Nov 252021
 

What is there to say about either Velier or Caroni, that hasn’t been said so many times before?

It seems almost superfluous to repeat the story but for the sake of those new to the saga, here’s the basics: Caroni was a Trinidadian sugar factory and distillery which, after many ups and downs related to the vicissitudes of the sugar industry, finally closed in 2003. In late 2004 Luca Gargano, the boss of Velier, came upon and subsequently bought, many hundreds (if not thousands) of barrels that had been destined for auctioning or fire sale disposal (for the sake of completeness, note that many others did too).

Previously, either on their own account or when managed by Tate & Lyle (a British concern which operated the establishment for many years), Caroni had made rums of their own, but they were considered low quality blends and never thought to be very good. Now, however, Velier issued them in tiny lots, often single barrel releases, cask strength and quite old. Though initially sold only in Italy, by 2010 they had already acquired an underground following, with a reputation that only grew over the yearsand this is why prices on secondary markets for the very first releases dating from the 1970s or 1980s can go for thousands of dollars, or pounds.

These days, with the prices and number of variations of the early Caroni rums ascending out of reach of most, the blended aged expressions may be the best value for money Veliers from the canon we can still afford, or find. What they provide for us is something of the tar and smoke and petrol portions of the profile that characterize the type, without any of the miniscule variations and peculiarities of single barrel expressions. They are, in short more approachable overall to the curious layman who wants to know what the Godawful kerfuffle is all about. Granted, many other indies have gotten on the bandwagon with their own Caronis and they are usually quite good, but you know how it is with Velier’s cachet and their knack of picking out good barrels even when making blends.

So, this one: distilled on a column in Caroni in February of 1998 and aged in situ until September 2015, when it was shipped to Scotland for blending and bottling at 55% ABV. All this is on the label, but curiously, we don’t know the total outturn. In any event it’s one of a progressively more aged series of blends – 12 YO, 15 YO, this one and 21 YOmeant for a more consumer facing market, not the exclusive Caronimaniacs out there, who endlessly dissect every minor variation as if prepping for a doctoral thesis.

Those who spring for this relatively cheaper blend hoping for a sip at the well, will likely not be disappointed. It has all the characteristics of something more exclusive, more expensive. Initial aromas are of petrol, an old machinists shop with vulcanizing shit going on in the background, rubber, phenols, iodine. Gradually fruits emerge, all dark and sullen and sulky. Plums, blackberries, dates, plus sweet caramel and molasses. Some herbsdill, rosemary. And behind it all coils the familiar scent of fresh hot tar being laid down in the summer sun.

The taste is very similar. Like the nose, the first notes are of an old bottom-house car repair shop where the oil has soaked into the sand, and rubber tyres and inner tubes are being repaired everywhere, and the occasionally pungent raw petrol aromas makes you feel like you’re passing an oil refinery. But this is all surface: behind that is also a more solid and lasting profile of brine, olives, dates, figs, and almost overripe peaches, prunes, even some coffee grounds and anise. It’s dry, and a touch bitter, redolent of aromatic cigarillos, damp black tea leaves. Nice but also, on occasion, a little confusing. No complaints on the finish, which is reasonably long, thick, with notes of caramel, nuts, licorice and dark fruit. It’s a peculiarity of the rum that although sweetness is really not in this rum’s DNA, it kinda tastes that way.

It’s been bruited around before that Caroni rums, back in the days of Ago, were failures, implying that these rums today being hailed as such classics are a function of heritage and memory alone, not real quality in the Now. Well, maybe: still, it must be also said that in a torrential race to the lees of anonymity and sameness, they do stand out, they are in their own way unique, and the public has embraced their peculiarities with enthusiasm (and their wallets).

On balance, I liked it, but not quite as much as the 21 YO in the blended series. That one was a bit better balanced, had a few extra points of elegant distinction about it, while this one is more of a goodhearted country boy without the sophisticationbut you know, overall, you would not go wrong picking this one up if you could. There is nothing wrong with this one either, and it represents Caroni’s now well-know tar and petrol profile quite solidly, as well as simply being a really good rum.

(#866)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The label is a facsimile of the original Tate & Lyle Caroni rum labels from the 1940s
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.
Sep 062021
 

By now, the story has entered into the folklore of rum: in October 2004 Luca Gargano and the (late) photographer Fredi Marcarini, sniffing out rums from around the Caribbean to round out Velier’s rum portfolio and being dissatisfied with Angostura’s offerings, decided to visit the Caroni distillery, even though it had already been closed for a year. Arriving at the premises and being let in, they were shown a warehouse where several thousand barrels dating back more than twenty years had been stored (and implied to be overlooked, if not actually forgotten). Most of the barrels were bought by Velier in several tranches over the following years, and always presented as some sort of exotic treasure, an undiscovered, unappreciated and unheralded jewel in the mud brought to light through intrepid and personal Indiana-Jones-style sleuthing that reaped the benefitswhich larger and less adventurous rum bottlers who safely bought from European brokers, could and did not.

In the ensuing years beginning in 2005, Caroni rums were carefully released in limited batches to the market, primarily Italy. Just as with the Demeraras, these releases broke new groundfor one, the barrels were not always blended into huge consistent outturns of several thousand bottles, but were often released as they were, a few hundred at a time: at best maybe two or three barrels of similar provenance or age or strength might be combined. And this is why there are so very many Velier Caroni rums in existenceat last count I have about sixty-plus (the Hampden “Endemic Birds” series follows the principle of multiple bottle releases, though I submit it is for completely different reasons). Sometimes there are bottles from the same year, the same age, but a few proof points apart; in others, it’s a “Heavy” or a “Light” edition. Blends began to be issued in larger quantities.

The rum from today is from the middle of the Caroni era (which we are still living through, even if the end may now be in sight) – distilled in 1996, blended and bottled in 2017 at “Imperial” proof of 100º (57.18%), a massive angel’s share of some 86%, resulting in an an outturn of about 7,000 bottles. The decision to bottle at this strength is supposedly to showcase the heavy character of the rum and perhaps genuflect to the Navy tradition, but I suspect this is more a convenience than anything else, as various lesser and greater proofs have always characterized the Caroni line without any such romantic explanations. The red and white label, it should be noted, like the gold-white-blue Tate & Lyle facsimile adorning some of Velier’s later Caroni editions, is a replica of the style of a 1940s original. Tracking that down proved elusive, unfortunately.

So, to the tasting then. By now the heavy, tarry and fusel-oil profile of the Caronis is one of the most recognized taste markers in the rum world, so it comes as no surprise to find it here: the rum presents opening aromas of rich caramel and tar, deeply intense, with petrol held way back. There’s licorice and dark fruitsraisins, prunes, plums and blackberriesplus a nice sharpish and lighter cognac kick that is far from unpleasant. The real characteristic of the nose seems to be less the diesel machinery than the garden, howeverblack grapes, very soft mangoes and all manner of overripe fruit. There’s just little tartness to balance that offunsweetened yoghurt, maybe.

Tasting the thing reveals powerful tar and petrol notes by the bucketload, dry, oily and amazingly mouth coating. The profile is nicely solid, hardly sharp at all, and displays a touch of brine and olives, as well asinitiallyan oddly metallic, medicinal sort of taste.

Once it settles down a richly dark, perfumed profile emerges for real: licorice, tar, dates, raisins, prunes, dark unsweetened chocolate, black grapes, blueberries, that cognac line again. There’s a delicate sort of citrus background that lends a nice counterpoint to the duskier, heavier tastes. It’s not a rum to hurry through, even on the finish: this is dry, long, aromatic, phenolic, leaving behind mostly sweet thick caramel molasses notes and some burnt rubber, plus a last flirt of exhaust fumes as it roars away into memory.

As a blend, it’s really kind of spectacularthere aren’t many of these deep, surly rums around any longer, and even the New Jamaicans’ high ester rums tend towards the fruity and sharp notes, not the brutal stomp-it strength of the Clydesdales that are the Caronis. That said, not everyone will like the heaviness of the experience: agricole lovers or those who prefer soft Spanish light rums will find little to enthuse them here, and that’s Caroni for younot everyone is in tune with the steampunk esthetic and industrial farting of this long shuttered Trini style.

But I like it, and think that even if the prices of the smaller, older and rarer editions of Velier’s Caronis are too high, there’s still good quality and interesting tastes to be found in the high-outturn blends like 12 year old, or the 15, 17 and a few others. The appeal of the Caroni line of rums lies in their miniscule variations from one batch to the next (no matter who issues it), which allows any curious enthusiast to sample just a few and get a good sense for what it’s all about. The 21 year old from 1996 is among the oldest of these blends, and while it does cost a bit, it is, in my opinion, also among the best.

(#848)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • It is often believed that Velier first released the Classic Demerara rums, and as their availability declined and the price ascended (sometimes beyond all reason), the Caronis came in to supplant them as the second great series of rums which made Velier’s reputation. But strictly speaking, this is not truethe awareness of the Caronis peaked much later, but they began to be released in 2005, just around the same time as the first “true” dark-bottled Demeraras from the Age began to hit the market.

Additional Background

The myth of the “discovery” of these thousands of barrels may be true, but others dispute it, claiming that it had always been known that the rum stocks were there and they existed and were for sale. This goes as far back as 2000 when the distillery was already in perilous financial straits and courting buyers, and one local story held that a foreign consultant valued the year 2000 existing stocks of eighteen thousand barrels at between TT$1 billion (about US$160,000) and TT$6 billion (~US$935,000) depending on whether they were sold as aged or bulk rums. Both numbers were seen as implausibly low (US$935,000 for 18,000 barrels works out to US$52/barrel), as the writer was at pains to point out.

The distillery shuttered in 2003, and as is now well known, independents like Velier et al, and Scheer/Main Rum, bought out the stocks over the next few yearsit was not done all at once, nor was it only Velier, and it went through Government officers (one could hardly get an export license without them). What is missing from all accounts is the pricing asked for and paid, and for what volume. In 2018, by which time Caronimania was a well established (if misunderstood) phenomenon, Raffique Shah (the author of the original 2000 article) returned to the theme and scolded the politicians of the day for ignoring or not even understanding the rum stocks’ pricing given their elevation to the “Blue Label Crowd.” He suggested that they disdained their own country’s rum, couldn’t be bothered to do any due diligence, and allowed a huge potential windfall to slip through their fingers. He all but accused them of skullduggery and corruption.

Whether any of this is true or not is, at this remove, probably impossible to tell. Commercial entities are under no obligation to disclose such matters and since we know neither the volume of barrels sold nor the amount paid for each, or by whom, anything beyond this point is just uninformed speculation that hopefully will one day be replaced by facts. But it’s a good case study in how rums (or any local third world resources for that matter) get bought and sold.


 

Jul 222021
 

 

Poisson-Père Labat, who worked for the most part with blancs, blends and mid range rhums, came late to the party of millesime expressionsat least, so far as I have been able to establishand you’d be hard pressed to find any identifiable years’ rhums before 1985. Even now I don’t see the distillery releasing them very often, though of late they seem to be upping their game and have two or three top end single casks on sale right now.

