Dec 232020
 

Here’s my personally imaginative take on how the (fictitious) Board of Blenders from Consorcio Licorero Nacional (CLN) presented their results to the good folks at Rum of Panama Corp (registered in Panama in 2016) about the rum they intended to make for them at Las Cabras in Herrera.

“We will make a true Panamanian Rum to represent the year the Canal was opened in 1914!” they say, high fiving and chest bumping themselves in congratulation at this perspicacious stroke of marketing genius.

“But CLN is originally from Venezuela, isn’t it?” comes the confused question. ”Shouldn’t you perhaps pay homage to something from there?”

“The company is now registered in Panama, in San Miguelito, so, no.” The answer is confident. “The rum will be made at a Panamanian distillery. We will make it appeal to the masses by making it a column still light rum, but also appeal to the connoisseur crowd and beef it up to a higher strength.”

Ersatz Venezuelan patriotism is forgotten. This smells like sales. “Great!  How much?”

“41.3%” they reply, with the quietly confident air of “it’s settled” that Joe Pesci showed when he told Mel Gibson that a banker’s fee of 2% was standard, in Lethal Weapon II.

Brows knit. “Shouldn’t that be stronger?”

A twitch of moustaches, a shake of heads. This heresy must be swiftly extirpated. “That might scare away the masses, and they’re the ones we want buying the rum, as they’re the ones who move cases.”

“Ah.”

“And look, we will age it, a lot!” say the blenders brightly

Heads perk up. “Oh wonderful.  We like ageing.  How long, how old?”

“15 to 22 years.”

“That’s not bad. Except, of course, we’ve only been in business for four years, so…”

“Oh no worries.  Nobody will check. There’s that one reviewing doofus in the Middle East who might, but nobody really reads his blog, so you’re safe. And, on our website, we’ll say it’s a rum aged “up to 22 years”, so that will give you no end of credibility. People love rums aged more than twenty years”

“Isn’t that called…well…lying?”

“Not at all. It’s a blend of rums, we’ll have aged rums between those years in the blend, we’ll never say how much of each, so it’s completely legit. Better than saying 15 years old, don’t you think?”

“Well…if you say so.”

Paternal confidence is displayed. “You can’t lose: the rum is light, it’s old, the age is unverifiable but completely true, it has a cool name and date as part of the title, it’s sweet, and the production is so complex nobody will figure out who really is behind it, so nobody gets blamed…” More bright smiles all around, followed by toasts, handshakes, and the go-ahead is given.


Or so the story-teller in me supposes. Because all jokes and anecdotes aside, what this is, is a rum made to order. Ron 1914 touts itself as being a 15-22 YO blended rum,“Distilled in the province of Herrera and bottled at the facilities of CLN in Panama City.” CLN was formed in 1970 by five Venezuelan businessmen and deals with manufactured alcoholic products, though nowhere I’ve searched is there a reference to a distillery of their own. In this case it’s clear their using Las Cabras, proud possessor of a multi-column industrial still that churns out mucho product on demand. 

Now, that distillery has its own brand of rum, the Cana Brava, but also makes rum for clients: therefore brands like Zafra, Nativo, Grander note themselves as being from there – in that, then, the distillery operates like Florida Distillers who makes the completely forgettable Ron Carlos series of rums I’ve written about before.

And, unfortunately, made a rum equally unlikely to be remembered, because nosing it, your first thought is likely to be the same as mine: lights on, nobody home. There’s just so little going on here, and that’s not a function of the standard strength. There is basically some faint molasses, vanilla, a few unidentifiable fruits – not overripe, not tart, just fleshy and sweet – and an odd aroma of icing sugar. And a whiff of caramel and molasses, though don’t quote me on that – you might miss it.

The taste is also completely uninspiring. It’s so soft and easy you could fall asleep in it, and again, there’s too much vanilla, ice cream, sugar water and anonymous fruit here to lend any kind of spirit or style to the experience. Yes, there’s some caramel and molasses at the back end, but what good does that do when all it represents is a sort of “good ‘nuff” standard profile we’ve had a jillion times before in our journey? And the finish is just like that, short, breathy, a touch of mint, caramel, vanilla, and again, just a snoozefest. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Ron 1914 was a low end spiced rum, and, for those of you who may be in doubt, that’s not a compliment.

The purpose of a rum like this escapes me.  No, honestly.  What’s it for?  In this day and age, why make something so soft and anonymous?  It doesn’t work well as a mixer (a Bacardi white or gold could just as easily do the job for less, if a cost-effective alcoholic jolt was all you were after) and as a sipper, well, come on, there’s way better value out there.

