioneer site, and in July 2021 was being bid up past £7,000 with a week left to go
  • As of 2015, Velier no longer had the right to select barrels from DDL’s warehouses as DDL moved to issueGargano rumsby themselves under the brand of theRare Collection”.
  • In October 2015 I re-tasted this rum, and noted a marked vanilla undercurrent appearing after it stood for half an hour. This was not substantial enough to lessen the rum’s valueit was too well made for thatbut it was there. I thought of rescoring at 93 but then compromised by making note of the fact for interested readers.
  • By 2021 DDL had released their own Skeldon rum as part of the rares, and 1423’s SBS range had also done a few.
Apr 172014
 

Picture (c) Lionswhisky.com

A worthy addition to the Port Mourant canon. A magnificent, excellently rich and fruity full-proof rum.

Allowances should be made for my personal palate: I do believe that rum deriving from the Port Mourant still in Guyana may be among the very best available, largely because the distillate runs through the only wooden still in the world. This provides the rum with a depth of flavour and richness that I have consistently scored high in all its iterations: Berry Brothers & Rudd 1975, the El Dorado 21 and 25 (PM forms part of the blend), Bristol Spirits PM 1980 and Rum Nation’s Demerara 1989 are examples (and I think Wood’s Navy rum has some PM lurking in there, as well as some Enmore, but never mind).

Velier, much like other European rum bottlers, hews to a rather starkly minimalist ethos in presentation, similar across the range (though nowhere near the aggressive consistency of SMWS’s offerings in their camo green). An opaque, black bottle with variations across the line only coming from the label design. “Menacing”, I wrote in my Albion 1994 review, and I haven’t seen much since then to change my mind about thatthese things look like they want to assault you with a nail studded club.

By now, anyone who has read my or others’ reviews of Velier products will know that they don’t muck around with standard strength 40% offerings, but give you a massive pelvic thrust of proofage that has sheep in Scotland running for cover: this one is no different, if milder, being bottled at 54.5%, which is almost weak by Velier’s standards. That strength impacts the deep and heavy nose in stunningly searing fashion: there were immediate notes of licorice and dark chopped fruits (lots of raisins there) ready for a West Indian black cake, cherries and ripening mangoes, intermingled with lighter floral notes, all held together with honey and crushed walnuts. Strength and subtlety in the same sniff.

The ruby-brown (or amber-red, take your pick) rum was dark and thick in the glass, like a boiled down soup of brown sugar. It was full bodied, spicy, syrupy, even a shade salty, hinting somewhat of maple syrup. Backing that up came wave upon wave of molasses, apples, citrus rind, prunes, sultana grapes. The rum turned a shade dry in the mouth, and continued to pump out notes of caramel, toffee, and the faint resinous aftertaste of black cardamon. Man this was quite somethingit showcased what rums were back in the day. I thought that the BBR PM 1975 might be the oldest and perhaps best rum of this particular still I’d ever see, but this baby, in my opinion, is as good or better, which I attribute mostly to its increased strength. The finish was lovely as well, though a tad on the spicy side: lingering notes of sweet molasses, citrus, and even here some of that heaviness persisted into a long finish that made the entire experience one to savour.

A recent comment on this site (in the Bundie review) made the rather startling statement that “Rum in general is not meant to be sipped neat, like a Whisky or a Scotch.” Naturally, I rebutted that, and, in writing this review, offer the Velier PM 1974 as proof positive that here is a rum which it makes no sense to drink any other way. Take it neat or don’t take it at all. You can of course mix it, but Iand I’ll go out on a limb and speak for the makerssimply don’t get the point. This is a rum to luxuriate in, to treasureand to mourn once it’s gone.

(#180. 90.5/100)


Other notes

  • 364 bottles made from two barrels, aged between September 1974 and March 2008. I’m going to be conservative and call it a 33 year old.
  • I tried the PM 1974 blind in conjunction with several other rums so as not to permit my natural enthusiasm for the vintage to cloud my scoring judgement. I’m still as miserly with my scoring as before, of course, and tried to put the brakes on scoring high just because it was what it was. But guys, galsthis thing is enormously impressive, it’s a brilliant rum, and deserves what from me is a very high rating.