But that has not stopped others from working with the concept, and in 2017 Velier got their mitts on a pair of their barrels. That was the year in which, riding high on the success of the classic Demerara rums, the Trinidadian Caronis and the Habitation Velier series of pot still rums (among others), they celebrated the company’s 70th birthday. Though it should be made clear that this was the company’s birthday, not the 70th year of Luca Gargano’s association with that once-unknown little distributor, since he only bought it in the early 1970s.

In his book Nomade Tra I Barili Lucawith surprising brevitydescribes his search for special barrels from around the world which exemplified his long association with the spirit, sought out and purchased for the “Anniversary Collection”; but concentrates his attention on the “Warren Khong” subset, those rums whose label designs were done by the Singapore painter. There were, however, other rhums in the series, like the Antigua Distillers’ 2012, or the two Neissons, or the Karukera 2008. And this one.

The rhum he selected from Poisson-Pere Labat has all the Velier hallmarks: neat minimalist label with an old map of Marie Galante, slapped onto that distinctive black bottle, with the unique font they have used since the Demeraras. Cane juice derived, 57.5% ABV, coming off a column still in 2010 and aged seven years in oak.

It’s a peculiar rhum on its own, this one, nothing like all the others that the distillery makes for its own brands. And that’s because it actually tastes more like a molasses-based rum of some age, than a true agricole. The initial nose says it all: cream, chocolate, coffee grounds and molasses, mixed with a whiff of damp brown sugar. It is only after this dissipates that we get citrus, fruits, grapes, raisins, prunes, and some of that herbal and grassy whiff which characterizes the true cane juice product. That said I must confess that I really like the balance among all these seemingly discordant elements.

The comedown is with how it tastes, because compared to the bright and vivacious effervescence of the Pere Labat 3 and 8 year old and the younger blends, the Velier 7 YO comes off as rather average. It’s warm and firm, leading in with citrus zest, a trace of molasses, aromatic tobacco, licorice and dark fruits (when was the last time you read that in a cane juice rhum review?), together with the light creaminess of vanilla ice cream. There’s actually less herbal, “green” notes than on the nose, and even the finish has a brief and rather careless “good ‘nuff” vibe to itmedium long, with hints of green tea, lemon zest, some tartness of a lemon meringue pie sprinkled with brown sugar and then poof, it’s over.

Ultimately, I find it disappointing. Partly that’s because it’s impossible not to walk into any Velier experience without some level of expectationswhich is why I’m glad I hid this sample among five others and tried the lot blind; I mean, I mixed up and went through the entire set twiceand Labat’s own rums, cheaper or younger, subtly equated or beat it, and one is just left asking with some bemused bafflement how on earth did that happen?

But it’s more than just preconceived notions and thwarted expectations, and also the way it presents, samples, tastes. I think they key might be that while the rhum does display an intriguing mix of muskiness and clarity, both at once, it’s not particularly complex or memorable – – and that’s a surprise for a rhum that starts so well, so intriguingly. And consider this also: can you recall it with excitement or fondness? Does it make any of your best ten lists? The rhum does not stand tall in either people’s memories, or in comparison to the regular set of rums Père Labat themselves put out the door. Everyone remembers the Antigua Distillers “Catch of the Day”, or one of the two Neissons, that St. Lucia or Mount Gilboabut this one? Runt of the litter, I’m afraid. I’ll pass.

(#838)(83/100)


Other Notes

Dec 302020
 

Hampden gets so many kudos these days from its relationship with Velierthe slick marketing, the yellow boxes, the Endemic Bird series, the great tastes, the sheer range of them allthat to some extent it seems like Worthy Park is the poor red haired stepchild of the glint in the milkman’s eye, running behind dem Big Boy picking up footprints. Yet Worthy Park is no stranger to really good rums of its own, also pot still made, and clearly distinguishable to one who loves the New Jamaicans. They are not just any Jamaicansthey’re Worthy Park, dammit. They have no special relationship with anyone, and don’t really want (or need) one.

For a long time, until around 2005, Worthy Park was either closed or distilling rum for bulk export, but in that year they restarted distilling on their double retort pot still and in 2013 Luca Gargano, the boss of Velier, came on a tour of Jamaica and took note. By 2016 when he released the first series of the Habitation Velier line (using 2015 distillates) he was able to convince WP to provide him with three rums, and in 2017 he got three more. This one was a special edition of sorts from that second set, using an extended fermentation periodthree months! – to develop a higher ester count than usual (597.3 g/hLpa, the label boasts). It was issued as an unaged 57% white, and let me tell you, it takes its place proudly among the pantheon of such rums with no apology whatsoever.

I make that statement with no expectation of a refutation. The rum doesn’t just leap out of the bottle to amaze and astonish, it detonates, as if the Good Lord hisself just gave vent to a biblical flatus. You inhale rotting fruit, rubber tyres and banana skins, a pile of warm sweet garbage left to decompose in the topical sun after being half burnt and then extinguished by a short rain. It mixes up the smell of sweet dark overripe cherries with the peculiar aroma of the ink in a fountain pen. It’s musty, it’s mucky, it’s thick with sweet Indian spices, possesses a clear burn that shouldn’t be pleasant but is, and it may still, after all this time, be one of the most original rums you’ve tried this side of next week. When you catch your breath after a long sniff, that’s the sort of feeling you’re left with.

Oh and it’s clear that WP and their master blender aren’t satisfied with just having a certifiable aroma that would make a DOK (and the Caner) weep, but are intent on amping up the juice to “12”. The rum is hot-snot and steel-solid, with the salty and oily notes of a pot still hooch going full blast. There’s the taste of wax, turpentine, salt, gherkins, sweet thick soya sauce, and if this doesn’t stretch your imagination too far, petrol and burnt rubber mixed with the sugar water. Enough? “No, mon,” you can hear them say as they tweak it some more, “Dis ting still too small.” And it is, because when you wait, you also get brine, sweet red olives, paprika, pineapple, ripe mangoes, soursop, all sweetness and salt and fruits, leading to a near explosive conclusion that leaves the taste buds gasping. Bags of fruit and salt and spices are left on the nose, the tongue, the memory and with its strength and clear, glittering power, it would be no exaggeration to remark that this is a rum which dark alleyways are afraid to have walk down it.

The rum displays all the attributes that made the estate’s name after 2016 when they started supplying their rums to others and began bottling their own. It’s a rum that’s astonishingly stuffed with tastes from all over the map, not always in harmony but in a sort of cheerful screaming chaos that shouldn’t workexcept that it does. More sensory impressions are expended here than in any rum of recent memory (and I remember the TECA) and all this in an unaged rum. It’s simply amazing.

If you want to know why I’m so enthusiastic, well, it’s because I think it really is that good. But also, in a time of timid mediocrity where too many rum makers (like those Panamanians I was riffing about last week) are afraid to take a chance, I like ambitious rum makers who go for broke, who litter rum blogs, rumfest floors and traumatized palates with the detritus of their failures, who leave their outlines in the walls they run into (and through) at top speed. I like their ambition, their guts, their utter lack of fear, the complete surrender to curiosity and the willingness to go down any damned experimentative rabbit hole they please. I don’t score this in the nineties, but God, I do admire itgive me a rum that bites off more than it can chew, any time, over milquetoast low-strength yawn-through that won’t even try gumming it.

(#790)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Outturn unknown.
  • The Habitation Velier WP 2017 “151” edition was also a WPE and from this same batch (the ester counts are the same).
  • In the marqueWPEthe WP is self explanatory, and the “E” stands for “Ester”
Nov 232020
 

Sooner or later in these reviews, I always end up circling back to Velier, and for preference, it’s usually the rums from the Age of the Demeraras. It’s not that I have anything against the Caronis in their near-infinite variations, the Habitation’s pot still range, or the series of the New Hampdens, Villa Paradisetto or 70th anniversary. And I have a soft spot for even the smaller and more exactingly selected outturns of one-offs like the Courcelles or the Basseterre rums. It’s just that the Demeraras speak to me more, and remind me of the impact a then-relatively-unknown indie bottler had when it rearranged the rum landscape and worldviews of many rum aficionados back in the day.

By the time this rum was released in 2014, things were already slowing down for Velier in its ability to select original, unusual and amazing rums from DDLs warehouses, and of course it’s common knowledge now that 2014 was in fact the last year they did so. The previous chairman, Yesu Persaud, had retired that year and the arrangement with Velier was discontinued as DDL’s new Rare Collection was issued (in early 2016) to supplant them.

While this rum was hyped as being “Very Rare” and something special, I am more of the impression it was an experiment on the order of the four “coloured” edition rums DDL put out in 2019, something they had had on the go in their skunkworks, that Luca Gargano spotted and asked to be allowed to bottle. It was one of four he released that year, and perhaps illustrates that the rabbit was getting progressively harder to pull out of the hat.

Still, the stats on the as-usual nicely informative label were pretty good: two barrels of serious distillatesthe Versailles single wooden pot still and the Diamond metal coffey still (proportions unknown, alas) — yielding 570 bottles. A hefty strength of 57.9%; 18 years of tropical ageing while the two profiles married and learned how to live together without a divorce, and an angel’s share of about 78%.

How then, did such an unusual amalgam of a coffey still and a wooden pot still come out smelling and tasting like after so long? Like a Demerara rum is the short answer. A powerful one. This was a Demerara wooden still profile to out-Demerara all other wooden-still Demeraras (wellat least it tried to be). There was the characteristic licorice of the wooden stills, of course. Aromatic tobacco, coffee grounds, strong and unsweetened black tea; and after a while a parade of dark fruitsraisins, prunes, black datesset off by a thin citrus line pf lemon zest, and cumin. Ah but that was not all, for this was followed some time later when I returned to the glass, by sawdust, rotting leaves after a rain, acetones, furniture polish and some pencil shavings, cinnamon and vanillaquit a lot to unpack. It was fortunate I was trying it at home and not somewhere were time was at a premium, and could take my time with the tasting.

The nose had been so stuffed with stuff (so to speak) that the palate had a hard time keeping up. The strength was excellent for what it was, powerful without sharpness, firm without bite. But the whole presented as somewhat more bitter than expected, with the taste of oak chips, of cinchona bark, or the antimalarial pills I had dosed on for my working years in the bush. Thankfully this receded, and gave ground to cumin, coffee, dark chocolate, coca cola, bags of licorice (of course), prunes and burnt sugar (and I mean “burnt”). It felt thick and heavy and had a nice touch of creme brulee and whupped cream bringing up the rear, all of which segued into a lovely long finish of coffee grounds, minty chocolate and oranges, licorice again, and a few more overripe fruits.

Overall, not lacking or particularly shabby. Completely solid rum. The tastes were strong and it went well by itself as a solo drink. That said, although it was supposed to be a blend, the lighter column still tastes never really managed to take over from the powerful Versailles profilebut what it did do was change it, because my initial thinking was that if I had not known what it was, I would have said Port Mourant for sure. In some of the crisper, lighter fruity notes the column distillate could be sensed, and it stayed in the background all the way, when perhaps a bit more aggression there would have balanced the whole drink a bit more.

