Tag Archives: Rum

A diamond in the rough

Prospecting in rum.  Patrick Leclezio tracks a spirituous revelation.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2016 edition).

In 2005 whilst living in Italy I discovered rum.  I’d been stumbling over it for a while of course, drinking mixed rums – typically in the fabled Cuba Libre style – but I’d never picked it up, dusted it off, held it to the light and given it proper consideration.  My prior experience of it had pigeonholed the spirit as something agreeable but limited, like a friend with whom you have just the one thing in common, which once exhausted leaves nothing much else that’s engaging.  My awakening, in the little bars of Trastevere in Rome, where the forerunning Latin appreciation for the drink had already been given unrestrained expression, exposed me to a sleeping giant.  In products like Appleton’s 21YO, Pampero Anniversario, Barbancourt, and Zacapa Centenario (these were the days before Diageo’s misguided attempt to fashion the thing into a cocktail base), I felt I’d seen a glimpse of the future.  Ten odd years later this future has finally arrived in the country.   Stay with me as I draw open the curtains.

Rum is a spirit with a colourful history, but with associations I feel that have held back its graduation to the upper echelons attained by its peers.  The reference to pirates, sailors, navvies and the like has evoked images of adventure, fun and daring-do, dominant themes in how rums have portrayed themselves and been perceived, but the potential for elegance and style has been largely overlooked, ignored, and overshadowed in the process.  No longer. The era of “sipping rums”, rums that have been judiciously produced and significantly matured, that can be drunk neat or with a dash of water, and that would not be amiss if served in a gentleman’s club, has been dawning, albeit slowly.  It’s been a bit of a drawn out, extended, impatient wait but today there is a satisfying-enough number of these rums available on the South African market.  This is great news, dare I say cause for raucous celebration (ok, refined celebration) for those of us who love fine spirits, in that it both confers a previously unknown abundance and variety of flavour to our drinking repertoires, and in that it does so for remarkable value; that the price of rum compares favourably with that of whisky and cognac is a gross understatement.

There are challenges certainly: rum, to be blunt, is all over the show.  The industry is fragmented; there are no unifying standards (often even within individual territories); there is no concerted and coordinated effort at consumer education, worrying at a time when consumers are thirsty (yes, sorry) for information and more discriminating than ever before; access to and depth of information, for those aficionados who are looking to self-educate is sketchy; and, for many of the reasons listed, the perceived integrity of rum in relative terms is sorely lacking – why, as an example, does Zacapa get to label a rum with the age of its oldest component when Appleton denotes theirs with the age of the youngest?  Surely this can’t be good for the wider category?  The flip side is that rum producers have incredible freedom.  Column stills, pot stills, both, liberal maturation – almost anything goes, all without constraints.  With a sparsity of rules and regulations comes both the risk of consumer confusion and frustration, and scope for incredible creations.

I had the opportunity recently to evaluate side by side all the major players contesting our attention locally.  The standard bearers for rum have long been the historically intertwined Bacardi and Havana Club, although the latter has only more recently manifest itself as a global brand.  The former’s 8YO and the latter’s 7YO are both plump, juicy drinks, ironically quite similar, with a pleasing fruitiness, perhaps pineapple, on the palate, and a long finish.  They may not be intricately complex, which I’m pretty sure is not the intention anyhow, but they’re solid, dependable and, most importantly, enjoyable.  From stalwarts to upstarts.  My guiding principle in analysing global spirits is that a premium brown spirit cannot be successful without heritage.  One of the most striking and impressive exceptions is the barrier-breaking Patron Spirits Company.  They’ve again broken the mould with Pyrat – its liquid has such a pronounced orange flavour that some rum commentators suspected added flavouring.  In fact the rum is finished in casks that had previously held orange liqueur, the only such instance of which I’m aware.  It may not be everyone’s ration of grog but its two strokes of silky citrus and bitter tang are simple and effective, at least for my taste.  Pair it with a few squares of dark chocolate as a digestif.  Also out of ordinary is Inverroche’s 7YO rum.  Next time I’m drifting down the coast I’ll stop in specifically to explore how this is put together.  All rums are made with cane (forgetting a few beet derived freaks) – either molasses or juice, so you’re pretty much be expecting a sugary profile.  The Inverroche rum is less sweet and more herbaceous – it is as distinct a rum as is available in the country.  Appleton, the venerable, long established Jamaican distillery, conversely, produces liquid that as typical as rum can be imagined to be.   Both its X/V and its 12YO display pungent molasses on the nose and ripe cane on the palate, as if you’d sunk your teeth into a stalk on the cusp of fermentation.   A rum’s rums, so to speak.