 

Feb 252014
 

D3S_8412

 

A paradox of rum, marrying a lighter than expected profile with a stunningly intense full proof taste, compliments of the House of Luca

When I first poured a shot of the Velier Blairmont 1991 15 year old rum into my glass (after having waited over a year and a half for the privilege), I immediately remarked its colour: a straw coloured light amber rum. After sampling five other Veliers in the past year, all of which were dark, brawny, bearded beefcakes, this came as something of a surprise.

According to the literature on the bottle, seven barrels of the rum were distilled in Blairmont on a French Savalle still in 1991, and 1,913 bottles resulted in March 2006. Luca Gargano, the maitre of Velier, seems to have unprecedented access to old and mouldering barrels of rums from DDL’s warehouses, judging from the variations he keeps putting out, and one thing is clearthe man knows how to put a rum together. This is no slight against that other Italian whose products I enjoy enormously (Fabio Rossi of Rum Nation), but the two men are not really comparable except in so far as they both issue superlative rums, since they follow differing philosophies in how they make them.

This difference is most clearly discerned in the strengths of Velier’s rumsall of them are bottled at a proof greater than 50% (the Blairmont was 56%). And this was immediately evident as I nosed it: yes it had strength, but in no way was it either sharp or nasty or an assault on the senses. The initial scent was one of freshness and zest, of honey, deep, softer to nose than the strength would suggest. This was followed by orange peel and some sharper fruitshalf ripe mangoes, green grapes, apples, with a flirt of softer peach in there somewhere, mixed up with a faint nuttiness. Nice. It was more herbal than one would imagine a rum from Demerara to be (although Blairmont Estate is actually on the immediate west bank of the Berbice River).

D3S_8421

The palate was similarly excellent, being medium bodied, golden and having a clarity of taste that reminded me of a good green tea. Crisp and snappy, a bit sweet, something like a Riesling on steroids; orange and cinnamon notes crept out to have their moment in the sun, followed by more green tea and some lighter honey notes. The depth and intensity of flavours was well handled, and even at 56%, I felt that here was rum I would sip neat with no issues at all. And as could be expected, the finish took its time, was clear and well balanced, leaving me with the memories of flowers, caramel (just a bit), fresh grass and newly sawn wood.

Velier is a company formed by the Italian Luca Gargano, and he’s made nothing I haven’t liked so far. He began life as a brand rep for St James in Martinique, but eventually formed his own company to market odd variations of the agricoles he found in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Once he discovered Guyanese rums he bottled as many as he could find (it’s possible that his greatest find has been the Skeldon 1973 32 year old), and while this may be anecdotal, I think they have all attained cult status among die-hard aficionados. He’s been fortunate to have an excellent relationship with Yesu Persaud, the (now retired) chairman of DDL, who provided him with unprecedented access to their warehouses.

It’s become sort of a personal crusade for me to find these odd and rare rums that are issued (or not) on a regular basis, not least because finding something like the Blairmont, buying it and tasting it and writing about it, adds to the store of reviews available in the world. I think it’s a spectacular rum, noses well, tastes phenomenal and is, at end, both terrific and leaves me wanting more. I don’t often issue hagiographies, but in this case, my advice is to try anything you can find by this company, because Luca sure knows what he’s doing, and he isn’t bottling a whole lot.

(#179. 90.5/100)


Other Notes

 

 

May 302013
 

D3S_5982

 

Concentrated black cake. Uitvlugt East Field #30 takes its place as the source of one of the best rums I’ve had this year.

In my rather tiny world, sourcing a rum like the Uitvlugt 1985 27 year old 60.7% is quite an experience. A rum limited enough, rare enough and old enough that to use a single appellation like “aged” to describe it is akin to saying Tolstoy wrote rather long books. The series of rums imported to Europe by Velier (these are DDL products selected by them in Guyana, not Europe) answers every beef I ever had about rums not being strong enough, addresses every complaint about a lack of imagination. Thus far, each of the full proof series has been spectacular, powerful, brilliant, exceptional, original and charges out of the bottle like a bat out of hell to give me all it has. This is what rums were made to be. This is what more rums should be. Want to go up against the Scots, boys? Want to give whisky some hard card? You’d better start making more of these.