Nowadays (at the close of 2020), the rum fetches around £500 / US$800 or so at auction or on specialty spirits sites, which is in line with other non-specific Velier rums from the Late Age clocking in at under two decades’ ageing. Does that make it undervalued, something to pounce on? I don’t think so. It lacks a certain clear definition of what it is and may be too stern and uncompromising for many who prefer a more clear-cut Port Mourant or Enmore rum, than one of these experimentals. If after all this time its reputation has not made it a must-have, then we must accept that it is not one of the Legendary Bottles that will one day exceed five grandsimply an interesting variation of a well known series of rums, a complete decent sipping rum, yet not really a top-tier product of the time, or the line.

(#779)(85/100)


Other notes

  • The four 2014 Velier “blended-in-the-barrel” experimentals were:
    • 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%
  • DDL’s own four rums of the 2019 “coloured” series referred to above were
    • PM/Uitvlugt/Diamond 2010 9YO at 49.6% (violet),
    • Port Mourant/Uitvlugt 2010 9YO at 51% (orange),
    • Uitvlugt/Enmore 2008 11YO 47.4% (blue)
    • Diamond/Port Mourant 2010 9YO at 49.1% (teal).

The jury is still out on how good (or not) the DDL versions are. So far I have not seen many raves about them and they seem to have dropped out of sight rather rapidly.

Jul 222020
 

By now most will be aware of my admiration for unshaven, uncouth and unbathed white rums that reek and stink up the joint and are about as unforgettable as Mike Tyson’s first fights. They move well away from the elegant and carefully-nurtured long-aged offerings that command high prices and elicit reverent murmurs of genteel appreciation: that’s simply not on the program for these, which seek to hammer your taste buds into the ground without apology. I drink ‘em neat whenever possible, and while no great cocktail shaker myself, I know they make some mixed drinks that ludicrously tasty.

So let’s spare some time to look at this rather unique white rum released by Habitation Velier, one whose brown bottle is bolted to a near-dyslexia-inducing name only a rum geek or still-maker could possibly love. And let me tell you, unaged or not, it really is a monster truck of tastes and flavours and issued at precisely the right strength for what it attempts to do.

The opening movements of the rum immediately reveal something of its originalityit smells intensely and simultaneously salty and sweet and estery, like a fresh fruit salad doused with sugar water and vinegar at the same time. It combines mangoes, guavas, watermelons, green apples, unripe apricots and papayas in equal measure, and reminds me somewhat of the Barik white rum from Haiti I tried some time before. There’s also a briny aroma to it, of olives, bell peppers, sour apple cider, sweet soya sauce, with additional crisp and sharp (and plentiful) fruity notes being added as it opens up. And right there in the background is a sly tinge of rottenness, something meaty going off, a kind of rumstink action that fortunately never quite overwhelms of gains the upper hand.

When tasted it presents a rather more traditional view of an unaged white agricole rhum, being sharp, sweet, light, crisp. Herbs take over heremint, dill, fresh-mown grass and cane peel for the most part. There’s a lovely sweet and fruity tang to the rhum at this point, and you can easily taste sugar water, light white fruits (guavas, apples, cashews, pears, papayas), plus a delicate hint of flowers and citrus peel, all commingling nicely. As you drink it more it gets warmer and easier and some of that crisp clarity is lostbut I think that overall that’s to its benefit, and the 59% ABV makes it even more palatable as a neat pour and sip. Certainly it goes down without pain or spite, and while there is less here than on other parts of the drink, you can still get closing notes of watermelon, citrus, pears, sugar water, and a last lemony touch that’s just right.

Evaluating a rum like this requires some thinking, because there are both familiar and odd elements to the entire experience. It reminds me of clairins, but also of the Paranubes, even a mezcal or two, all mixed up with a good cachaca and a nice layer of light sweet. The smells are good, if occasionally too energetic, and tumble over each other in their haste to get out, but the the tastes are spot on and there’s never too much of any one of them and I was reminded a little of the quality of that TCRL Fiji 2009 I could never quite put my finger onthis rhum was equally unforgettable.

The rum grew on me in a most peculiar way. At first, not entirely sure what to make of it, and not satisfied with its overall balance, I felt it shouldn’t do better than 82. A day later, I tried it again, unable to get it out of my mind, and rated it a more positive 84 because now I could see more clearly where it was going. But in the end, a week later and with four more tries under my belt, I had to admit how well assembled the rum truly was, and settled on my final score. Any rum which grows in the mind like that, getting better each time, is the sure mark of one that deserves a lot more attention. In this case it remains one of my happy discoveries of the entire Habitation Velier line, and is a great advertisement for both agricoles and the more unappreciated and overlooked white rums of no particular age.

(#746)(85/100)


Other notes

  • The name refers to the German still used to make the rhum
  • This 1st edition of this rhum had a brown bottle. The 2nd edition uses a clear one. Both editions derive from a 2015 harvest.
  • From Bielle distillery on Marie Galante
  • It’s a little early for the Rumaniacs series but two of the members have reviewed it, here, neither as positively as I have. My sample came from the same source as theirs.
Jun 032020
 

It will come as some surprise to anyone reading this review, when I say that there is a certain pointlessness now, to reviewing a Velier rum from The Age. After all, this is a very young rum, not considered one of the Legends like the Skeldon or Port Mourant series, it’s practically unfindable, quite expensive when you can, and nowadays you’re more likely to find an ounce of Unobtainium than one of these unicorns. Also, 2007 was not noted for the richness of its releasesonly the LBI 1998 and the Versailles 1998 were offered that year, both also nine years old, and neither of which ever gained cult status.

Yet for all that, to ignore it would be a mistake. There’s the irresistible pull of the Old Guyana Demeraras, of that legendary Enmore wooden Coffey still (also known as the “filing cabinet” by wags who’ve seen it), the allure of Velier and their earlier releases which back in the day sold for a hundred or so and now pull down thousands easy (in any currency). How can one resist that? Good or bad, it’s just one of those things one has to try when possible, and for the record, even at that young age, it’s very good indeed.

By now Velier is such a household name that we can be brief since the story, the history, the man and the bottlings are so well known. This is a true Enmore still rum (the label is clear about that and it was independently verified by Luca later); it was distilled in 1998 at Uitvlugt which was where the still was back then, bottled in 2007 at 64.9%, and came from a single barrel which provided 265 bottles.

Let’s get started then, with the nose, which was clear about its origins right awaypencil shavings, the sawdust of a busy lumber yard, rich spices (very Enmore-ish, one might say), starting sharp and furious as befits the strength, and then calming down to become remarkably docile, but still very firm. That’s when the good stuff starts to emerge: florals, caramel, toblerone, vanilla, coconut tobacco, prunes and a melange of fruits. What’s nice about it is that for all its relative strength, it presents as almost elegant and can be smelled for ages.

Palate was just as good., but care has to be taken to get the most out of it, otherwise it feels like it’s just hammering your tongue and you lose something of the subtlety. But it’s all there: a salty briny vegetable soup into which has been dumped (paradoxically enough) brown sugar, sweet soya, tobacco, olive oil, cloves and a few bars of white coconut chocolate. Dark fruits, a whiff of cloves and anise, cherries in sweet syrup. I mean, wtf? That’s a crazy sort of taste mashup, and it shouldn’t work, but somehow manages to salvage some elegance from all that rough stuff and the tastes meld well, shine through, and end up elevating the whole thing. Even the finish displays how disparate flavours you would not normally think could gel, can sometimes complement each otherit’s sweet, long, dry, fruity, crisp and even provides a few new notes of molasses. Caramel, coconut, ripe fruits, smoke and spices.

In many other rums, that kind of jumbled craziness would lead to an unfocussed mess of aggression without purpose or conclusion. Here the individuality and quality are there, and in my notes I ask the puzzled question of how on earth this was achieved. But maybe I don’t need to know, just accept that I really like the thing.

It’s easy for me to be blase, even indifferent, about Velier’s rums, after having tried so many. Surely the shine has to come off the rose sometime, right? But that would be doing themand this ruma disservice, neither earned nor merited. This is a quietly amazing rum for something so young. It may never gain the mythical renown of the PM 1972 or the Skeldons, or the UF30E, but consider how very good indeed it is, for what it is. At less than a third or even a quarter of their ages, it presses all the right buttons, noses well, tastes lovely and finishes with a controlled bang that can barely be faulted. So although I don’t say this kind of thing often (if at all), here I think the statement is warranted, even deservedthe Enmore 1998 may be the best sub-ten year old Demerara I’ve ever tasted.

(#733)(87/100)

Dec 182019
 

Without bombast or any kind of major marketing push, without hype or hurry, Savanna on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean quietly built up its reputation over the last decade with the Grand Arôme series of rums deriving from their high ester still, and probably gave the new high-ester Jamaicans serious conniption fits. Yet for all its burgeoning street cred, it remains something of a relative unknown, while much more attention is lavished on the New Jamaicans and other companies around the Caribbean who are jacking up their taste levels.

Savanna has of course been making rums its own way for ages, and by releasing this little gem with them, the Genoese concern of Velier might just be the one to catapult them to the next level and greater renown outside Europe. After all, they did it for Caroini and DDL, why not here?

The “Indian Ocean Still” series of rums have a labelling concept somewhat different from the stark wealth of detail that usually accompanies a Velier collaboration. Personally, I find it very attractive from an artistic point of viewI love the man riding on the elephant motif of this and the companion Chamarel rum (although I must concede that my all time favourite design is the architectural-quality drawings of the various stills of the Habitation line). In any event, most of the info is on the back label (repeated in the copperplate-style narrative on the front): distilled November 2012, aged on Reunion in French oak casks, bottled February 2019. It’s a column still product, but not, as far as I’m aware, of the HERR still.

It’s been said on many occasions of Velier’s rums, especially with the Jamaicans and Demeraras, that “the rum doesn’t feel like it’s X%”. Perhaps nowhere is that more true than here, where the Savanna clocked in at 61% ABV, but nosedand later tastedlike it was no more than standard strength. I mean, it started with a truly lovely, sweet, soft, warm nose. Peaches in syrup and cream melded well with sugar water, ripe yellow mangoes, red grapes,and sweet red olives. Delectable in a good way, and I particularly enjoyed the lemon and cumin background, plus the yoghurt and sour cream with dill.

The palate was also an amalgam of many good things, starting off tasting of sweet and very strong black tea with milk. It developed fruity, sweet, sour and creamy notes which all met and had a party in the middle. There was lime zest, bags of ripe, fleshy fruits, cereals, red grapes, apples, cashewsit’s a smorgasbord of ongoing flavour porn, both sharp and crisp, and later one could even taste fanta and bubbly soda pop mixed in with a clean Riesling. The strength was more discernible than it had been when I smelled it, just not in a bad way, and it was really well tamped down into something eminently drinkable, finishing off with a flourish of olive oil and brine, a touch of sweetness from the fanta, and more crisp almost ripe fruits.

Man, this was a really good dram. It adhered to most of the tasting points of a true agricolegrassiness, crisp herbs, citrus, that kind of thingwithout being slavish about it. It took a sideways turn here or there that made it quite distinct from most other agricoles I’ve tried. If I had to classify it, I’d say it was like a cross between the fruity silkiness of a St. James and the salt-oily notes of a Neisson.