It’s always been a thing of mine that a good Spanish-style ron doesn’t have to enthuse the cask strength crowd with a wooden still in its DNA, or by squirting dunder and funk from every pore – because knowledgeable drinkers of its own style will like it just fine.  They’re used to standard strength and get that subtlety of tastes imparted almost solely by barrel management and smart ageing. But I submit that even they would take one taste of this thing, put down the glass, and walk away, the way I wanted to on the day I tried it in a VIP tasting. I couldn’t do that then, but you can, now. See you.

(#788)(70/100)

Dec 152019
 

After all these years, there isn’t an average imbiber who hasn’t tried the Venezuelan Santa Teresa Ron Antiguo de Solera 1796 (to give its full and somewhat unwieldy title) at least once.  It’s a solera rum which usually sets alarm bells ringing for those who want both more disclosure and less additives, but somehow Santa Teresa has managed, through all the years, to navigate the treacherous shoals of too much or too little and remained a consistent, if not top tier, favourite of the entire tippling class. Given the rancour and fury that often attends such rums by the social media commentariat, that’s no mean achievement.

Consider: there are nine separate micro-reviews on reddit for this thing, and on the RumRatings site, it has 437 ratings, of which more than 80% rate it 7 points or higher. Online magazines and aggregators like Distiller, Flaviar, Tastings, WineMag, Got Rum, Drink Hacker and Proof 66 have written extensively about its voluptuous charms. Even the blogosphere has always looked at it, always reviewed it, sometimes as one of their first rum reviews. Alex of the Rum Barrel, The Fat Rum Pirate, myself, the Rum Howler, Refined Vices, Ralfy, All At Sea, Rum Shop Boy, Rum Diaries Blog, Rum Gallery, Inu A Kena…all of us between 2006 and 2019 have, at some stage, tried the thing, and its popularity shows no sign of fading. If there was ever a gateway rum for the Latin style that isn’t from Panama or Cuba, then this is it (the Diplo may be another).

I think part of that is because there’s nothing excessive about it.  Nor is there anything overly modest. It certainly evades the trap of turning into an over-sugared mess, or one where that’s all you taste, because the sweet, such as it is, is kept completely in the background.  An August 2019 hydrometer test – mine – rates it as 36.96% ABV, which translates into 12g/L – not good, but hardly earth shaking when compared to other latin rums which have twice or three times that much, and many earlier reviews and tests actually showed none at all (this suggests either batch variation or an evolution in production philosophy); a Santa Teresa rep as recently as 2018 in an interview with Simon Johnson, stated flat out they don’t adulterate their rum.  So, if you accept that, the only complaint that could be raised against it is that it really should be a few points stronger.

The nose is different from my admittedly fading tasting memories of ten years ago, when I first sampled it at a Liquorature get together in Calgary. Then I felt it had mostly standard South American aged rum components – vanilla, caramel, honey, light fruits, all rather low key.  Now the blend presented otherwise: I was tasting glue, sugar cane sap, floor polish, varnish right up front, and I know that wasn’t any part of what I was smelling before.  The 40% ABV still makes it too weak to mount an effective and aggressive nasal assault, and that is an issue they will have to address sooner or later – but at least, with some effort I also sensed very ripe apples, apricots, cherries in syrup, plus a dusting of cinnamon, molasses, caramel, and a little bite from oak, unsweetened dark chocolate and light orange peel.

It’s inoffensive in the extreme, there’s little to dislike here (except perhaps the strength), and for your average drinker, much to admire.  The palate is quite good, if occasionally vague – light white fruits and toblerone, nougat, salted caramel ice cream, bon bons, sugar water, molasses, vanilla, dark chocolate, brown sugar and delicate spices – cinnamon and nutmeg.  It’s darker in texture and thicker in taste than I recalled, but that’s all good, I think. It fails on the finish for the obvious reason, and the closing flavours that can be discerned are fleeting, short, wispy and vanish too quick.

When rated against other rums of its type, the main competitors are the Zacapa, Zafra, Diplomatico Res Ex, the Kirk and Sweeney, or even the Millonario XO or Dictador. But I always found K&S to be too fixated on a particular “cinnamon-lite” profile; Diplo, Zafra and Zacapa were oversugared in comparison; and the Millonario XO was too excessive in both areas, as was Dictador with that coffee note it likes so much. Other producers of rums similar to the 1796 — solera or otherwise — are simply too small and lack market share, and impinge hardly at all in the larger popular consciousness (Don Q and Bacardi are different for other reasons). 

