Thursday, February 11, 2021

Rum - the other brown spirit

 As I’ve noted in previous posts, my spirits journey started with Bourbon.  At 18 I was enjoying Wild Turkey 12 year, drinking it neat or mixing it with coke.  It was plentiful and cheap back in the early 80’s. 

Fast forward (quite a bit forward) and today my spirits pursuit includes Rum.  What I knew about rum over the years was limited to sugary shelf offerings like Bacardi or Pyrat.  The nuances of rum were a mystery until I started to pay attention and dig a little deeper into this wonderful spirit.  This is a story of my own quick education of rum and the impact it has had on my drinking rotation.

First, lets start from the beginning, the origin of rum itself.  Rum as most anyone knows, comes from sugarcane.  The three styles of base product are either cane juice (Agricole), cane syrup or molasses.  Sugarcane itself is grown the world over but go back a quite a few thousand years and Sugarcane was indigenous to New Guinea.  While there are several strains of Sugarcane, one in particular, Saccharum officinarum is the stain most widely used among cane producing countries. 

When we think of rum, the Caribbean immediately comes to mind but cane as a commodity has traveled the world over throughout history; India, Japan, Persia, Portugal to name just a few.  Sugarcane found on the Island inhabited by Dominican Republic and Haiti (formerly Hispaniola) was introduced by Columbus during his second voyage to the America’s. 

The first introduction of rum in history is up for debate (much like bourbon) but British and French rums were noted around the 17th century.  Rum has a deep and storied history, too much to articulate in this short post so I will advance the story to the beginnings of my own understanding of rum.  It’s also been noted that the first distilled spirit in American was rum.

At the time I was mixing bourbon and coke, I was also mixing rum and coke and typically some off the shelf Bacardi offering of the time.  Once I grew out of the overly sweet cocktails and began to focus more on the quality of the drink and eventually enjoying spirits neat, rum fell by the wayside and ignored for a few decades except for the occasional rummy drink on a cruise. 

Unbeknownst to me, rum is pretty unregulated, unlike say bourbon or scotch.  Rum producers or NDP that purchase sourced rum, can pretty much do what they want when it comes to adulteration.  In fact, Richard Seale from Foursquare has been quite vocal over the years promoting full transparency among producers.  Additives such as sugar, caramel coloring, or flavor packets are used post distillation.  As an example, and I’ll pick on Bacardi again, their 8-year offering contains 20 grams of sugar per liter or about 1.6 Tbsp of sugar.  I’ll pick on another one, Diplomatico Exclusiva, which has 44 grams per liter.  Every wonder why rum at times is so sugary sweet?  Well, now you know.  On top of that, to make the rum cosmetically appealing, producers may add caramel coloring to give it that extra aged look.  Let me caveat by saying, if this is what you like, then you'll get no judgement from me as I advocate to drink what you like and the way you like it. 

For me, I don’t care for rum that is overly sweet.  My first rum epiphany came about 6 or 7 years ago when I was introduced to a Demerara Distillers Diamond SVW 15 year Velier.  I can only say, I was blown away by this rum.  It was viscous, balanced and very un-rum like.  Blind I think some would assume it was a sweeter bourbon. 

That Diamond SVW triggered the thought process of rum exploration.  What else was out there that was as good as that or at least offered a drinking experience that did not include a follow up visit to the dentist?  This also triggered my curiosity of rum in general. 

Base Product:

Rhum Agricole: base product is cane juice.  The name comes from the French which loosely translate to “farm rum”.  The cane is pressed through mills to extract the juice. This style of rum typically produces an earthier profile, maybe grassy and less sweet.  This style is also less efficient in distillation than the other two.

Cane Syrup: Simply, it’s cane juice reduced down to a thicker concentration of syrup. 

Molasses: The byproduct of sugar extraction.  This sticky gooey brown stuff is what is left over and is used my most rum distilleries. 


As expected, two forms of distillation are employed: pot still and column still.  Pot still is the older practice but that’s not to say that column distillation is “new” because it’s been around since about 1830.  The in-between of these two approaches is the hybrid which employs a combination of both pot and column. 