It’s instructive that although Savanna has been making high ester rums for at least the last two decades, their reputation was never as sterling or widespread as Hampden and Worthy Park who have been getting raves for their new branded rums from almost the very first moment they appeared on the stage. Perhaps that says something about the need in today’s world to have a promoter in one’s corner who acts as a barker for the good stuff. That could be a well known importer, it could be the use of a deep-pocketed secondary bottler with a separate rep of their own (think Rum Nation’s 2018 Reunion rum as an example), or a regular FB commentator.

These forces have all now intersected, I think, and the rum is a win for everyone concerned. Savanna has greater exposure and fantastic word of mouth dating back to its seminal HERR 2006 10 year old; Velier has shown that even with the winding down of the Demeraras and Caronis they can find tasty, intriguing rums from around the world and bring them for us to taste; and I can almost guarantee that if this rum finds its way into enough hands, there will be no shortage of positive online blurbs and opinions from across the commenterati, many of whom will be happy to say that they knew it all along and are happy to be proved right.

(#685)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Habitation Velier has released a Savanna HERR Unaged 2017 white rhum, which is a good companion to this one, though it’s a bit more energetic and rambunctious and displayed less refinementyet perhaps more character.
  • I heard a rumour that Velier intended to release three Indian Ocean rums in this 2019 series, and indeed, around 2018, there were photos of Luca in India that surfaced briefly on FB. However, nothing seems to have come of it and never responded to my queries on the matter.
Jul 042019
 

2014 was both too late and a bad year for those who started to wake up and realize that Velier’s Demerara rums were something special, because by then the positive reviews had started coming out the door, the prices began their inexorable rise, and, though we did not know it, it would mark the last issuance of any Demeraras of the Age by the Genoese concern headed by Luca Gargano. Yesu PersaudDDL’s chairmanwas slated to retire by the end of that year, and in early 2015 the new chairman terminated the preferential relationship.

That said, it was not entirely a disaster for Luca, because, as he remarked to me in 2018 when we were discussing that remarkable series of rums, he was already seeing a diminution in the quality of the casks he was being allowed to select from. And these consisted of marques of lesser ages, experimental work and overall diminishing returns. So perhaps it was time to move on to other things.

The Uitvlugt rum we’re looking at today, one of the last bottled in that year and in that Age, was still quite respectable based on its stats: distilled in 1996 on the four-column French Savalle Still (at the time housed at the estate, not Diamond); full tropical ageing in Guyana resulting in a 78% angel’s share losses and four remaining barrels which went into 1124 bottles; and a solid strength of 57.2%.

Did it sample well? Judge for yourself. The nose of the dark amber rum was refined, gentleeven easy. This was surprising given it was just about navy strength (one can wonder if that was a coincidence). But even with that lack of oomph, it was remarkably distinct, even precise with the clarity of the dusky aromas it emitted. These began with molasses, brown sugar, caramel and vanilla, and added a thread of licorice, cinnamon, lemon zest, and then dumped in bags of dark, fleshy fruits like plums, prunes and ripe peaches. In a way it was like stepping back into a time, when those flavours defined “good” without anyone bothering to look for additional complexitywhat distinguished this nose was the way they all came together in a refined olfactory melange, orderly, measured, balanced.

Tasting it showed that the strength which had not been so apparent when smelled was simply biding its time. It didn’t come across as aggressive or glittering sharp, just firm and very controlled, biting just enough to let you know it wasn’t to be taken for granted. The immediate tastes were of salty olives, cider, apples, quite strong. Slowly (and with a drop or two of water) this developed into molasses, brown sugar, black currants, prunes plus smoke and a well-worn, well-cared for leather jacket. But what really stood outover and beyond the rich dark fruits and the sense of well-controlled oakinesswas the sense of a rum-infused hot mocha with caramel, molasses, whipped cream, and a dusting of almonds and sweet spices, and it’s out and out delectable, even elegant. I spent a lot of time sniffing it, sure, but much more just tasting. This thing is dangerous because it’s tasty enough to encourage rampant sipping, and the finishslow, long-lasting, deeply flavoured with spices, chocolate, almonds and raisinsdoesn’t assist in one’s self control in the slightest.

For those who have a love affair with rums from the famed wooden stills, the Uitvlugt marqueswhether by Velier or other independents, light or heavy, dark or blonde, tropical or continentaloccasionally appear to be second-tier efforts, even throwaway fillers made with less elan and dedication than more famous rums we know better. Coming as they do from a column still, they are sometimes overlooked.

But they should not be. Admittedly, the Uitvlugt 1996 was not a severely complex rum with a million different subtleties chasing each other up and down the rabbit hole, the enjoyment of which lay in teasing out all the various notes, and sensing ever more around the corner. It was more a coming together of all the flavours we associate with rum, in an exciting yet somehow still traditional way, impeccably assembled, elegantly balanced, exactingly chosen, and hearkening back to familiar old favourites from simpler times which now reside only in our memories.

So even then, at the end of the Age, when all was coming to a close and we thought we had seen pretty much everything, Luca still managed to pull a few last Guyanese rum rabbits out of his hat. The Uitvlugt 1996 will likely not be one of the pot-still decades-old classics that fetches a few thousand dollars at auction, but for those who want to see what all the fuss about Velier is, while not straying too far out of their comfort zone, I can’t think of many better places to start than this unsung gem.

(#638)(87/100)


Other notes

Feb 082019
 

Velier has always had this way of sneaking in something obscure among all their major series of rumssome smaller or very individual bottling that doesn’t so much fly under the radar as not excite quite the same rabid fly-off-the-shelves obsessiveness as, for example, the old Demeraras or Caronis. So there are those Basseterres from 1995 and 1997, for example, or the Courcelles from 1972, or that 1954 RASC army rum I’m still searching for.

Another may well be the Very Old Royal Navy rum released in 2017. At the time, it got quite a lot of press (and Wes and Simon were the lucky guys who got to write about it first), yet it disappeared from our mental rum-map fairly quickly, and nowadays you’ll look hard on the social media fora to find mention of it. Its place in the sun has been taken by the Habitation whites, or Foursquare collaborations, or the National Rums of Jamaica quartet, or whatever else emerges every month from Luca’s fertile imagination. StillI submit that it may be a forgotten steal even at its price, and when I tried it, it impressed me quite a bit.

The specs are mentioned on the label, but let’s just quickly run through the data anyway. This is a full proof rum bottled at the old standard “proof”“Navy” strength, or 57.18%. The word Navy hearkens back not only to this ABV, but to the fact that it tries to recreate the original blend of island rums that was issued to the British fleet back in the daygiven the change in the blend over the centuries it’s probably fruitless to try, but points for the effort nevertheless. So, inside of it we have the following components: Guyanese rum, more than 15 years old, aged in Europe (said to be Enmore but I have my doubts); Jamaica pot still rum, fully tropical-aged, more than 12 years old (Worthy Park plus a few others); and a tropically aged Caroni more than twenty years old. Now, the label also notes an average age of 17.42 years, which suggests a somewhat higher proportion of the Caroni, and the continental ageing of the Demerara points to a rather lesser influence from that part of the blend. I’d expect to have dominant notes of Caroni, some Jamaican funk hiding behind that, and the Demerara part bringing up the rear to round things off.

The nose suggested that this wasn’t far off. Mild for the strength, warm and aromatic, the first notes were deep petrol-infused salt caramel ice cream (yeah, I know how that sounds). Combining with that were some rotten fruit aromas (mangoes and bananas going off), brine and olives that carried the flag for the Jamaicans, with sharp bitter woody hints lurking around; and, after a while, fainter wooden and licorice notes from the Mudlanders (I’d suggest Port Mourant but could be the Versailles, not sure). I also detected brown sugar, molasses and a sort of light sherry smell coiling around the entire thing, together with smoke, leather, wood, honey and some cream tarts. Quite honestly, there was so much going on here that it took the better part of an hour to get through it all. It may be a navy grog, but definitely is a sipper’s delight from the sheer olfactory badassery.

That complexity was also evident on the palate, which started warm, sweet and darkly bitter, like rich chocolate, and remained dry throughout. With coffee grounds and pickles in vinegar. The Caroni side of things was there (diesel, rubber, wax, all the usual markers) but somewhat less than their predominance on the nose, and this was a good thing, since it allowed the Demerara flavours to get in on the actiondark fruit, plums, wood, raisins, licorice, flambeed bananas, cloves and cinnamon. Even the Jamaicans took a back seat, though the funk persisted, just without force. Overall, it tasted a little creamy, with flowers and honey that can be sensed but not quite come to grips with. And the finish? Totally solid, long and lasting, black tea, anise, plums, blackberries to which was added licorice, brown sugar, and caramel drizzle over vanilla ice cream.

Wow. It’s tough to know what to make of this, there’s so much action in the tasting experience that it could be accused with some justification, of being too busy, what with three distinct and well known profiles vying for your attention. But I know I liked it, a lot, though also feeling that the Caroni dominance at the inception could have been toned down a shade. Overall? A worthy addition to the canon. It gives the “official” thousand-buck Black Tot a real run for its money while leaving all the other pretenders in the dust.

I say that with some irony, becauseNavyrums of whatever stripe are a dime a dozen, and one of the more recognized monikers in the rumworld. A sense of ho-hum permeates the more common offerings (they’re considered medium class tipple by many), assuming they’re even made at the proper strength or have the proper combination of Caribbean components. And those blends are endlessly tinkered witheven Pusser’s, who make much of their possession of the “true” Navy rum recipe (which is a blend of several nations’ grog) recently changed the recipe of the 15 YO and Navy rum to being principally Guyanese rum, and still issued that at below par strength. So having another one on the market doesn’t exactly shiver the timbers of the rumiverse.

But speaking for myself, I now regret not having bought a bottle back in 2017; at the time I was buying a bunch of others, including the 70th Anniversary collection, and it didn’t rate that high for me. Once I got into it, once I relaxed, let the combined flavours wash over nose and tongue, I couldn’t stop writing. It starts slow, builds up a head of steam, and then simply charges through your defenses to give an experience like few others. It’s a terrific rum, and even if it wasn’t callednavyand was just itself, it would still retain a special place both in my tasting memory, and on my shelf.

(#597)(88/100)


Other Notes

  • While it’s not stated on the label, and remains unconfirmed by Velier directly, one website noted the blend as comprising Caroni, Port Mourant and Hampden. While the source was unattributed, it’s probably correct based on the tasting.
  • Other reviews you might like to read are The Fat Rum Pirate (4 out of 5 stars) and The Rum Shop Boy (85/100)
  • Nico from Coeur de Chauffe pointed me to the 2017 Whisky Live presentation video where Luca spoke about this rum (in French, see the 15:50 mark) and noted its Jamaican components as mostly Worthy Park 2005, with a touch of New Yarmouth and Hampden. The other pieces are Enmore 1990, and Caroni 1996. I still have my issues with the Enmore 1990, since at that time the Versailles single wooden pot still was there and the woody notes of the profile remind me more of that than the wooden coffey still with the Enmore name.