Having established its pedigree as a rum massive as an oak tree flung by a F5 hurricane, what of it? It’s aged a magnificent 27 years in the tropics, losing 90% of its volume if Velier is to be believed, and powerful enough to brain a rampaging ox, but is it any good?

Mmmm. Yeah. It’s good. Nosing this torqued up full proof is, like, I dunno, trying to lasso a drunken moose: I mean, the rum is hard charging to a fault, practically an inhalation of supercharged testosteronea quick sniff and my abs were instantly firm enough to do my laundry on, and I was casting restive glances at my wife. Thick, spicy smorgasbord of fruit notes led off right away: prunes, currants, raisins, blackberries lead in, followed by faint flowery notes, licorice, cloves, black unsweetened chocolate. I felt I was at the dessert buffet of some high class hotel restaurant. Heated, yes; spicy, almost; but you know, for a beefed-up rum like this, once the alcohol fumes blow off, you can’t help but be impressed with a nose this rich, where so much is going on all at the same time.

D3S_5993

Dark mahogany and ruby red tints coloured the spirit itself, which was a treacly, almost heavy liquid in the mouth. Here was a spirit that coated your tongue, your tonsils and your teeth and hung on with the tenacity of a junkie to a five dollar bill. Awesomely smooth for its strength, generously providing tastes of licorice, chopped dried fruit for Caribbean Christmas black cake, green grapes just starting to go, aromatic port-finished cigarillosit’s deeply, darkly luscious to a fault. I tasted some of the oak tannins imparted by the long ageing, and in no way were they disconcertingly acidic or too sharp, but just right, leading to a long aromatic, finish as lasting as a diva holding a high C….like, forever. If this was a real opera, somewhere, Pavarotti would be feeling inadequate.

Even at 60.7%, which some might consider a bit much, the Uitvlught impressed with its mastery of blending art. Like its brothers (the Albion 1994 and the Diamond 1996), this rum is one of the tastiest, biggest, baddest, most fantabulistic spirits I’ve tried and that sound you heard was, quite simply, my mind being blown. Because this intensity is precisely why we should attempt to move past 40% in our rumsthe strength of flavour and body, the commingled multitudinous tastes, simply invites sampling and more sampling, and then even more, just so you could check out what that last smidgen of flavour really was.

D3S_5994

Velier out of Genoa bought three barrels from DDL (they are in fact DDL rums though the labelling seems ambiguous), aged them for twenty seven years and, in line with other European makers, simply bottled them as they came out. The Velier line is really kind of fantasticmarques from Blairmont, LBI, Port Mourant, Albion, Skeldon, Enmore (and that’s just the Guyanese) are all available, if rarer than a compliment from my boss. I can’t begin to express my admiration for the seriesthere’s an unapologetic narcissism to them that doesn’t so much flip the bird at standard strength rums as ignore them altogether. Their rums are awesometerrific nose, aggressive profile, epic finish.

And, at end, it may be self-defeatingit may simply be too much to be contained in a mere bottle. To have this rum burbling in your glass is to know what Godzilla’s captor might have felt like. By the time all the tasting notes have been wrung out, it may actually be a shade too amazing for those who prefer something a little less strong (like 40%). But you know what? I don’t care. The full proof rums from Velier are what they are. Not everyone will like themtheir starkness and somewhat elemental brutality will be off-putting to manybut then, they are not for everyone. Verlier echoed the European ethos of simplicity and minimalism in their products, wrestled the white lightning out of the cask and trapped it in a bottle for those of us who care.

If you can find Velier’s rums, any of ‘em, my advice would be to buy them, and quickly. Because if you’re ever into rum for the long term, there will come a time (if it has not arrived already) where you’ll be so damned glad you did. I know I am.

And now, after writing this review and taking a last sip, I think I’ll go see what the wife is up to….assuming she hasn’t already fled.

