Nov 172022
 

Whatever my personal opinions on the need for the four Magnum rums to exist as a separate collection as opposed to being folding into other series, they are there, they’re a fact of life and we move on. In any case, we’ve learnt a bit about the legendary photo agency (even if we’re not into current history) and read up about the style and importance of Elliot Erwitt (even if we’re not photographers or understand the connection), and have tasted four new rums from old and proud houses, so it’s by no means a waste.

Moreover, for all their variations in quality, the fact is the rums really are kind of good, and this is a way to make them shine and gain (even more) popular acclaim. “Good” did I say? Well…yes, though perhaps I understate matters. The Foursquare, for all my relative lack of enthusiasm was quite decent (many disagreed and thought it was much better), and the Hampden and the Mount Gay rums were, I thought, excellent in their own right.  But when it comes ot the Saint James, the lowest proofed of the lot, “good” or “excellent” just doesn’t cut it.  Because this is a rum that’s exceptional.

Part of that may have been the completely approachable strength (45%) and part was surely the impact of fifteen years ageing in Martinique: we rarely see agricole rhums that old, so by itself that’s a selling point; plus, this may be the first indie bottling Saint James have ever allowed (like Appleton’s pot still collection, another Velier coup from a couple of years back). The real takeaway is that this rum combines an agricole sensibility with a long-term barrel-ageing philosophy (much as the Bally 18 YO did) and while of course I can’t speak for your experience or to your preferences, when I tried it, it was love at first sip.

The first notes of the rum opened with a complex symphony so rich I slugged the shot down, then poured a second glass immediately, just to make sure somebody wasn’t messing with me. There was a complex fruit symphony of tart gooseberries, miso, very ripe gooseberries and mangoes, and a smorgasbord of all the sour funkiness I would normally have associated with Jamaica. Pineapples, cherries, sprite, lemon rind, honey, and that was before a panoply of cane sap and herbals made themselves known: fennel, rosemary, cloves, jasmine.  The balance was superb and each delicate aromatic chip  was clear, bright, and neither dominating nor dominated by, any other.

It was a great experience tasting it, as well.  It felt just right on the tongue, silky, velvety, rich, and the tastes just went on from there. A lot of the bright and effervescent character remained, sweet, sour, tart, clean and voluptuous: pineapple slices and light yellow Thai mangoes, plus 7Up, honey, with additional threads of vanilla, cinnamon, rosemary and cardamom, plus just enough coffee grounds, chocolate and woodsmoke to present an intriguing and welcome counterpoint. The prevalence of dried fruits – thankfully not oversweet – brought to mind aged armagnacs or cognacs, especially when combined with a hint of aromatic damp tobacco. And it led to a really nice finish, surprisingly long, presenting a finale of delicious, sweetly gentle florals, bananas, honey, fruits and anise. 

Like Stuart Pearce of the underrated review site Secret Rum Bar, I have tended to view much-reduced aged agricole rhums with some hesitation, some reluctance, even occasional suspicion; and in his own review he noted that he felt the palate became somewhat flat, hence his lower score. I thought otherwise myself, though: it  dialled down from the impact the nose had made, to be sure, yet I didn’t think any quality was truly lost. 

Frankly, my opinion was (and remains, after sneaking a second round in at the Paris Whisky Live later in the year) that it is hard to see how it could have been improved upon. It’s one of the best aged agricoles I’ve ever tried, and to my mind, is some kind of wonderful. It dares to take a chance, to not so much go off the beaten track as delicately careen along the skirting to show possibilities, hinting, not bludgeoning.  It marries a solid age not often seen in agricole rhums, with a lower strength that allows all the complexities of the barrels and the gradual transmutation of the rhum, to be presented in their full flower. To bring this up to cask strength but make it younger would not have worked as well, and to simply age it without addressing the balance of tastes and intensity would have invited failure. Saint James drew upon all the skills they had – and that’s a lot – and ended up providing Velier, and us, with one of those miraculous rhums that achieves its immediate goals of being just damned good…and then continues climbing towards an even higher sensibility.