My favourites though, each of which glittered with the best of rum’s new sparkle, were those from Mount Gay, with which I could imagine myself to have endless entertaining conversations – the Black Barrel, syrupy and rich, maybe a factor of its heavily charred casks, with a peppery surprise on the finish, and the XO, subtle and sophisticated with notes of caramelised sugar and a juicy, mouth-coating fullness – and then, inevitably, the much beloved, and somewhat maligned Zacapa.  The suggestion has been made that Zacapa has declined in quality of late, since the reins changed hands, but if this is true then I wasn’t able to detect it.  It remains the complex, layered, gripping rum, brimming with sweet oak and sultanas, that I first tasted all those years ago.  The virgin press juice, the solera process, the variety of four different casks including Pedro Ximenex sherry, and the high altitude maturation constitute a winning formula.  It is outstanding, and it continues to be the herald of rum’s progressing journey to the pantheon.  Salud!

 

Prestige April 2016 Spirits p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige April 2016 Spirits p2

As it appeared – p2.

Big, bigger, biggest

If you thought that it was all about the motion of the…uh…potion, think again.  Size does matter.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2012 edition).

As it appeared.

Every year the authoritative Drinks International publishes a supplement called The Millionaires’ Club.  To the pundit this is something of a bible – and accordingly I read it religiously.  It’s a snapshot of an intensely gladiatorial arena at the end of the annual “games”, documenting the performance – measured in millions of 9l cases – of the world’s big-time spirits brands.  In order to crack the nod a brand must post minimum annual sales of that magical thousand thousand, hence the name.

You might ask yourselves why this should matter to you.  Those of us who consider ourselves to be fierce individualists would probably insist that we make choices to which we are innately suited, rather than paying any attention to what the unwashed masses are consuming.  Or in other words – when it comes to liquor – we should drink what we like rather than worry about what others are drinking.  It’s a simple fact of life however that popular preference has significant sway on our own.  We are susceptible to a large extent, like it or not, to the influence of the world around us.  There is some sense after all, unconscious or otherwise, in recognising the value of something that has been evaluated and accepted en masse.  It is the ultimate endorsement, or so I console myself when falling prey.    Furthermore there’s also an undeniable pull to the beholding of scale: elephants, monster trucks, million case vodkas, and much other such oversized phenomena all offer a certain voyeuristic fascination, especially when they’re pitted one against the other.  Millionaires then is well worth a gander.

So, what’s big and getting bigger?  What’s out there – of significance – about which we might not know?  Do we need to re-evaluate our repertoires? I was seeking out and enjoying Grey Goose a good few years ahead of most fellow South Africans, thanks to Millionaires.  Do you know that Ballantine’s Scotch whisky – which is completely under our local radar – is the world’s third best-selling whisky?  And that’s including whiskeys!  What other tricks out there might we be missing? There’s only one thing for it – here are the highlights of 2011.

A quick note first though:  Millionaires categorises a brand as either global, regional or local, depending on its prevalence.  Global brands are those with wide reach and appeal.  Local brands are limited to just a few markets, or in many cases just a single market.  These are typically value-for-money brands whose success can largely be attributed to pricing, or culturally-specific tastes.   Regional brands fall somewhere in the middle.  I think we have enough Romanoff vodkas and Wellington brandies all of our own so I’ll be focusing on global brands, with the odd passing glance at a few regional brands and at one lone local brand.