 

Dec 242018
 

My own personal memories of the Hampden Overproof will always be combined with the Tasting of the Century in London, where we tried those magnificent old rums the Harewood 1780, St James 1885, Bally 1924 and Skeldon 1978and the two new Hampdens. Truth to tell, my focus was so fiercely on that geriatric quartet, that I had little time to pay attention to the twins….time kind of ran out on me, and I could barely do them justice. So knowing I had the bottles in Berlin, I waited until October and then dealt with them there again.

Velier, as is now quite well known, has dibs on the distribution of Hampden rums from 2018 (and, I think, 2019) through their new organization of La Maison & Velier. Both the 46% and the 60% versions of the rum are the same, the former just being diluted down, so in this review I’ll be talking about the overproof version, although the notes are the same for either, with the strength being the only true variable.

Technical schtick for the rum curious: what we have here is a rum based on fermentation with wild yeast, distilled in 2010 on a double retort copper pot still; the ageing was fully tropical for eight years and it was bottled in 2018; the level of esters was not disclosed except insofar as to note it was “very high”; and of course, no additives of any kind, not sugar, not colouring, nothing. All of which, by the way, is on the hugely informative label that in its graphic detail is somewhat at odds with the famed Spartan labels of yore, but never mind. One thing that isn’t on the label is the outturn, but the source was 31 barrels, so assuming a 6% angel’s share per year, we can estimate that around 10,000 bottles were released into the global market.

What always surprises me about Hampden rums is how relatively restrained they are, irrespective of the strength. You expect that say, from an exquisitely blended Appleton, and certainly do not from Worthy Park offerings which cheerfully lunge out of the bottle like a hungry face-hugger, yet Hampdens find a sweet spot between the two that is nothing short of delectable. The nose is a combination of soft and crisp, initially redolent of pencil shavings, paraffin, varnish and sawdust, bitter chocolate, unsweetened cocoa, damp, freshly turned earth and tar, and, like many such strong rums, rewards patience as these aromas develop, and then fade. They are then replaced by green grapes, unripe mangos, and lots of sharper, unripe-but-sweet fruits, balsamic vinegar, sweet gherkins and a very nice background of aromatic tobacco and port-infused cigarillos.

Ah, and the tastereally nice. Strong and bordering in sharp, yet even at 60% ABV it presents as amazingly controlled, even moderate. The tastes are all there, deep and intense, rolling easily and crisply across the palate, yet not so ester-heavy as might be inferred from the label. You’d laugh when I say that I tasted well-oiled leather and sweaty shoes, and then take comfort in more traditional flavours of brine, olives, maggi cubes, cardboard, black bread and cereals (there’s a sort of creamy aspect to the whole experience I found very pleasing), which formed a bed upon which dates, figs, crisp peaches and pears and mangoes rested easily, dusted over with a lovely hint of cumin and cinnamon and lemon peel, leading into a crisp, snappy finish that sumed things up nicely, mostly with sharper fruits and crushed hazelnuts, lemon zest and that odd bit of tar from the nose making a belated appearance (perhaps out of mischief).

It’s possible that gently diluting the rum to about 55% from 60% might make it more approachable and an easier drink: for my money, it’s damn near perfect for what it is, a really well blended Jamaican which even Sandor Clegane might like, something that enhances the street cred of both estate and country. It requires, like all full-proof, dunder-squirting yardies, some patience; it’s a drink to savour, not swill, and is an exemplary rum in almost all aspects of its profile.

I’ve remarked on more than one occasion that my appreciation for righteously funky Jamaicans vacillates between Worthy Park and Hampden (though it must be acknowledged that Plantation is making inroads, and the Compagnie’s New Yarmouth rums also deserve a place at the table). It’s when you try something as powerful and tasty as this that you understand why the comparisons can and need to be made. We are living in a Golden Age of new Jamaican rums, where pole position is being taken over and held by exactingly made blends produced by the distillery of origin, retaining all their unique heritage and profiles, rather than an unknown mix marketed under the uninformative sobriquet of “Jamaican rum”.

What seems to have happened is that after years and decades of somnolence, rum aficionados gradually got acquainted (or re-acquainted) with estate-specific rums from Jamaica that weren’t Appleton as a consequence of the efforts of the continental independents. Through the limited single cask releases of a few hundred bottles here and there, we began to recognize the individuality, the idiosyncrasythe sheer dynamismof Monymusk, of New Yarmouth, of Worthy Parkand of Hampden. That gradually-building groundswell of appreciation has turned into a roaring wave in 2018, and this edition of a really superlative rum is the resultthousands of bottles, not just a few hundred, all coming from Hampden, all made and developed and aged there, and meant for all of us who love the massive taste bombs out of the island. It is, in my own estimation, one of those rums whose reputation will only increase with the passage of the years, and to have tasted the first versions out of the gate was and remains nothing less than a privilege.

(#582)(89/100)


Other Notes

Luca Gargano has made it clear that these are not Velier rumshis company is just the distributor. I chose to believe his fingerprints are on the bottles nevertheless, most likely in the selection of which 31 barrels made up the blend. However, in accordance with his wishes regarding attribution, I have not referred to this as aVelier Hampden Estate Overproof Rum.Though I think many of us harbour our own thoughts on the matter.

Nov 112018
 

So now we are the fourth and last ester-boosted rums issued in 2018 by Velier from the distillery of Long Pond in Jamaica, and in a strange way it sums up the preceding three rums in a way that emphasizes many of the best parts and tones down the excesses of all of them. This is all the more curious a statement since it has the highest ester counts of the quartet, and one would expect the massive taste-bomb effluent of the TECA to be jacked up a few notches moreto “12”, maybe. And yet it doesn’t. It’s a really interesting rum.

By now the background of this series of rums is covered in the previous three reviews (see other notes below for the recap), so here we can just dive straight in, pausing only to note that this rum is of the categoryContinental Flavoured,” has 1500 g/hlpa, the highest of the series, and that would make anyone who already tried the decomposing rhino of the TECA a little cautious. No need. It has many of the same components as the TECA, but more tamed and less intense. Again, it started off with aromas of burlap, wet jute sacks, ammonia and acetones, but while present, they much more restrained than before. Furniture polish, rubber, plastic and whiff of that chewy hogo without going over the top. Oh and the fruitsnice and deep without being either too crisp or too sharp. Peaches in syrup, cherries, ripe apples, spoiling mangoes, caramel, toffee, vegetable soup, sweet soya. See what I mean? – it’s actually rather good if one can get past the meatiness of the background, and the funk and dunder are forceful enough to make a statement for themselves but don’t hog the whole show.

The palate was good as well. Strong and sharp, very fruity, with oranges, apples, soursop, unripe strawberries, green grapes and grapefruit offset with softer richer, riper tastes of pineapples and peaches. Vanilla, some very sharp and bitter oaken notes (surpirsing for something so relatively young). You’re still sipping this in the same fragrant hair salon as the TECAammonia, nail polish remover, remember those? — but at least it’s not so crowded and the dead dog out back seems to have been removed. Placticene. Also marshmallows, sour cream, and a rather more powerful set of deep musky floral notes than any of the other rums in the series (roses and lilies). Lastly, to finish things off, some licorice and bubble gum, light brine and furniture polish and fruits and funk. All in really good balance, long and fragrant, meaty and chewy without the meat, so to speak.

Because of its toned-down but still expressive nature, I’d have to say this high-ester funk bomb is an enjoyable drink and a Jamaican hogo-lover’s dream, without being quite as approachable to general audiences as the Vale Royal or the Cambridge, which I would suggest are better for those who want to dip their toes into the Jamaicans from Velier without taking a bath in the furious tastes that characterize either the TECA or the TECC. Ivar de Laat from Toronto remarked on the TECA as being a reference rum for him, and he’s probably right about that one, but when it comes to really torqued up rums that want to show off the ripped abs of their massive ester levels, I’d suggest the TECC is probably a better one to appreciate.

(#566)(86/100)


Summing up / Opinion

When it comes down to it, my scores reveal something of my opinions on the four NRJ expressions from Long Pond. I liked the Vale Royal and Cambridge a lot; they were tasty and new and gave a nice background to other Jamaican profiles. The TECA will appeal to diehard core rum-junkies, specifically those who really know and love Jamaicans, can’t get enough of da funk and da hogo and want to see things cranked up to the max (you could argue these are the same kinds of people who go nuts over the high-peat-laden Octomores). The TECC on the other hand might actually be the best one to try if you want elements of all of these rums at once. It’s still a flavour bomb, quite meaty, just not at the level of its older brother.

The audience for the four rums will, I think, be divided into two similar groupings. The easy drinkers and Velier collectors will inevitably be drawn to the first two, the Vale Royal and the Cambridge. Those who have been following Velier for years and sense what Luca has done may well prefer the latter two rums because they will be seen for what they are, examples of reference rums for Jamaica based on near highest ester counts available. Neither side will be right, or wrong.

***

So, clearing away the dishes: as I noted in the first review (the Vale Royal) these four rums are useful to drink as a quartert, one after the other, because they provide insight into how esters can (and do) impact the Jamaican profile (which is not to take away anything from either Hampden or Worthy Park, both of which indulge themselves in similar pursuits). That caution need be exercised is probably a superfluous point to make, not just because of the strength of the rums (62.5%), but because different components of the chemicals provide very different tastes and not all those would be to the liking of everyone. Personally, I think the four NRJ expressions are among the most unique rums ever to come out of Jamaica, running the gamut from drinkable to formidable to certifiable. When Richard Seale remarked a few months ago that the DOK-level rums are not for drinking straight but are meant as flavouring agents, he knew exactly what he was talking about and I can only confirm that these are poster children for the concept.

Like the clairins issued back in 2014, these are meant (I believe) to prove a point, not to please the greatest number of rum drinkers (pointless anyway, given their limited outturn) or to show off a blender’s skill (the Foursquare ECS series have dibs on that already and in any case these are pure pot still rums, not pot/column blends) – they’re a showcase of what Jamaican rums can be. That doesn’t necessarily make them good for everyone (or the best), but man, are they ever original. I can truly and with some emphasis say that I’ve not tried their like before.

And truth to tell, we need original in this world of bland retreads, we need exciting rums, new rums, different rums, made by courageous people who are willing to go right out into the screaming edge of rum production. Such people demonstratefor good or illhow varied rums can be, and deserve praise and encouragement, even if we shudder sometimes and draw back from some of their more excessive outturns.

I think what Luca was going for here was not a sipping rum at allhe said as much in an off hand comment in London not too long ago. What he was aiming at was education and demonstration (of both hogo and Long Pond) as well as a sort of fiendish delight in issuing yet another set of rums we haven’t yet seen much of. Has he succeeded? I think so. Leaders in any field must bridge the divide between their personal vision and their adherents’ experiences: bend too far towards the former and one risks losing the audience entirely, tilting too far the other way just makes for more of the same old blah. I think these rums straddle the uneasy space between those two ideals in a way that is nothing short of impressive.