(#951)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 


Other notes

  • Once again it seems like I have a minority opinion. Secret Rum Bar rated it 84 points, WhiskyFun gave it 88, while Rum-X has an average of 84 points off of 12 ratings.
  • As with the other rums in this quartet, the outturn is 600 magnums and 1200 bottles.
  • The photograph on the label is from 2005 and depicts a scene from the wedding of a friend of Erwitt’s in Rome. The woman shown in silhouette is the bride.
  • The rums in the Magnum Series Volume 1 are:
  • From the Mount Gay “Magnum EE” Review: The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the word — greatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwitt — an American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but they have no direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were likely chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.
Nov 102022
 

The new rums of Velier’s first edition of the Magnum Elliot Erwitt series of rums are only four in number, and it’s too early to tell whether future editions will materialise. Honestly, I don’t see any need to create a new series at all: both the Hampden and Foursquare rums already have well established collaborative series of their own, Saint James could have been folded into the 25th AOC Anniversary bottling and I’m sure a home could have been found for Mount Gay somewhere. The Magnum photographic connection — to rum, Velier or the distilleries — is tenuous at best and even the selected photographer is a relatively obscure choice.

Still, if the intent was to release four rums that stand out in an arresting and visual fashion, then that works, and surely Velier is treading on familiar ground they themselves have helped establish. And there have been one-offs and smaller series before, like the original Damoiseau 1980, or the twin Basseterre rhums, or the two Indian Ocean series releases. Nothing says it needs to be an ongoing multi-year effort like, oh, Rom Deluxe’s “Wild” series. Next year there will likely be yet another one and I do enjoy looking for and at those distinctive designs.

What thoughts like these suggest, however, is a diminishment of the importance of a rum range that retains a quality and consistency level over long periods. The Demeraras, the Caronis, the HV series of rums — even the 70th Anniversary Collection — are all examples of successful and important long term ranges Velier has created. By making a series of short-lived “little” series like Warren Khong, Indian Ocean, Japoniani, Villa Paradisetto (among others), one wonders if there really is an overarching philosophy at work, some kind of through-line that makes each range truly unique in some individual fashion, over and above the arresting designs and colours.

I make this observation because of the four rums in the first collection, the Foursquare is the one that, to me, stood out the least (I tried all four together). The production stats, on paper, are all sterling: pot-column-still blend (the website calls it a “100% pot still pure single blended rum” but that’s a contradiction in terms, and I confirmed it is indeed a blend of the sort Foursquare is known for), distilled in 2005, double aged in ex-bourbon and sherry casks for sixteen years, then released with an outturn of 1200 700ml bottles and 600 1.5L magnums at 61%. A serious, old tropically aged rum. The distillery doesn’t make much that’s older than that.

What it doesn’t do is break new ground in any significant way. The nose is light for the strength, for example, and feels consistent with my memory of other ECS releases. Dusty and somewhat papery at first, before the more usual salt-caramel, vanilla, and aromas of grapes, peaches and ripe apples emerge. There’s a creamy, briny, almost tart laban background, macaroons, some nuttiness, a touch of orange peel and cinnamon, a bit of basil and rosemary herbs. A decent nose, about what is expected.

It tastes about the same. The texture is great, very solid and emphatic, and channels fruitiness well: mostly cherries in syrup (minus the excessive sweet), ripe red grapes and apples and peaches; there’s also brown sugar, vanilla, coconut shavings, some molasses, white chocolate and nuttiness, set off with just the suggestion of citrus. The finish sums all that up, adds little additional complexity and its major claim to fame is that it it is really quite epically long, with notes of unsweetened yoghurt, caramel, vanilla and some indeterminate fruitiness.

Overall, it’s good. That said, it didn’t move me much — what’s missing is something of the exceptionalism, the blazing fire and shoot-the-moon excellence that define Velier’s best collaborations with Foursquare, and that distillery’s own finest ECS editions. This is a hyped limited release with serious artistic pretensions; the profile is consistent, the taste is good, it adheres to most of  the markers that we seek in a limited edition Barbados rum…and yet it’s one that doesn’t ring my bells, doesn’t make me sit up in stunned wtf-level amazement and then head straight over to wherever is selling it so I can get me a bottle and consider myself fortunate to pay three figures for the privilege. Barbados rum lovers will not be disappointed, of course (it would have to be a real dog for that), and investors will continue to buy it because of the limited outturn, so it won’t fail in the market.  For me though, it’s a pass at the price.