All figures quoted represent millions of cases.

Cognac

  1. Hennessy 4.93
  2. Martell 1.86
  3. Courvoisier 1.34

You should know:  Remy Martin declined to participate and did not submit any figures for 2011 – its volume for 2010 was 1.65.  Courvoisier, the smallest of the four dominant cognacs was also the fastest growing last year – adding to the previous year at a rate of 11,7%.  The Jarnac producer built this growth with the launch of a slew of age variants as well as other line extensions, notably C by Courvoisier – a bold, some are saying revolutionary, double-matured cognac with a “full-bodied, intense flavour profile”.  It is targeted it seems at the gangsta rapper brigade…and associated wannabes.  Word up.

Vodka

  1. Smirnoff 24.7
  2. Absolut 11.21
  3. Nemiroff 8.03
  4. Khortytsa 7.5
  5. Grey Goose 3.79

You should know:  Smirnoff continues to consolidate its solid position – it has for some years now been the world’s largest global brand.  Meanwhile Ciroc, the ultra-premium grape-based vodka, has crested a million cases and was last seen passing the 1.5 mark, climbing a rate of 66.7%  thanks to the efforts of megastar rapper and brand ambassador Sean “P.Diddy” Combs.  Ciroc may technically be classified as a local brand (very unusual – given its premiumness), because its volume is almost exclusively concentrated in the US, but on evidence of this performance it won’t be for very much longer.  Around the world people are also increasingly calling for Ketel One and Poliakov, two premium vodkas that have been growing steadily during the past five years.

Rum

  1.  Bacardi 19.56
  2. Captain Morgan 9.2
  3. Havana Club 3.84
  4. Cacique 1.7
  5. Appleton 1.2

You should know: Rum continues to be dominated by the mix-it, party brands.  Only Appleton, with its credible portfolio of aged rums, is giving any hint of what might be to come.

Whisky

  1. Johnnie Walker (Scotch) 18.0
  2. Jack Daniel’s (Tennessee) 10.58
  3. Ballantine’s (Scotch) 6.47
  4. Jim Beam (Bourbon) 5.86
  5. Crown Royal (Canadian) 5.0

You should know:

William Lawson’s posted incredible growth of 35,5%.  Is this the mass discovery of a formerly underappreciated brand?  There are suggestions that a pre-duty stocking in the massive French whisky market may be responsible, but time will tell.  If this is the case it’ll be corrected in next year’s figures, but it might be worth finding a bottle in the interim to see if there’s any merit to the fuss.

The introduction of flavoured “bourbons” such as Red Stag has been a big hit and largely accounts for the strong movement from Jim Beam and Wild Turkey in particular.

Jameson continues its long term surge, growing at an impressive 19,2% off an already large base.  Where though are the other Irish whiskeys?

The most monumental news however is the entry of the first single malt into the club (Glenfiddich of course).  Malt still plays a distant second fiddle to blends, but this signals a bit of a shift – in perceptions if not serious volumes yet.  Hopefully the supply can keep up.

Gin

  1. Gordon’s 4.3
  2. Seagram 2.77
  3. Beefeater 2.39
  4. Bombay Sapphire 2.32
  5. Tanqueray 2.1

You should know: Premium brands rose, whilst standard brands stayed static or sank.  The G and T set are packing their bags and setting sail for Bombay, with sales of the blue bottle leading the charge for the second year running at 7,9% up.

The sum of all rum

From corsair to connoisseur

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2012 edition).

As it appeared – page 2.

“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest-

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Drink and the devil had done for the rest-

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!”