(#165. 91/100)


Opinion

I’ve made no secret of my wistful disappointment of tame drinks that go exactly no place special and have a small sense of imagination. The question that arises, is why aren’t more iridescent gems like this one ever made? What’s keeping the rest of the world from following suit? Why aren’t Flor de Cana, DDL, Appleton, Mount Gay or others indulging some hi-test full proofs of their own, besides issuing the occasional 151? I suppose I can think of several reasons: they won’t sell; they’re seen as too exclusive; they’re tough to find; they don’t appeal to the young; they’re too strong; too expensive; too tough to make by labels content with what they are doing already; and market forces favour 40%.

There are special editions around, of courselots of them, almost all made in Europe. The challenge is finding any. Perhaps nothing shows the potential of such a niche market as the speed with which such specialized bottlings by Bruichladdich, Gordon & McPhail, Fassbind, Bristol Spirits, Berry Bros., Velier, Silver Seal and Cadenhead fly off the shelves. They may languish in shops in North America, but I chose to believe it’s because they are not commonly available, not well known, and therefore remain a perceived nouveaux riche kind of pastime for crazies like myself.

So it’s not as if the full proof, limited-cask expressions don’t existthey do. Here’s hoping the major bottlers in the West Indies and the Americas will follow suit and produce their own full-proof liquid machismo one day, the way Velier has done here, so magnificently.

 

 

Apr 042013
 

D3S_5204

With this brutally elemental full-proof, Velier has tamed the beast but retained the beastliness.

The makers of the Diamond Estate 1996 Full Proof must have received no end of emails and letters and online posts about how the Albion 1994 60.4% was a sissy pink cupcake of a rum meant for the weak, and how they demanded something with a tad more torque in its trousers. And so came the Diamond Estate 1996 15 year old from Velier or, as it is better known, the “please move over, delicate person.” I guess it was supposed to have a nice, genteel 40% kinda strength, but obviously somebody at Casa di Luca paid attention to the cry of the masses, and thought, “No. That’s too wussy. It’s too klein.” And therefore ratcheted it up to a rip-snorting 64.6%, which I’m sure you’ll admit, for a standard table rum, is kind of amazing. This baby would shoulder aside the Albion, batter a Flavell into insensibility, tromp all over the Stroh 54and all for a reasonable price that would have Gordon & MacPhail or Cadenhead scratch their sporrans wondering how to translate wtf into gaelic.

Truth to tell, the Albion is the only other rum I have aside from the raging mastodons of the 151s to which I can reasonably compare this bad boy. It had a different, less stark presentation than the black-and-white of that particular full proof (yellow orange label and packing ain’t my favourite, but whatever) and it seemed a little less intimidating at first blush. Rest assured that this was merely a trap for the unwary, to lure you in prior to rampaging over your palate.

D3S_5213

The rum was a light mahogany in colour, with an initial scent that was amazingly unaggressiveheated, yes, just less than one would expect from a rum bottled at more than 64%. There was enough rubber on the initial nose to recall a Trojan manufacturing facility running full out, but this disappeared fast, and then waves of sumptuous aromas billowed out of the glass: deep, dark unsweetened chocolate, with hints of orange rind; jasmine blossoms, nougat, caramel, molasses, licorice, with a last nuance of camphor and medicinal undertones.

All these flavours from the nose came to more sharper and more clearly defined relief as I tasted it. You simply could not ignore a point-and-squirt, muscle-bound, nose-bashing throat-ravishing strength of 64.6%, of courseI’d be lying if I told you that, ‘cause in truth, the rum vibrated with enough power to shake the shag from my pipe. It’s remarkably well made in spite of that, though. At first, once the heat and spiciness became more tolerable, I tasted the aforementioned caramel, nougat and dark chocolate notes. Once it opened up, other flavours came forward: licorice, molasses, anise; leather and oak (less than you’d expect for a fifteen year old).And just as I thought I had the nuances nailed down, it coughed up blood and guts to show it was not quite dead, and presented a last note of marzipan and faint red wine. It didn’t have the deep fruitiness of the Albion, nor was it as sweetand that’s a good thing, because it allowed the Diamond a uniqueness that went well with its brawny sibling.

