In early May 2018, following on from a much-envied and jealously-regarded Velier Port Mourant tasting, Nicolai Wachmann and Gregers Nielson busied themselves with some of the new rums issued for Velier’s 70th Anniversary. These six full-proof rums – carefully chosen from well-known distilleries in Japan, St Lucia, Barbados, Mauritius, Marie Galante (Guadeloupe) and Jamaica – were distinguished by vivid and colourful artwork on their labels, done by a Singaporean artist named Warren Khong. Strikingly visual in design, the series of rums immediately became known as the “Warren Khong” range, and have excited approbation in equal parts for their look, and their taste.
The following interview and notes are all from the two gentlemen’s efforts, in their own words. And so, the introduction being over, let’s hand off the flight to my Danish friends.
Last year Velier SpA celebrated its 70th anniversary, and if you’re reading this, my bet is that this would be old news to you. Nevertheless, Luca Gargano made certain that most of the rum community was, and still is, saving up money to buy all the exciting new rums that are being released during 2017 and 2018 in celebration of this milestone in the company’s history.
One of the releases is a series of six rums named after an artist from Singapore – Warren Khong.
But who is this Warren guy and how did he come about lending his name to such an awesome collection of rum?
Well we didn’t have a clue and our parents didn’t either, so we decided to do some research online and then write and ask him personally, in order to understand the connection.
W. Kong 2015 (c) Timeout.com
Warren Khong bio:
Warren was born in Singapore back in 1984, studied art in Singapore and has previously worked with LMDW on other spirits labels. So this is by no means the first time he has lent his name to the spirits world.
Warren Khong situates his practice primarily in the field of painting, researching its concepts and its relation to surface and materiality – from selected surfaces to light, colour and reflection, he also explores spaces and site specificity as well as the intangible or immaterial, proposing for material as Idea, as a methodology towards artmaking.
Khong graduated with a Master of Arts, Fine Arts from the La Salle College of the Arts, Singapore in partnership with Goldsmith’s College, University of London. He has had five solo exhibitions, the most recent being Light-Space (In collaboration with Urich Lau) at Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Film, Singapore and Whitewash at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, also in Singapore. Selected group exhibitions included In Praise Of Shadows at the Art, Design and Media Gallery at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and Supernatural at Gajah Gallery, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, both in 2017.
Warren Khong’s Kuruizawa design
With regards to LMDW, Warren’s art works were used for their first Artist range of whiskies, as well as the Artifices range of Karuizawa whiskies.
How and when did you end up creating the artwork for this series of rum?
I was asked by Luca during Whisky Live Singapore 2016 if I would be willing to create a series of paintings to be used as rum labels. He was very enthusiastic about it, and I agreed. I started working on the paintings early of 2017.
Is there an underlying meaning or theme behind the artwork and choice of colours?
All Luca had asked for was that I used a brighter colour palette so as to reflect the Caribbean heritage of his rums for the bottlings, to which I agreed. As for any underlying meaning in the paintings, it happens through the execution of it. Let me further elaborate. I believe that in the distillation process, it is very controlled [and] exacting, without much room for mistakes; yet the end result is that you have rum, which is a wonderful, multi-layered drink with so many various notes that comes together in spectacular fashion. I draw a parallel there with how I approached the painting of these works. A number of colours, paint swirls, drops and the like, which appear as though somewhat random yet able to come together as a visual whole and the application of each drop of paint is controlled and exact, right where it is meant to be, non accidental.
Did you get to chose which rums got which artwork/colour?
Nope, nor would I have wanted that. I think it more fitting that Luca was the one who did the pairings!
Did Luca ask you to drink rum before painting the art?
Nope, nor would I have. I don’t drink when making my art, it would have affected my ability to create exactly what I had wanted to create. I drank after the works were done of course!
Do you enjoy rum yourself and have you tasted the rums from the Warren Khong series?