(#949)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • From the Velier Mount Gay “Magnum EE” Review: The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the word — greatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwitt — an American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but they have no direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were likely chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.
  • This is particularly the case here, where the label photograph is of the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, taken in 1970. What that has to do with the rum or either of the involved companies, is simple: nothing.
  • Others’ opinions of this rum are almost exactly reversed from the Mount Gay Magnum edition which I liked more. Just about everyone who has written in about it loves this one, while I think it less. Secret Rum Bar rated it 92 points, WhiskyFun gave it 86, while Rum-X has an average of 88 points off of 25 ratings, with several topping 90.
Nov 072022
 

By now it’s almost like an annual event at the beginning of each new rum-release season: Velier makes an announcement about a co-bottling or a new rum, or a whole new series, and the rumiverse goes politely batsh*t for a while. To be honest, I kind of look forward to see what they come up with myself, because you really can’t fault their originality, or their style. And the rums themselves are usually interesting, with an occasional gem popping up here and there.

Now, most independents go with the standard big Caribbean distilleries, keep the labels consistent, and stay within just a few clearly pre-established “ranges.” Not Velier. They go off on their own tangent, every time. There was the clairins in 2014, HV in 2015, the pair of Indian ocean rums in 2017, the Hampden launch in 2018 (and all its various sub-series like Great House and Endemic Birds et al, since then), the Barbosa grogue and Villa Paradisetto in 2019, Japoniani in 2020, and — well, I could go on. Each has its own label design aesthetic, and tries to be original in some small way. For the 2022 season, then, the pride of place along with the Papa Rouyos and twenty Saint James expressions was surely the Magnum Series No.1 featuring Elliot Erwitt’s black and white photos on the label.

The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the word — greatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwitt — an American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but I don’t think they have direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.

So let’s get started with the first of the four, the Mount Gay, which could equally well be called the Last Last Last Ward. It is a pot still distillate laid down in 2007 when Frank Ward was still running the joint; the idea was to create a new and different brand called Mount Gilboa, and there have been some barrels that the Ward family kept after the takeover by Remy Cointreau, some of which were bottled as the Last Ward rums of the Habitation Velier line. The rum was triple distilled on double retort pot stills and aged in American white oak for 14 years (unlikely to be new – the influence would be too great, so my money is on ex-bourbon casks), after which a mere 600 bottles were squeezed out at 60% ABV.

What comes out at the other end after a near decade and a half is really kind of spectacular.  The initial aromas are a perfumed symphony of sweet molasses, honey, and flambeed bananas in a luscious kind of mélange. A vein of sweet and creamy caramel coffee winds its way around rich scents of custard, coconut shavings and vanilla. This is offset by the tart muskiness of soft and almost-overripe fruits: pears, guavas, oranges, apples, grapes, black cherries. I enjoyed the hint of the spices – cinnamon, cardamom, rosemary — and the whole thing displays a depth of complexity not to be sneezed at.

It tastes really good too.  The 60% lands on the palate as solidly as a right-wing extremist’s denial of …well, anything. It’s deceptively soft, the impact doesn’t get there until later: initially it’s all mushy fruit and smoke and leather, with the barest bitter tang of oakiness.  Vanilla, coconut shavings, those flambeed bananas again, plus light florals, a touch of smoke, and a creamy, tart yoghurt mixing it up with honey, caramel, and a dusting of cinnamon and cardamom. The finish is a gradual come down from these heights – it’s epically long, of course, and doesn’t feel like adding anything to the party, being content to sum up with light molasses, yoghurt, those ripe fruits, pineapples and spices. 

Overall, I think the rum is great, and it reminds me a lot of the Habitation Velier Last Ward 2007 and 2009 rums – which is hardly surprising since they come from the same batch of barrels squirrelled away all those years ago. They all have that sense of displaying a sort of quality without effort, like it was hardly even trying, and are quite different from the normal run of Mount Gay rums which are more widely available, and more affordable. The Magnum is neither worse nor better than either of those two earlier HV editions – better to say it exists on that same level of pot still excellence, and I suppose that if the distillate had not been used for the Magnum line, it would have been completely appropriate to be the third Last Ward in the Habitations. The price will probably keep the average buyer away, but for those who can score a sample or even a bottle of this latest in the Velier lineup, I think it’s more than worth it.

(#948)(88/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Opinions on the online databases like Rum-X and Rum Ratings mostly felt it did not quite come up to snuff; in doing my last checks before posting this review, was surprised to see I liked it more than most. I passed over comments like the alcohol being too high or the profile not being their thing (those are personal opinions, and each has their own which won’t necessarily align with mine), but one thing must be conceded: there are other Barbadian rums out there — some even from Mount Gay — which are almost or equally good, and which cost less.  It has to be accepted that part of the price here is the rarity and small outturn, and the premium of the name.
  • The photograph on the label is a 1999 photo of the Californian seaside resort of Pacific Palisades.