Background notes

(With the exception of the estate section, all remarks here are the same for the four reviews)

This series of essays on the four NRJ rums contains:

In brief, these are all rums from Long Pond distillery, and represent distillates with varying levels of esters (I have elected to go in the direction of lowest ester count → highest, in these reviews). Much of the background has been covered already by two people: the Cocktail Wonk himself with his Jamaican estate profiles and related writings, and the first guy through the gate on the four rums, Flo Redbeard of Barrel Aged Thoughts, who has written extensively on them all (in German) in October 2018. As a bonus, note that a bunch of guys sampled and briefly reviewed all four on Rumboom (again, in German) the same week as my own reviews came out, for those who want some comparisons.

The various Jamaican ester marks

These are definitions of ester counts, and while most rums issued in the last ten years make no mention of such statistics, it seems to be a coming thing based on its increasing visibility in marketing and labelling: right now most of this comes from Jamaica, but Reunion’s Savanna also has started mentioning it in its Grand Arôme line of rums. For those who are coming into this subject cold, esters are the chemical compounds responsible for much of a given rum’s flowery and fruity flavoursthey are measured in grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol, a hectoliter being 100 liters; a light Cuban style rum can have as little as 20 g/hlpa while an ester gorilla like the DOK can go right up to the legal max of 1600 at which point it’s no longer much of a drinker’s rum, but a flavouring agent for lesser rums. (For good background reading, check out the Wonk’s work on Jamaican funk, here).

Back in the day, the British classified Jamaican rums into four major styles, and many estates took this a few steps further by subdividing the major categories even more:

Standard Classification

  • Common Clean 50-150 gr/hlpa
  • Plummer 150-200 gr/hlpa
  • Wedderburn 200-300 gr/hlpa
  • Continental Flavoured 700-1600 gr/hlpa

Exactly who came up with the naming nomenclature, or what those names mean, is something of a historian’s dilemma, and what they call the juice between 301 to 699 gr/hlpa is not noted, but if anyone knows more, drop me a line and I’ll add the info. Note in particular that these counts reflect the esters after distillation but before ageing, so a chemical test might find a differing value if checked after many yearsrest in a barrel.

Long Pond itself sliced and diced and came up with their own ester subdivisions, and the inference seems to be that the initials probably refer to distilleries and estates acquired over the decades, if not centuries. It would also appear that the ester counts on the four bottles do indeed reflect Long Pond’s system, not the standard notation (tables.

RV 0-20
CQV 20-50
LRM 50-90
ITP /LSO 90-120
HJC / LIB 120-150
IRW / VRW 150-250
HHH / OCLP 250-400
LPS 400-550
STC❤E 550-700
TECA 1200-1300
TECB 1300-1400
TECC 1500-1600

The Estate Name:

It’s unclear whether the TECC stands for Tilston Estate, one of the estates that got subsumed into Long Pond in the wave of consolidations in the 1940s and 1950s (this is the theory to which Luca subscribes), or for Trelawny Estates, the umbrella company created in the 1950s before being taken over by the Government and renamed National Rums of Jamaica. This is where some additional research is needednobody has written (so far) on the meaning of the “CC”, though given the Long Pond marks listed above, it’s reasonable to suppose it’s Tilston/Trelawny Estate, Continental Type C (as opposed to “A” or “B” with progressively higher ester levels. The various histories of Long Pond written by Barrel Aged Thoughts, the Cocktail Wonk and DuRhum provide useful background reading, though they do not settle the mark designation issue conclusively one way or the other.

Note: National Rums of Jamaica is not an estate or a distillery in and of itself, but is an umbrella company owned by three organizations: the Jamaican Government, Maison Ferrand of France (who got their stake in 2017 when they bought WIRD in Barbados, the original holder of the share Ferrand now hold) and Guyana’s DDL.

Nov 072018
 

“Pungent f*cker, isn’t it?” smirked Gregers, responding to my own incredulous text to him, when I recovered my glottis from the floor where the TECA had deposited and then stomped it flat. Another comment I got was from P-O Côté after the Vale Royal review came out: “Can’t wait to read your thoughts about the TECA…!! … Hard to describe without sounding gross.” And Rumboom remarked on a taste of “sweat” and “organic waste” in their own rundown of the TECA, with another post elsewhere actually using the word “manure.”

I start with these varied comments to emphasize that I am not alone in believing that the TECA is a rum you hold in your trembling hands when surveying the reeking battlefield of the zombie apocalypse. I’m a fairly fit old fart of some mental fortitude, I’ve tasted rums from up and down the quality ladderbut the TECA still left me shell-shocked and shaking, and somewhere I could hear Luca sniggering happily and doing a fist pump. Partly or completely, this was because of the huge ester level the rum displayed -1200 gr/hlpaa (remember, 1600 is the maximum legal limit after which we enter “easily-weaponizable” territory), which the makers, staying within the traditional ester band names, refer to as “Continental Flavoured” but which I just call shattering.

In sampling the initial nose of the third rum in the NRJ series, I am not kidding you when I say that I almost fell out of my chair in disbelief. The aroma was the single most rancid, hogo-laden ester bomb I’d ever experiencedI’ve tasted hundreds of rums in my time, but never anything remotely like this (except perhaps the Japanese Seven Seas rum, and I’d thought that one was a contaminated sample; now, I’m not so sure). All of the hinted-at off-the-wall aromas of the Cambridge were present here, except they were gleefully torqued upa lot. It smelled like the aforementioned tannery gone amok or the hair salon dumping every chemical on the floor (at once) – it was a massive blurt of sulphur, methane, rubber and plastic dissolving in a bubbling pool of ammonia. It smelled like hemp rope and decomposing wet jute bags, joined by something really rancidrotting meat, microwaved fish, and three-day-old roadkill marinating on a hot day next to the asphalt machine. There was the scent of a strong soy-flavoured vegetable soup and spoiling chicken tikka, raw onions and sweat. The clear, fruity ester background was so intense it made the eyes water and the nose pucker, cold and clear and precise, giving rather less enjoyment than a furious bitch slap of sharp pineapples, gooseberries, ginnips, unripe mangoes, salmiak, green apples. I know this sounds like a lot, but the rum’s nose went so far into uncharted territory that I really spent a long time on it, and this is what was there. And at the end, I really couldn’t say I enjoyed itit was just too much, of everything. Hogo is what this kind of rotten meat flavour is calledor rancio or dunder or whateverbut for my money, it stands for “Ho God!!

So that’s bad, right? Reading this, you’d think so. But courage, Sir Knight, hoist up thy codpiece and taste it. The very first expression in that section of my notes is a disbelieving “WTF?” … because it simply dumbfounded mewhere did all the crazy-ass crap go? It tasted of soda popcoke, or fantapersimmons and passion fruits and red currants, sharp and tasty. Salt, brine, bags of olives, plastic, rubber, vanilla, licorice all rubbed shoulders in a melange made pleasant just by comparing it to the trauma of what went before. The rancio and spoiling meat hogo retreated so fast it’s like they just vapourized themselves. The flavours were powerful and intense, yesat 62.5% ABV they could hardly be anything elseand you got much of the same fruitiness that lurked behind the funk of the smells, mangoes, tart gooseberries, red currants, unsweetened yoghurt and sour cream. But the real take away was that the nose and palate diverged so much. Aside from the sharp fruits and receding vegetable soup, there was also pistachio nuts, a sort of woodsy cologne, and even some over-sugared soda pop. And when I hit the finish line, it exhaled with a long sigh redolent of more pistachios, vanilla, anise, soy, olives and a veritable orchard of rotting fruits and banana skins.

The Long Pond TECA rum from National Rums of Jamaica is a grinning ode to excess of every kind. Given the profile I describe above (especially how it smelled) I think it took real courage for Luca to release it, and it once again demonstrates that he’s willing to forego initial sales to show us something we have not seen before, point us in a direction at odds with prevailing trends. It’s certainly uniqueLuca remarked to me that it was probably the first time anyone had ever released such a high-ester well-aged Long Pond, and I agree. So far we’ve seen that the low-level-ester Vale Royal was a lovely, near-traditional Jamaican rum that edged gently away from more familiar island profiles, and the mid-level-ester Cambridge dared to step over the line and become something remarkably different, with strong tastes that almost redefined Jamaican and provided a taste profile that was breathtakingif not entirely something I cared for. But the TECA didn’t edge towards the line, it didn’t step over itit was a rum that blasted way beyond and became something that knocked me straight into next week. This was and will remain one of the most original, pungently unbelievable, divisive rums I’ve tried in my entire writing career, because, quite frankly, I believe it’s a rum which few outside the deep-dive rum-junkies of the Jamaican style will ever like. And love? Well, who knows. It may yet grow on me.

(#565)(79/100)


Background notes

(With the exception of the estate section, all remarks here are the same for the four reviews)

This series of essays on the four NRJ rums contains:

In brief, these are all rums from Long Pond distillery, and represent distillates with varying levels of esters (I have elected to go in the direction of lowest ester count → highest, in these reviews). Much of the background has been covered already by two people: the Cocktail Wonk himself with his Jamaican estate profiles and related writings, and the first guy through the gate on the four rums, Flo Redbeard of Barrel Aged Thoughts, who has written extensively on them all (in German) in October 2018. As a bonus, note that a bunch of guys sampled and briefly reviewed all four on Rumboom (again, in German) the same week as my own reviews came out, for those who want some comparisons.

The various Jamaican ester marks

These are definitions of ester counts, and while most rums issued in the last ten years make no mention of such statistics, it seems to be a coming thing based on its increasing visibility in marketing and labelling: right now most of this comes from Jamaica, but Reunion’s Savanna also has started mentioning it in its Grand Arôme line of rums. For those who are coming into this subject cold, esters are the chemical compounds responsible for much of a given rum’s flowery and fruity flavoursthey are measured in grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol, a hectoliter being 100 liters; a light Cuban style rum can have as little as 20 g/hlpa while an ester gorilla like the DOK can go right up to the legal max of 1600 at which point it’s no longer much of a drinker’s rum, but a flavouring agent for lesser rums. (For good background reading, check out the Wonk’s work on Jamaican funk, here).

Back in the day, the British classified Jamaican rums into four major styles, and many estates took this a few steps further by subdividing the major categories even more:

Standard Classification

  • Common Clean 50-150 gr/hlpa
  • Plummer 150-200 gr/hlpa
  • Wedderburn 200-300 gr/hlpa
  • Continental Flavoured 700-1600 gr/hlpa

Exactly who came up with the naming nomenclature, or what those names mean, is something of a historian’s dilemma, and what they call the juice between 301 to 699 gr/hlpa is not noted, but if anyone knows more, drop me a line and I’ll add the info. Note in particular that these counts reflect the esters after distillation but before ageing, so a chemical test might find a differing value if checked after many yearsrest in a barrel.

Long Pond itself sliced and diced and came up with their own ester subdivisions, and the inference seems to be that the initials probably refer to distilleries and estates acquired over the decades, if not centuries. It would also appear that the ester counts on the four bottles do indeed reflect Long Pond’s system, not the standard notation (tables.