Yes, I enjoy rum myself. In fact, I am happy to say that Luca was the one who introduced it to me, and it was love at first taste. Unfortunately, I have not yet tasted any from the series.
Are you aware of the amount of hype the Warren Khong series has stirred within the rum community?
No, I am not. But I am very flattered to hear about it and am glad to have been a part of it!
And back to the tasting…
Why focus on the Khong Collection you may ask? Well, it’s been one the most hyped series of rum to be released the past year’s time and it seems that not many people have actually sat down and tasted the entire collection in one sitting. So we thought, why not make this happen and as we had access to the entire collection, we decided to do just that.
- The range consists of 6 different bottlings from 6 very different regions and distilleries.
- In total, the Khong Collection officially boasts 4615 bottles.
- The average abv of the Khong Collection is 60.31%
- The average age is 7 years (mainly tropical)
- The rarest is Nine Leaves Encrypted with 249 bottles
- The largest outturn is Diamond <H> with 1659 bottles (but seems to be the most popular, so good thing it was “plentyfull”.
Nicolai preparing to do battle….
A word of note:
This tasting session did not set out to directly compare these six rums in order to find an overall winner. That would be like having six grandmothers compete in different disciplines of athletics and choosing the supreme winner – slow, not interesting and pointless in terms of style and origin.
What we’ve tried to do is taste the rums and rate them independently, while taking into consideration what we’ve previously tried from the various distilleries/regions, and how we found the quality and feel of the rum overall.
As such, we may have favourites amongst them, but we completely acknowledge that this is 100% subjective and therefore not necessarily something everyone else agrees upon (but you ought to agree with us, naturally!)
The grades given are a calculated average of our individual grades. This is simply because we couldn’t agree on a mutual score for each rum (hence why our individual scores are also stated), and therefore we thought, an average would demonstrate the final score more fairly.
In hindsight, we didn’t have a reference rum to kick start the tasting, so a re-tasting would be interesting at some point.
Anyway, enough talk and time for the results:
Chamarel Pure Single Rum Agricole 6 YO 2011-2017 55.5%
(Mauritius, 2 casks, ex-French Oak)
Nose – Citrus and grassy notes combined with an almost cake-like vanilla influence kicks off the experience. The alcohol is pleasant and almost subtle considering the strength. In the far back, hay begins to take form – thoughts of walking into a barn full of hay pallets and moist air springs to mind, with a basket of citrus fruits and green apples. Only brief whispers of lightly caramelised oak and vanilla seem to give evidence to the barrel ageing. After a good swirl, hints of lemon thyme , rosemary and perhaps white pepper, but only subtle. After some more time, elements of medicine cabinet (gaze and pills) emerge as well.
Mouth – Peppery spiciness, dry cake, fruity sweetness, orange zest
Finish – Mix of fresh herbs like thyme and rosemary, ripe apricots, Limoncello (sweet lemon liqueur) and anis. Cedar tree and light wood spice with mild white pepper and vanilla sugar. Bitter orange zest and light tannins finish off combined with a melange of the sweetness from all the fruity notes and dried cake.
Thoughts – Super charming and complex rum in its own right. We were both taken by surprise and fell in love with it’s charm, balance and super integrated alcohol. It passes quickly, but while it’s there, it’s a great acquaintance. Despite all the goodness, it remains just a tad to simple and easy, to make it truly exceptional. But for what it is, this could be a stable in our home bar any day.
Points: 84 (Gregers 86 / Nicolai 82)
Bielle Rhum Vieux Agricole 10 YO 2007-2017 55%
(Marie Galante, single cask, ex-Bourbon)
Nose – Cedar tree, cigar box, green grapes, hints of acetone, there’s an almost yogurt naturelle kind of acidity present; also toasted wood, vanilla, caramelised brown sugar and liquorice powder. The nose is super dry – you almost feel your mouth being rid of moisture just by smelling the rum.