But I believe that after all the years since 1996 when it was introduced (for Santa Tersa’s 200th Anniversary), there are good reasons it remains a fixture in the global rumscape and a perennial popular seller.  As noted above, it can be found just about everywhere in a way that other Caribbean rums aren’t always; it’s extremely well known, and remains affordable to this day (around US$40 or so) — which is good for any average Joe who can’t always get or afford a New Jamaican or Barbadian or St. Lucian or Guyanese rum. Moreover, it just tastes good enough for most and can be used as a gateway rum for Latin/Spanish style rums in general and Venezuelan ones in particular.  Of course, like most gateway rums, if you stick around long enough you’ll inevitably think one day that it’s too weak, too easy and too simple and move smartly along to the next milestone on the journey…but for anyone now starting and not looking to go anywhere, this is as lovely a Key Rum of the World as any on the list before it.

(#684)(78/100)


Other Notes (adapted from 2010 review)

Santa Teresa distillery is located in Venezuela about an hour east of the capital, Caracas, on land given by the King of Spain to a favoured count in 1796. The estate ended up in the hands of a Gustavo Vollmer Rivas, who began making rum from sugar produced on nearby estates – owned by other Vollmerses –  in the late 1800s. The Santa Teresa 1796 was produced in 1996 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the estate land grant, and, produced by the solera method.

In the solera process, a succession of barrels is filled with rum over a series of equal aging intervals (usually a year). One container is filled for each interval. At the end of the interval after the last container is filled, the oldest container in the solera is tapped for part of its content (say, half), which is bottled. Then that container is refilled from the next oldest container, and that one in succession from the second-oldest, down to the youngest container, which is refilled with new product. This procedure is repeated at the end of each aging interval. The transferred product mixes with the older product in the next barrel.

No container is ever drained, so some of the earlier product always remains in each container. This remnant diminishes to a tiny level, but there can be significant traces of product much older than the average, depending on the transfer fraction. In theory traces of the very first product placed in the solera may be present even after 50 or 100 cycles. In the Santa Teresa, there are four levels of ageing. And the final solera is topped up with “Madre” spirit, which is a young blend deriving from both columnar and pot stills.  Seems a bit complicated to me, but sherry makers have been doing it for centuries in Spain, so why not for rum? The downside is, of course, that there’s no way of saying how old it is since it is such a blend of older and younger rums. The marketing for the 1796 says the rum has components of between 4 to 35 years of age in it.

Jan 032018
 

#475

“A few years ago, these rums [Zacapa and Diplo Res Ex] were seen as the baseline for all other rums to be judged.  No longer.”  Thus wrote Wes Burgin over at the Fat Rum Pirate in an excellent July 2017 post suggesting that with social media and education, enthusiasts were becoming more knowledgeable and less apt to accept adulterated rums than ever before.

Yet in spite of that ideal, in spite of the ever-expanding knowledge-base of rums the world over, the Diplo remains enormously popular. It’s unlikely that there’s any rum drinker out there – junkie or not – who didn’t at some point have a fling with this plump Venezuelan señora.  Just about all rum writers have done a thing on it. Like the Bacardis, El Dorados and Zacapas, it’s one of those rums one can find just about anywhere, and for the new people coming to rum cold, it remains a staple, if not always a favourite.  

That is, of course, due to both its very affordable price, and because of is sweet placidity.  You don’t want expensive indie aggro? A light, easy-going drink? Something to relax with? Complex enough for Government work? No thinking required? Here’s your solution. That’s also the reason why it drops off the radar of those people who grow to take their rums seriously (if it doesn’t drive them into transports of righteous rage).  Diplomatico – marketed as Botucal in Germany, named after one of the farms from which the cane comes, though it’s exactly the same product – never bothered to punch it up, never worried about cask strength, never deigned to lose the dosing or adulteration, and sells briskly day in and day out.  The deep-diving rum chums just shake their heads and head for the exits to buy the latest indie casker, and discussions on Facebook about the matter are more likely than any other to end up in verbal fisticuffs.

Yet consider for a moment the page of this rum in the populist-driven, crowd-sourced “review” site RumRatings.  A top-end, well-known, mid-priced unadulterated rum issued at full proof like, say, the Foursquare Criterion has 13 ratings on that site. The Triptych has 11. The 2006 10 Year Old has 4, and the most popular Foursquare rum is the 9 year old 2005 Port Cask Finish with 71.  The Diplomatico in contrast has over 1,200, with most rating it between 8 and 9 out of 10 points. 