RV 0-20
CQV 20-50
LRM 50-90
ITP /LSO 90-120
HJC / LIB 120-150
IRW / VRW 150-250
HHH / OCLP 250-400
LPS 400-550
STC❤E 550-700
TECA 1200-1300
TECB 1300-1400
TECC 1500-1600

The Estate Name:

It’s unclear whether the TECA stands for Tilston Estate, one of the estates that got subsumed into Long Pond in the wave of consolidations in the 1940s and 1950s (this is the theory to which Luca subscribes), or for Trelawny Estates, the umbrella company created in the 1950s before being taken over by the Government and renamed National Rums of Jamaica. This is where some additional research is needednobody has written (so far) on the meaning of the “CA”, though given the Long Pond marks listed above, it’s reasonable to suppose it’s Tilston/Trelawny Estate, Continental Type A (as opposed to “B” or “C” with progressively higher ester levels. The various histories of Long Pond written by Barrel Aged Thoughts, the Cocktail Wonk and DuRhum provide useful background reading, though they do not settle the mark designation issue conclusively one way or the other.

Note: National Rums of Jamaica is not an estate or a distillery in and of itself, but is an umbrella company owned by three organizations: the Jamaican Government, Maison Ferrand of France (who got their stake in 2017 when they bought WIRD in Barbados, the original holder of the share Ferrand now hold) and Guyana’s DDL.

Nov 052018
 

For those who are deep into rumlore, trying the quartet of the National Rums of Jamaica series issued by Velier in 2018 is an exercise I would recommend doing with all four at once, because each informs the other and each has an ester count that must be taken into consideration when figuring out what one wants out of them, and what one getsand those are not always the same things. If on the other hand you’re new to the field, prefer rums as quiescent as a feather pillow, something that could give the silkiness of a baby’s cheek a raging inferiority complex, and are merely buying the Cambridge 2005 13YO because it is made by Velier and you wanted to jump on the train and see what the fuss is about (or because of a misguided FOMO), my suggestion is to stay on the platform and look into the carriage carefully before buying a ticket.

This might sound like paradoxical advice coming from an avowed rum geek, but just follow me through the tasting of this 62.5% bronto, which sported a charmingly erect codpiece of 550 grams of esters (out of a max of 700 grams per hectoliter of alcohol (hlpa) — this moves it way out from the “Common Clean,” “Plummer” and “Wedderburn” categories, and somewhere in between the “Wedderburn” and “Continental Flavoured” (see other notes below), although it is formally listed as being a CF. For comparison, the most furiously esterified rum ever made, the DOK (which is not supposed to be a drinking rum, by the way, but a flavouring ingredient for lesser rums and the Caputo 1973) runs at just about the legal limit of 1600 /hlpa, and most rums with a count worth mentioning pretty much stick in the few hundreds range.

There’s a reason for that. What these esters do is provide a varied and intense and enormously boosted flavour profile, not all of which can be considered palatable at all times, though the fruitiness and light flowers are common to all of them and account for much of the popularity of such rums which masochistically reach for higher numbers, perhaps just to say “I got more than you, buddy”. Maybe, but some caution should be exercised too, because high levels of esters do not in and of themselves make for really good rums every single time. Still, with Luca having his nose in the series, one can’t help but hope for something amazingly new and perhaps even spectacular. I sure wanted that myself.

And got it, right from the initial nosing of this kinetic rum, which seemed to be straining at the leash the entire time I tried it, ready to blast me in the face with one of the most unique profiles I’ve ever tried. Christ!…It started off with tons of dry jute sacks, dusty cardboard and hayand then went off on a tangent so extreme that I swear it could make a triangle feel it had more than a hundred and eighty degrees. It opened a huge can of sensory whup-ass with the full undiluted rumstink of an unventilated tannery going full tilt (yes, I’ve been in one), the sort of stark pungency one finds in a hairdressing salon using way too much nail polish remover, and a serious excess of ammonia and hair relaxantall at the same time. I mean, wow! It’s got originality, I’ll give it that (and the points to go with it) but here is one place where the funk is really a bit much. And yet, and yet….alongside these amazingly powerful fragrances came crisp, clearly-defined fruits,mostly of the sharper varietypineapple, gooseberries, five-finger, soursop, unripe mangoes, green grapes, red currants, olives, brine, pimentosI could go on.

What makes the rum so astoundingand it is, you know, for all its off-the-wall wild madnessis the way it keeps developing. In many rums what you get to smell is pretty much, with some minor variation, what you get to taste. Not here. Not even close. Oh the palate is forceful, it’s sharp, it’s as chiselled as a bodybuilder’s abs, and initially it began like the nose did, with glue, ammonia and sweet-clear acetone-perfume bolted on to a hot and full bodied rum. But over time it became softer, slightly creamy, a bit yeasty, minty, and also oddly light, even sweet. Then came the parade of vanilla, peaches, ginger, cardamom, olives, brine, pimentos, salty caramel ice cream, freshly baked sourdough bread and a very sharp cheddar, and still it wasn’t doneit closed off in a long, dry finish laden with attar of roses, a cornucopia of sharp and unripe fleshy fruits (apricots, peaches, apples), rotting bananas, acetones, nail polish and lots and lots of flowers.

I honestly don’t know what to make of a rum this different. It provides everything I’ve ever wanted as an answer to tame rum makers who regularly regurgitate unadventurous rums that differ only in minute ways from previous iterations and famed older blends. This one in contrast is startlingly original, seemingly cut from new clothit’s massive, it’s feral, it makes no apologies for what it is and sports a simply ginormous range of flavours. It cannot be ignored just because it’s teetering on the wrong side of batsh*t crazy (which I contend it does). Luca Gargano, if you strain your credulity to the limit, can conceivably make a boring rumbut he’s too skilled to make a bad one, and I think what he was gunning for here was a brown bomber that showcased the island, the distillery, the marque and the ester-laden profile. He certainly succeeded at all of these thingsthough whether the rum is an unqualified success for the lay-drinker is a much harder question to answer.

You see, there’s a reason such high ester superrums don’t get made very often. They simply overload the tasting circuits, and sometimes such a plethora of intense good things is simply too much. I’m not saying that’s the case here because the balance and overall profile is quite goodjust that the rum, for all its brilliantly choreographed taste gyrations, is not entirely to my taste, the ammonia-laden nose is overboard, and I think it’s likely to be a polarizing productgood for Jamaica-lovers, great for the geeks, not so much for Joe Harilall down the road. I asked for new and spectacular and I got both. But a wonderful, amazing, must-have rum? The next Skeldon or 1970s PM, or 1980s Caroni? Not entirely.

(#564)(84/100)


Background notes

(With the exception of the estate section, all remarks here are the same for the four reviews)

This series of essays on the four NRJ rums contains:

In brief, these are all rums from Long Pond distillery, and represent distillates with varying levels of esters (I have elected to go in the direction of lowest ester count → highest, in these reviews). Much of the background has been covered already by two people: the Cocktail Wonk himself with his Jamaican estate profiles and related writings, and the first guy through the gate on the four rums, Flo Redbeard of Barrel Aged Thoughts, who has written extensively on them all (in German) in October 2018. As a bonus, note that a bunch of guys sampled and briefly reviewed all four on Rumboom (again, in German) the same week as my own reviews came out, for those who want some comparisons.

The various Jamaican ester marks

These are definitions of ester counts, and while most rums issued in the last ten years make no mention of such statistics, it seems to be a coming thing based on its increasing visibility in marketing and labelling: right now most of this comes from Jamaica, but Reunion’s Savanna also has started mentioning it in its Grand Arôme line of rums. For those who are coming into this subject cold, esters are the chemical compounds responsible for much of a given rum’s flowery and fruity flavoursthey are measured in grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol, a hectoliter being 100 liters; a light Cuban style rum can have as little as 20 g/hlpa while an ester gorilla like the DOK can go right up to the legal max of 1600 at which point it’s no longer much of a drinker’s rum, but a flavouring agent for lesser rums. (For good background reading, check out the Wonk’s work on Jamaican funk, here).

Back in the day, the British classified Jamaican rums into four major styles, and many estates took this a few steps further by subdividing the major categories even more:

Standard Classification

  • Common Clean 50-150 gr/hlpa
  • Plummer 150-200 gr/hlpa
  • Wedderburn 200-300 gr/hlpa
  • Continental Flavoured 700-1600 gr/hlpa

Exactly who came up with the naming nomenclature, or what those names mean, is something of a historian’s dilemma, and what they call the juice between 301 to 699 gr/hlpa is not noted, but if anyone knows more, drop me a line and I’ll add the info. Note in particular that these counts reflect the esters after distillation but before ageing, so a chemical test might find a differing value if checked after many yearsrest in a barrel.

Long Pond itself sliced and diced and came up with their own ester subdivisions, and the inference seems to be that the initials probably refer to distilleries and estates acquired over the decades, if not centuries. It would also appear that the ester counts on the four bottles do indeed reflect Long Pond’s system, not the standard notation (tables.

RV 0-20
CQV 20-50
LRM 50-90
ITP /LSO 90-120
HJC / LIB 120-150
IRW / VRW 150-250
HHH / OCLP 250-400
LPS 400-550
STC❤E 550-700
TECA 1200-1300
TECB 1300-1400
TECC 1500-1600

The Estate Name:

Like the Vale Royal estate and Long Pond itself, Cambridge was also located in Trelawny Parish and has a history covered in greater depth by BAT, here, so I’ll just provide the highlights in the interests of keeping things manageable. Founded in the late 18th century by a family named Barrett (there’s a record of still being in the hand of an Edward Barrett a generation later), it closed its doors just after the Second World War in 1947 by which time another family (or the name-changed original one) called Thompson owned the place. It’s unclear whether the mark STCE (Simon Thompson Cambridge Estate according to the estimable Luca Gargano) was maintained and used because physical stills had been brought over to Long Pond at that time, or whether the Cambridge style was being copied with existing stills.

Whatever the case back then, these days the stills are definitely at Long Pond and the Cambridge came off the a John Dore double retort pot still in 2005. The label reflects a level of 550 g/hlpa esters which is being stated as a Continental Flavoured style, but as I’ve remarked before, the level falls in the gap between Wedderburn and CF. I imagine they went with their own system here.

Note: National Rums of Jamaica is not an estate or a distillery in and of itself, but is an umbrella company owned by three organizations: the Jamaican Government, Maison Ferrand of France (who got their stake in 2017 when they bought WIRD in Barbados, the original holder of the share Ferrand now hold) and Guyana’s DDL.

Nov 042018
 

This whole week I’ll be looking at the quartet of stern, forbidding black and white bottles of the National Rums of Jamaica, which have excited a slowly rising conversation on social media as pictures get posted and more and more people try them. Certainly, they’ve got all the Jamaican rum punditry in transports already (plus they are issued by Velier, which is clear from the minimalist label and box design). All four will be written about in a sequence, because there’s simply no way to speak to them individually at long intervals without missing the point, which is that they’re part of an integrated set, and to understand one means to try and understand alleach informs the other. Because there’s a fair bit of background involved in these rums, below each post will have a longer-than usual “Background notes” section detailing notes common to all, and defining some terms, below the review.