After some time, it begins to develop “Matador Mix” aromas (Danish mixed sweets consisting of fruity wine gums, liquorice, caramelised sugar coatings and coconut in an elegant balance). Incredibly complex and just seems to develop new notes as time passes.
Mouth – Spicy, peppery, pungent alcohol, but not aggressive. It’s sweet and dry at the same time with a nice texture and feel. This rum caresses your tongue and mouth, it’s like a thai massage where you are crunched by a petite beautiful woman.
Finish – The wood spice, cedar tree. oak and tannins give way to more sweet aromas of acidic sweet fruit, liquorice and burned caramel. It lingers for a good time and keeps the flavours rolling in an ever complex plethora of sweet, spicy and dry elements.
Thoughts – Fantastic balance throughout. The dry impression in the nose loses ground to a wonderful sweetness, partly in the mouth yet most apparent in the finish.
Points: 90 (Gregers 91 / Nicolai 89)
Mount Gilboa Pure Single Rum 9 YO 2008-2017 66%
(Barbados, 3 casks, ex-French brandy)
Nose – The high alcohol itches the nostrils a little. Flat Coca Cola is the first thing that springs to mind (in Denmark back in the 80s and 90s, we had small cartons of coke flavoured juice, but without carbon dioxide); immediately afterwards, oak and woodspice appears with nutmeg, allspice, black pepper – one almost expects it to be a super dry sensation judging from the tannins. Dried apricots, dates, dried – almost roasted – coconut begins to emerge.
Mouth – Burnt treacle, oak and tannins, black pepper. Feisty alcohol burn.
Finish – The tannins and oak dominate the finish in a bitter way. A rich sweetness joins in and mellows out the dry bitterness, a sweetness difficult to define, leaving us wondering if it’s down to the high 66% abv. It’s a complex field of wood spice, pepper, tannins, spicy peppers, a cigar box, leather and a profound sweetness which to us resembles caramelised burnt treacle.
This sweetness lingers to the very end along with the rest of the spicy herbal and wooden notes.
Thoughts – We both agreed that this rum would have been incredible to try a year or two ago. The wood has made its appearance just a wee bit to dominant for our liking, with the bitter finish taking down the points. Having said that, it still beats the old Mount Gilboa bottlings by far, for which it deserves credit.
Points: 81 (Gregers 82 / Nicolai 80)
Nine Leaves Pure Single Rum “Encrypted” 3 YO 2014-2017 64.8%
(Japan, single cask, ex-wine)
Nose – Caramelised Bergamot and metallic citrus hints. Limoncello and an almost Sambuca-ish anise background. Elderflower and floral notes. The wine casks shine through with notes of apple vinegar and an oxidised sherry feel. It shows the young age, but incredibly complex and balanced nonetheless. So very different from what we expected. The metallic notes are very dominant – which may be an acquired taste?
Mouth – Perfumed, sweetness, tannin-ish dryness. Hot yet smooth and delicate.
Finish – Wow… this is a wave of floral notes: Elderflowers, rose water, rose pepper and a super balanced kick from the alcohol. The wine cask-notes are there again, with ripe green grapes and fresh oaky tannins. Only vague hints of vanilla seem to come through. The rum lingers in the mouth for some time and keeps reminding you of all the different flavours it’s thrown your way.
Thoughts – This is just a massive surprise! So young, yet superbly integrated. The mix of flavours are completely new and different, yet insanely appealing, delicious and juicy. Who the hell saw that coming? Without doubt, the best rum Yoshiharu has produced so far – huge kudos for this rum, Yoshi!
Points: 88 (Gregers 89 / Nicolai 87)
St. Lucia Pure Single Rum 7 YO 2010-2017 58.6%
(St. Lucia, single cask, ex-bourbon)
Nose – Pot still… this is dirty, full of everything you’d expect from the John Dore 2. It’s a plethora of fusel notes – motor oil, acetone, varnish and rubber with small whiffs of smoke (but in a good way). Oak and woodspice is present with fragrances of thyme and rosemary. But at the same time, you are met with baskets full of dried pineapple, mango and papaya, juicy raisins, dried apricots and hints of lime. In the far back menthol and fresh pepper notes.