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Finish: long; lasting; on and on, without hate or snarkiness, strong and heated and almost without end, closing things off with oak and well-oiled leather, chocolate and exiting at last with a last caramel flounce, like a Shatner who hates to leave the stage. Aggressive, yeah: I think the Diamond 1996 may be among the meanest, hairiest two ounces in the universe. It’s like the makers had a military fetish and wanted guns strapped to this babysomething that fires napalm, heat seeking missiles, and blows s**t up real good. Nothing else can explain why they so dialled up the volts when they issued this feral expression (unless they were aiming at the crown held by the SMWS Longpond 81.3%).

Rums this strong are like tools built to military specifications: they’re are almost guaranteed to be friggin’ insane and survive a nuclear detonation. But the Diamond Estate 1996 Full Proof is more than just a pair of carbon-forged steel pliers that would crush the huevos of your daughter’s idjit boyfriend with the miniscule pressure of a three-year-old. It’s also an explosive addition to our celebration of overproof badassery. Can you tastefully blow something up with your boutique Panamonte XXV costing more than twice as much? Didn’t think so.

And therein may lie some people’s despite for it. They may not say it’s “too klein,” just that it packs too much punch. But come now: if you complain about the fierce nature of the Diamond you’re missing the point. Yep, of *course* this rum is just like reggae played at earth-moving volumes from speakers like young fridge: if you cringe away and say it’s too strong, well, sorry dude, but you’re too old. And you should switch back to tamer, less inspired, less imaginative forty percenters, good and smooth as they may be. Or, perhaps, to scotch.

D3S_5206-001

(#152. 91/100)


Other notes

  • There’s a weird absence of information on the DDL website about this series of estate rums, and later I found out that Velier has dibs on old barrels in their warehouses, and then creates the final product in EuropeI’m wondering where the ageing is done, though Luca Gargano suggests it is aged in situ.
  • Other expressions in the line are the Skeldon, Versailles, LBI, Port Mourant (there may be yet others)…l’m trying to track them all down.
  • Originated in coffey still and aged in oak from 1996-2011. After my suspicions on the Albion, I make no statements about the veracity of the origin still, but do confirm that it’s a damned good rum.

 

Jan 182013
 

Corentyne Thunder.

Full proof rumsI like that term. There’s a desert of rum strengths between 46% and 75%, the latter of which is what is often referred to as an overproof (for my money, anything over 50% qualifies). So to use “full-proof” seems right to distinguish rums in that arid wasteland of strength. They are the closest that rums will ever get, in my opinion, to the expressions of whiskies my sadly misguided Liquorite squaddies swoon over. I hang around those scotch swilling maltsters enough to understand the hushed and trembling voices, the bared and bowed heads and the misty eyes they get when speaking about “Glen Muddy 1993 Edition 57%”, or “Port Peathead Cask Strength Release 49 of 1975 60%here’s one of the few rums I’ve seen that matches such products strength for strength, style for style. Writing this, I fondly imagine the Maltmonster shuddering and shaking his head, muttering insalubrious deprecations under his breath at such insolence….and I smile.

The Albion 1994 rum is seventeen years old, and bottled at a beefy man-strength 60.4%, which made the tasting I conducted an equally nervous and exhilerating business. Even the dark, brooding bottle (somewhat relieved by a thick white cardboard enclosure), loomed menacingly over my seemingly defenceless glassI don’t believe I’ve ever had so intimidating an experience since the Longpond 9. What came out of the monolith was a dark amber, almost mahogany rum, and the first delighted thought as I poured it out was, “”S**t, this is grog!

The Albion wanted to prove to me that its ominous appearance was no accident. A thick-yet-sharp, fruity scent lunged right out of the glass, ready to fight, with sulphury notes of burning rubber and sun-warmed asphalt (remniscent of the older Rum Nation Jamaican 25) making themselves known right away. Then they exited the scene in a hurry, making way for deep odours of olives, raisins, black (definitely not red) grapes, heated without sharpness, which in their turn receded as the glass opened up, to reveal subtler hints of wine and sharp tropical fruitsmango leavened with freshly-cut, barely ripe papaya. White pepper and molasses fought for the last bit of nose that was left. A solid, fascinating and chewy nose, amazingly warmfor the aficionado, this might eclipse the el Dorado 25 year old 43% or the 21 year old, let alone Rum Nation’s new 1989 Demerara 23 45%.