The Vale Royal is probably the most traditional rum of the NRJ series, and for the reasonably wide-tasting rum drinker, the best one to start with, as will become clear when we move through the four-rum series. It also has the lowest ester-count among the set, which might give you an inkling of how they all progress (you’d think that….but no). Bottled at 62.5%, as they all are, it derives from a double retort pot still, is 12 years old, tropically aged (of course) and is made in the Wedderburn style, with an ester count of 150 grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol (g/hlpa) — out of a max of 250 for this classificationwhich is not the standard accepted one for Jamaicans as a whole, but Longpond’s own. That makes it a very approachable rum, very tasty, yet paradoxically not entirely a rum I could immediately assign to Jamaica, the way one could, for example, a Worthy Park, an Appleton, or a Hampdenthough admittedly we have more experience with those and therefore know them somewhat better (this is a personal opinion, though).

Consider first the nose. Frankly, I thought it was lovelynot just because it was different (it certainly was), but because it combined the familiar and the strange in intriguing new ways. It started off dusty, musky, loamy, earthythe sort of damp potting soil in which my wife exercises her green thumb. There was also a bit of vaguely herbal funk going on in the background, dry, like a hemp rope, or an old jute sack that once held rice paddy. But all this was background because on top of all that was the fruitiness, the flowery notes which gave the rum its charactercherries, peaches, pineapples, mixed with salt caramel, vanilla, almonds, hazelnuts and flambeed bananas. I mean, that was a really nice series of aromas.

On the palate the strength showed its fangs and let’s face it, at 62.5% it’s got monster power hidden under the hood, and a little patience was required. It was sharp, sweet, flowery and estery to a fault, and somehow that dry earthy note disappeared almost entirely, probably edged out by the sheer force of all the other flavours that took overthis is perhaps one of those rums where a little water is really required. I didn’t get much without the addition, but with a few drops there was a cloudburst of flowery flavours and sharp fruits: pears, apples, cider, green grapes, raisins, unripe mangoes, tart yoghurt and sour cream, nuts, vanilla, anise and even some yeasty bread just to shake things up. And the finish, well, that was excellentlong, flavourful, fruity, sweetly flower-like, and took forever to die down, coughing up a last note of bitter chocolate, crushed hazelnuts, vanilla and sharp unripe fruits just to show that even on the back end it meant business and had a bit ore to smack you down with..

For my money, this is a pretty great rum. It is well aged, well balanced, and has the funky note and that fruity estery profileneither to excessthat drives lovers of Worthy Park and Hampden into orgasmic throes of onanistic ecstasy. It also has originality and character in that it isn’t afraid to add a few extra things into the mix that might seem startling at firstthese are new and original and yet not overdone. In fine, it has almost everything I want from a rum that purports to break the mould and show us something differentold tastes combined with new and intriguing flavours that somehow don’t call that much attention to themselves, all put together into something peculiarly its own. What it presented was an interesting melange of both Jamaican and something else, with a sly wink and an arrow pointing at the other, more ester-boosted rums in the seriesfor both good and ill. And that will become clearer as we progress through the line.

(#563)(87/100)


Background notes

(With the exception of the estate section, all remarks here are the same for the four reviews)

This series of essays on the four NRJ rums contains:

In brief, these are all rums from Long Pond distillery, and represent distillates with varying levels of esters (I have elected to go in the direction of lowest ester count → highest, in these reviews). Much of the background has been covered already by two people: the Cocktail Wonk himself with his Jamaican estate profiles and related writings, and the first guy through the gate on the four rums, Flo Redbeard of Barrel Aged Thoughts, who has written extensively on them all (in German) in October 2018. As a bonus, note that a bunch of guys sampled and briefly reviewed all four on Rumboom (again, in German) the same week as my own reviews came out, for those who want some comparisons.

The various Jamaican ester marks

These are definitions of ester counts, and while most rums issued in the last ten years make no mention of such statistics, it seems to be a coming thing based on its increasing visibility in marketing and labelling: right now most of this comes from Jamaica, but Reunion’s Savanna also has started mentioning it in its Grand Arôme line of rums. For those who are coming into this subject cold, esters are the chemical compounds responsible for much of a given rum’s flowery and fruity flavoursthey are measured in grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol, a hectoliter being 100 liters; a light Cuban style rum can have as little as 20 g/hlpa while an ester gorilla like the DOK can go right up to the legal max of 1600 at which point it’s no longer much of a drinker’s rum, but a flavouring agent for lesser rums. (For good background reading, check out the Wonk’s work on Jamaican funk, here).

Back in the day, the British classified Jamaican rums into four major styles, and many estates took this a few steps further by subdividing the major categories even more:

Standard Classification

  • Common Clean 50-150 gr/hlpa
  • Plummer 150-200 gr/hlpa
  • Wedderburn 200-300 gr/hlpa
  • Continental Flavoured 700-1600 gr/hlpa

Exactly who came up with the naming nomenclature, or what those names mean, is something of a historian’s dilemma, and what they call the juice between 301 to 699 gr/hlpa is not noted, but if anyone knows more, drop me a line and I’ll add the info. Note in particular that these counts reflect the esters after distillation but before ageing, so a chemical test might find a differing value if checked after many yearsrest in a barrel

Long Pond itself sliced and diced and came up with their own ester subdivisions, and the inference seems to be that the initials probably refer to distilleries and estates acquired over the decades, if not centuries. It would also appear that the ester counts on the four bottles do indeed reflect Long Pond’s system, not the standard notation (tables.

RV 0-20
CQV 20-50
LRM 50-90
ITP /LSO 90-120
HJC / LIB 120-150
IRW / VRW 150-250
HHH / OCLP 250-400
LPS 400-550
STCE 550-700
TECA 1200-1300
TECB 1300-1400
TECC 1500-1600

The Estate Name:

Vale Royal was a distillery located in Trelawny Parish, just like Longpond, and has a history covered in great depth by BAT, here. The long and the short of it is that it was founded in 1776 under the name of “Walky Walk” (poetic,yes?) before being retitled Vale Royal in the early 1800s. The estate managed to survive after the abolition of slavery, but a combination of falling sugar prices and a movement of consolidation led to the sale of the estate to Longpond in 1959, with the marque of VRW remaining as a memento of its glory days when it stood for “Vale Royal Wedderburn”though as noted above, this edition, produced at Longpond’s facilities, should rightly be called a Plummer under Standard Notation, since it has 150 g/hlpa, not the required 200-300, but evidently decided to go with its own system.

Note: National Rums of Jamaica is not an estate or a distillery in and of itself, but is an umbrella company owned by three organizations: the Jamaican Government, Maison Ferrand of France (who got their stake in 2017 when they bought WIRD in Barbados, the original holder of the share Ferrand now hold) and Guyana’s DDL.

Sep 192018
 

Every rum drinker who’s been at it for a while has a personal unicorn. It might not always be some hoary old grandfather of a rum, forgotten by all but barking-mad rum nerds, or the miniscule output of a distillery no-one now remembers (like the Heisenberg Distillery) — sometimes it’s just a rum that’s hard to get and isn’t for sale in local markets. Occasionally it’s even one they possess already but which evokes strong positive memories.

One of mine has always been the Skeldon 1978, which was too rare or too expensive (usually both) for me to acquire. It finally became available to try at the Tasting of the Century that Luca Gargano tacked on to the formal launching of the new Hampden Estate rums in September 2018, and to say I jumped at the chance would be to understate the matter, not just because of the Skeldon itself, but because of the chance to try it in the company of blogging friends, along with other amazing rums.

The history of the Skeldon 1978 bottling from a long-dismantled Savalle still is an odd one: the plantation is on the far eastern side of Guyana and the distillery has been shut down since 1960, though the original sugar factory’s remains continue to moulder away there, now replaced by a modern white elephant. It’s possible that the Savalle still which made it was taken elsewhere (Uitvlugt is the unconfirmed suspect) and this distillate hails from there rather than Skeldonbut certainly the “SWR” barrels ended up at Diamond, where Luca saw them gathering dust in the warehouse and convinced Yesu Persaud (the chairman of DDL at the time) to part with them. The 4-barrel 544-bottle outturn of the 1973 Edition was issued as was, but when the prototypes of the 1978 came to Genoa for final tasting, Luca noted something different in them, and later he challenged Mr. Persaud on what they wereand it was admitted that the three barrels of 1978 were deemed insufficient (whatever that means) and they mixed in some leftover 1973. Luca was so pissed off that he sat on both editions for almost a year before finally issuing them to the market in early 2006, and what we are getting is a 688-bottle blend, the precise proportions of which are unknownI was told the 1973 component was quite minimal.

Fortunately, whatever the mix, the rum was (spoiler alert) almost as stunning as the 1973, which is the only other rum to which it can perhaps be compared. In the large balloon glasses we were given it smelled dark and pungently rich, and Lordie, there was so much of it. Chocolate, coffee, deep anise and molasses, raisins, some floral notes, fleshy fruits, honey, crushed walnuts, nougat, cream cheese, unsweetened yoghurt and light olives. Tired yet? Too bad, there’s morebread, cloves and vanilla, and then, after about half an hour, the thing turned chewy: boiled beef bouillon, lentil soup, maggi cubes, marmite and more molasses and burnt sugar, all held together with some delicate herbs, very much in the background. Gregers and I looked at each other and almost in unison we laughed and said “We gotta get us some glasses like these.”

Although things at the Tasting were going faster than I was able to write (and listen), this was not a rum I wanted to be hurried with after waiting so long, and certainly it’s one with which to take one’s time. It unfolded gradually on the tongue, almost languorously and even at 60.4%, it was amazing how entirely under control it remained the entire time. Most of the tastes in the nose carried over, primarily anise, coffee and bitter chocolate, oranges, strong black tea, cumin, and that lentil soup / beef broth meatiness I remarked on earlier. But there were also more muted, subtler hints of papaya and fleshy fruits, aromatic tobacco, flambeed bananas and salty caramel. A rather dry note of over-roasted nuts came into play at the back end, a slight indeterminate bitterness (something like a manager who can never compliment your work without a closing criticism), but fortunately the muskier fruit and creamy notes ameliorated it for the most part. And while the finish was more a last bow on the stage than a true epilogue that added a few extra fillips of flavour, it was in no way disappointing, leaving me with a memory of coffee, nougat, salt caramel ice cream, fruits, raisins, licorice and light chocolate oranges.

This was quite a rum, to be sure, and while I don’t think it quite eclipsed the Skeldon 1973, it sang its own distinct tune, hot and delicious, yet paradoxically quite clean and clear, with powerful tastes bolted on to a profile of generous complexity. In fine, the Skeldon 1978 is a black drop of Guyanese-Italian oomph in a bottle, and making it a blend didn’t hurt it one bit. It’s a well-made rum, produced with care and affection, and through the alchemy of its selection, turned a mere rum into a Rum, big, bold, badass….one to be remembered. To have tasted it in tandem with other amazingly old rums and in the company of old (and new) friends, was an experience I’m not likely to be forgetting any time soon.

(#550)(90/100)


Other notes

 

 

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.