Mouth – Dry…tannin-rich, sweet, spicy, hot and wonderfully dirty.
Finish – Woaaa… Minerality, motor oil, acetone, fusel notes and smoky aromas from the ageing in barrels. Sweetness in terms of preserved prunes, raisins, star anise, treacle. The oak and woodspice lingers on in the background, but balanced and submissive compared the rest of the flavours. After some time, sweet pipe tobacco, leather and cedar tree notes appear in a bizarre mix with fresh green grass and herbs.
Thoughts – This is filthy good rum. It’s insanely complex, throwing fusel notes, fruits, minerals, herbs and spices at you while wrapping it all up in dry tannins and alcohol, making sure everything is kept in balance. It’s concentrated, complex end requires your attention if you’re to enjoy it fully, yet allows for a mellow drink as well. Beautiful! And at last, a rum we agreed on, and scored exactly the same.
Points: 91 (Gregers 91 / Nicolai 91)
<H> Pure Single Rum 7 YO 2010-2017 62%
(Hampden, Jamaica, 5 casks, ex-bourbon)
Nose – Hampden, no doubt about it. This is much richer and thicker in the nose than for instance the HLCF, but almost just as pungent. Overripe banana, succulent pineapple and mango, funky esters, acetone and varnish. The fruity elements are all overripe, on the verge of decomposing (vaguely reminding us of the Savannah’s HERR). There’s also a buttery richness to it with cinnamon and peach. Lavender soap/oil.
Mouth – Acidity, spicy sweetness (almost like the asian ginger sweets) pungent alcohol
Finish – Overripe bananas, pineapple, ester funkiness, fruit candy, dry tannins, toasted oaky vanillins. Ginger candy is back with the sweet and peppery hot touch – and with that, it fades out incredibly quick, makes a Houdini and disappears. Only a residue of the overripe bananas and some esters linger behind, and with that ciao ciao, no more.
Thoughts – Perhaps we had too high expectations of this rum, being huge fans of high ester Hampden rums. And although you cannot compare the <H> mark with HLCF from the Habitation Velier series, the HLCF just delivers so much more. In fine, this is far from the best Hampden out there in our opinion. Other Hampden fans will no doubt like it, but for us, it’s just not quite there.
Points: 87 (Gregers 86 / Nicolai 88)
Summary of scores
- Chamarel 84
- Bielle 90
- Mount Gilboa 81
- Nine Leaves 88
- St. Lucia 91
- Hampden <H> 87
So what exactly do we have here and should Mr. Khong be proud of this rum collection carrying his name? The answer is to the later is hell yes!
What we have here is a remarkable portrayal of (mostly) pure single rums. Each a fantastic example of the region and distillery it derives from and demonstrates yet again that neither age nor region is a definitive marker for quality – and that with judicious selection and decanting at just the right age, young rums can just as easily be superlative.
Are they the best of the best? In some cases perhaps, but this is very much in the eye of the beholder. What we’ve experienced since this tasting, is just how diverse feelings are towards each of these expressions. Encrypted surprised us in an immensely positive way, St Lucia was as anticipated and fully lived up to our high expectations. Chamarel was the charming sweetheart that you could venture back to every day. Bielle hit the spot, for both of us, and just delivered, period. Mount Gilboa, not our favourite of the lot, but after trying it with some added water and letting it stand for a good 30-60 minutes, this rum developed into something much more complex and fruity – alas, this is not taken into consideration here. Hampden, it’s a good rum by any account, but for us, far from the best of its kind out there. Then again, not sure how many <H> Hampdens we’ve actually tried before, so this of course should be taken into consideration as well.
At the end of the day, this series is worth every penny and showcases a diverse series of locally aged rums from exceptional producers and countries. How can you not appreciate something like that?
Gregers & Nicolai