The palate was as stunning as the nose had been. Full bodied and deep, oily and heated and without any hint of malice in its Mordor-inspired dark burn. The taste in the mouth was shamelessly aggressive, packing so many steroids that it wouldn’t surprise me if one day it would decide to grow out of the bottle. Slightly salty and dry, it thundered along like a mack truck of flavourcranberries, orange peel, lemon zest, sea salt (yes, really), molasses, oak, smoke, softer red guavas (not white), a faint background of sherry and licorice, just enough to tease without asserting any kind of biceps. Yes it was strong, yes it was a beefcake (come on, 60.4%? of course it was) – and yet at no point did I feel my senses were being pillaged, raped or plundered. Frankly, it was one of the best, meanest, hairiest shots of my experience, handily eclipsing the SMWS Longpond 9 year oldit evinced the phantasmagorical labial clout of an acid trip. And as befits such a powerful drink, the finish was epiclong and lasting and just held back from bursting into flame, presenting a lingering aftertaste of licorice, lemon peel and oak. I served this up to two dedicated maltsters, and you should have seen them abandon their vintage Springbanks to try a few extra shots of my baby, wistfully asking where in Calgary I’d found it.

Albion is a sugar plantation (and village) in the Berbice county in the east of Guyana, once owned by Bookers McConnell, and perhaps more renowned for its cricket ground where famous international and regional matches have been played over many decades. From my perspective it’s more renowned for the unique rums of its sugar, but I confess to a small bias that way. Albion had a French Savalle still which I’m supposing made this productbut you see, although the box and bottle refer to a wooden continuous still, that can’t be right since there’s no wooden still in Guyana except those that hail from Enmore, Port Mourant or Versailles (with only PM being continuous), so there may be some clarification required here. Yet I have my lingering suspicions even without thatthe taste is too rich, too redolent of a PM rum, to be taken at face value based on nothing but labelling. This rum was taken from several barrels originating at Albion prior to the consolidation. However, it was made not by DDL, but by an Italian/Swiss outfit called Velier (certainly one to watch) run by Luca Gargano. Before I knew this, I actually contacted my father and told him to talk to DDL’s higher ups about it, so impressive was the Albion, and it occurs to me now that perhaps an apology is in order.

I like Demerara-style rums best, with Panamanians a close second. Yet even within the Guyanese context there are rums and then there are rums. DDL’s El Dorados in particular are superlative: dark, heavy, full-bodied bastards, deep flavoured and aromatic to a fault. Yet in attempting to gain market share and widespread acceptanceas they havethey too timidly shy away from issuing rums of real power. Velier’s full proof line seeks to rectify this shortfall, and does it ever succeed. The Albion 1994 17 year old bashes the throat, buckles the knees, and brings tears to the eyes as it trumpets its beefcake badassery to the world. It may lack some creature comforts and doesn’t condescend to Pavlovian palates conditioned to softer 40% rums…but for those seeking a raw, powerful experience with a taste that reaffirms their cojones, this uncompromising, snarling medicine is just what the doctor ordered.

(#142. 90/100)


Other Notes

  • Fellow Guyanese will know that Albion is closer to the Berbice River than to the Corentyne, and therefore my two word summary above is somewhat misleading with strict reference to geography. The Corentyne coast more reasonably includes Port Mourant than Albion, which is actually East Berbice-Corentyne. However, there is a reason for the choice of words and here I ask the reader to understand my reference to Mittelholzer, and therefore why I would use the term in such a context.

Update, August 2015

Carl Kanto of DDL, in answer to my query about the wooden continuous still issue, said this: “There was a wooden continuous still at Albion. The type of rum depended on the operating parameters of the still. It was probably scrapped for more efficient metal Coffey stills. For sure it no longer exists.All I can says is that that’s a crying shame.

Update February 2018

This rum, tried in 2012, marked my first encounter with Velier. Since then they have gone on to become an independent rum behemoth, while DDL, which I praised so much here, has been excoriated for its dosing practices, and while they issued some full proof rums of their own in 2016, don’t seem to have taken the project as seriously as other rum makers have. In a 2021 Zoom presentation, DDL admitted they had used caramel as a smoothening agent for years, but had started to phase out the practice by 2004 (which produced the 15 YO of 2019 and onwards).