This is the gung-ho opening stanza of the pirate’s anthem, as sung to us in Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’.  It epitomises the rum ethos – that of hard-drinking bravado.  There is simply no other drink that’s quite as synonymous with masculine adventure as rum: be it boarding a Spanish galleon, or bush-diving from a balcony, it’s more likely than not to have played a part.  Whilst some of the rough edges may have been smoothed away and the fairer sex accommodated with the inception of light, spiced, and other flavoured versions, rum has nonetheless remained steadfastly raucous since its epic days of yore.  In ‘The Rum Diary’, the movie based on the Hunter S. Thompson novel of the same name, one of the characters famously says to another “I think we’re drinking too much rum”, to which the other replies “there ain’t no such thing”.  Indeed.  Rum is an all-out, balls-to-the-wall party drink.

Or, I should way, it was.  Allow me to announce, ahead of the approaching dawn, that our society’s experience of rum is set to change.  In Jekyll and Hyde fashion (also Robert Louis, how droll) this is a dissociative drink.  Whilst many of us in the Anglosphere – and it’s still very much the case in South Africa – have been distracted, or even misled, by its often emetic incarnation (which has somewhat tainted its image), discerning rum-lovers, in the Latin world in particular, have for many years now been charmed by a different, altogether more suave and elegant persona.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Before rum, there was the inventively named brum, a drink fermented from sugar cane juice by the Malay people of antiquity.  It wasn’t until much later however, half a world away (the Caribbean of the 1600’s), that distillation was introduced into the mix.  Rum quickly became a staple in the British navy, issued to sailors in rations, and from that source the habit found its way first to privateers and then to pirates, proving a hearty companion during those endless voyages on the seven seas.  These chaps took their libations as grog and bumbo respectively, concoctions including any of water, weak beer, lime or lemon juice, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg to accompany the rum.  And these unlikely forerunners of the cocktail era set the trend of mixing rum into motion.  The Cuba Libre, rum mixed with coke (and lime, strictly speaking), then took the baton during the twentieth century and went on to become spectacularly popular, propelling Bacardi at one stage to the position of world’s best-selling international brand.

Despite this dubious, albeit colourful, legacy, rum, as I implied earlier, is actually a fine spirit, offering a variety and complexity of flavour to those who seek it out.  It makes an effortless transition from spring break to cigar lounge.  Rum is defined almost everywhere as a spirit distilled from cane sugar and its derivatives, although there has been the odd attempt, such as Sweden’s Altissima, to make “rum” from sugar beets as well.   This may seem like a blandly uniform recipe but cane derivatives are surprisingly diverse, and each has a distinct impact on flavour.  Rum producers in the majority use molasses, a thick, gooey by-product of the sugar refining process, as their primary ingredient, but sugar cane juice and sugar cane syrup (also known as sugar cane honey) are also frequently used.  Product made from sugar cane juice, known as Rhum Agricole, is a feature of the French Caribbean islands, and also of other francophone islands such as Reunion and Mauritius.  Martinique in particular has an Appellation designation (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC being the French system for regulating certain agricultural products), giving their accordingly produced rhums a special cachet.  One of the world’s best rums, Ron Zacapa of Guatemala, is produced from sugar cane syrup – in fact these guys differentiate their ingredient further as first-press or virgin sugar-cane honey.  I’m sold on that description alone.  Most importantly though all the better rums share the same pedigree as good whisky and cognac – dictated by extensive cask maturation.  New casks, bourbon casks, sherry casks, and various wine casks are employed – often, especially in Latin territories, in a Solera system (a complicated ageing method in which liquid from one cask is blended into others at intervals) – to produce exquisite, expertly blended liquid.

Rum then it appears is a spirit for all seasons.  I’m partial to a Captain and Coke, with its foaming head and its promise of unruly fun, but increasingly I’d rather seek out Zacapa, or Barbancourt of Haiti, or others of their ilk whenever I can find them.   Whilst the awareness and acceptance of premium rums is still unfolding over here, the signs are unmistakable.  Aye me hearties, a new rum era is upon us for sure.