Surely neither longevity, nor rank please-as-many-as-possible populism are solely responsible for such a disparity. There’s got to be more to it than just that, a reason why it regularly appears on people’s answers to the constant question “What to start with?” — and I’m sorry but not everyone drinks a few hundred rums a year like us writers and festival junkies, and it isn’t enough to simply shrug, sniff condescendingly and say “some people just don’t know good rums.” If it is – as I suggest – a rum worth revisiting, then such popularity and esteem requires a cold, beady-eyed re-consideration.  We have to understand whether it has something more in its trousers, something subtle, that excites that kind of appreciation. It was in an effort to understand what lay behind the popularity of the Diplo that I deliberately sourced a bottle in Berlin in late 2017, and while my controls were a few stronger, purer rums from the Latin side, to my surprise the Diplo didn’t entirely choke even when ranked against them (I shall now pause for the incredulous expressions of indignation to pass), though for sure it never came close to exceeding any and raced to the bottom in fine style.

Part of all this is its relative simplicity compared to fierce and pungent rums now taking centre stage. The nose was a straightforward sweet toblerone, toffee, vanilla, butterscotch and caramel, very light and easy and butter-smooth, with what complexity there was being imparted by spices aimed at the sweet side – rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg – and a little nuttiness, and a hint of light fruit, all of which took real effort to separate out.  Hardly the most complex or intriguing smell ever to waft out of a rum bottle, and the vanilla and caramel were really too dominant to provide the sort of excellence the maker trumpets for itself.

Similar issues affect the palate.  Smooth – yes, warm – yes, comfortable – undoubtedly.  There was a little oak mixing things up here, but mostly the taste was muscovado sugar and caramel, vanilla, light fruits of indeterminate nature, and those same spices from the nose (cinnamon being at the forefront) with nothing particularly new or adventurous leading one into undiscovered territory.  Overall, even on the finish, and then judged overall, it had little beyond a pleasant, warm sort of sweet unaggressive nature only marginally redeemed by a light tart fruity note here or there, and the edge imparted by a little oak. Beyond that, it was way too sweet for my palate as it stands right now, and in conjunction with the controls it actually sinks even further because the dampening effect of the additions becomes self evident.

So, that adulteration. It’s been measured at 30-40 g/L of whatever-it-is, which puts it in the same league as The El Dorado 12 and 15 year old rums, Rum Nation Millonario and the Cartavio XO, all of which, back in the day, I enjoyed, and all of which have subsequently slipped in my estimation in the years between then and now, and been relegated to what I refer to as “dessert rums.” But what exactly are they adding to their rum?  Back in 2010 when I wrote my original unscored review, the Distilleries Unidas website made tangential mention of flavouring additives (“Only…rich aromas and flavours are used to manufacture rums…” — this comment no longer appears); and Rob Burr remarked on the 2012 Inuakena review that a Venezuelan rum liqueur called Haciendo Saruro is added to the blend, but without corroboration (it was assumed he was speaking from insider knowledge).  So I think we can take it as a given that it’s been tarted up, and it’s up to each person who tries this rum to make up their own minds as to what that means to them. Personally, I no longer care much for the Diplomatico and its ilk.  It presents no real challenge.  It simply isn’t interesting enough and is too sweet and easy. That, however, obscures the key point that people like it precisely for those reasons. It sells well not in spite of these deficiencies (as they are, to me), but because of them…because the majority of drinkers consider these very same drawbacks as points of distinction, and if you doubt that and the unkillability of sweet, check out the hundreds of comments in response to “Don’t treat people like snobs because they like sweet rums” post on FB in December 2017. Since I’m not arrogant enough to believe that my tastes and my palate matter more, or should take precedence over others, I can simply suggest that people try more rums to get a feel for more profiles before praising it to the high heavens as some kind of ur-rum of the Spanish style.

Let us also concede that a rum like this has its place. On the negative side are all the issues raised above.  On the plus side of the ledger, for those who like these things, there is sweetness, smoothness and a stab at complexity.  It works fabulously as a standalone sipping drink when concentration and thought is not desired or required.  It’s not entirely an over-sugared mess like, oh, the A.H. Riise Navy rum. It makes a decent introduction to neat rums for those raised on over-spiced, over-flavoured rums or who came up through the ranks trying rums like Kraken, Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry or Don Papa.  As one of the first steps in the world of rum, this ron remains a tough one to beat, and that’s why it should be on the list of anyone who is assembling the first home bar, and should be considered, for good or ill, one of the Key Rums of the World…even if, sooner or later, all true rum fans will inevitably move beyond it.

(74/100)