Rum aging in oak is well known.  What started as a practice to store product, turned in to an aging element.  The very nature of oak as a vessel means air and vapor, or angels share, can move freely through the barrel which as most know, is part of the aging process.  Like scotch, rum is aged primarily in spent bourbon casks.  Other casks are used of course that previously contained sherry, or brandy (e.g. Cognac or Armagnac).  Because rum is aged in used cooperage, much of the heavy wood influence has been spent, thus, rum maturation takes a more nuanced aging trajectory.  Like anything, older does not translate to better, so active management of the barrels is required to ensure a well balanced produced.  Last, aging location is not just the Caribbean.  There is quite a bit of rum aging in Scotland which provides a totally different environment resulting in different outcomes. 

One style to be aware of is Jamaican which uses Muck and Dunder, Hampden uses this process, Worthy Park does not.  If you have explored rum and had one whose profile exhibited rubber or petrol, welcome to Muck and Dunder.  I won’t say any more about it but wanted to mention it as it can be as polarizing as a well peated scotch.

My own experience is fairly recent and like bourbon, I jumped in with both feet.  As a group, we have extended our barrel selections to include rum which I’ll touch on briefly. 

Two distilleries we have engaged with are Privateer in Ipswich MA, and Richland Rum in Richland GA.  Both of these domestic producers follow distillation practices that pretty much mirrors bourbon distillation, meaning, no funny business to alter the flavor of the rum.  They distill, barrel and age.  That’s it. 

Privateer is making some really fantastic domestic rum.  They use grade A molasses that to my last understanding and conversation with Privateer was sourced from a family farm in Venezuela.  Distillation is both Pot and Column or hybrid depending on the style they want to produce.  Many of their rums are aged in New Oak and some in used casks that can include bourbon, rye and brandy (there may be others).  To date, our group has selected 6 barrels from Privateer and each one has been fantastic.  The selections have a range of 2.5 – 4 years old and while this may seem young, it’s not with rum as you don’t get that new make off note like you do with a grain-based distillation.  The aging trajectory seems to be much shorter.  We also provided a Weller cask to them late 2019 which they filled with 3 year old rum.  We let it ride for 6 months and bottled.  The barrels arch of influence is about 3 months so at 6 months we really liked the fact that the rum had not fully integrated with the barrel so the profile exhibited a combination rum from new oak but then that bourbon influence from the wet bourbon cask.  It was a huge success with the group.  Andrew Cabot, Privateers CEO/COO sent me a bottle of rum they aged in a Cognac cask called L’Alliance.  The added fruit character combined with the rum was very compelling.  So much so, I bought 6 more bottles. 

Richland Rum in GA is a family run business and is considered an Estate rum meaning everything that goes into producing that rum is done on premise. The big distinction being they grow their own cane, harvest it, and then extract the cane juice which they reduce to a syrup.  The syrup is used in the distillation process.  They use copper pot stills and age their rum in new oak.  We selected two barrels from them a couple years back.  My opinion is they are also making really great domestic rum.  Worth a look.

As I noted in a recent post, it’s been about 3.5 years since my last post but I have not been dormant.  I’ve been plenty busy exploring, buying, drinking and sharing various spirits and that won’t stop.  For me, I like to keep my consumption eclectic.  Drinking bourbon continuously can get a bit boring (at least to me) so having rum or even Armagnac (another post for a later date) keeps things interesting and fresh.  If you love bourbon, maybe explore the world of rum.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

As a parting gift, here are a couple suggestions in the event you want to explore, assuming your retailer carries some of these labels:

Mount Gay Black Barrel

Flor de Cana 7 or 12 year

Appleton Estate 12 year

Cruzan Single Barrel Estate

Privateer Navy Yard or Queens Share

Richland Single Estate Rum

The Real McCoy 5 or 12 year (Foursquare)

Doorly’s 5 or 12 year (also Foursquare but I’ve found these to be less expensive than McCoy)


Friday, February 5, 2021

The History of Now

Right now if you want a George T. Stagg or the much-hyped Pappy Van Winkle 15, you are going to pay a premium and by premium, I mean as much as $1,500 or more on the secondary market for said Pappy. 

The history of now with respect to whiskey is forget what you paid last year or 10 years ago.  If you want it, start counting Benjamin’s.  For the lucky few who are able to find them at retail either through pure luck or lottery, you can get a good deal, if that even exists.  In Virginia, the list price for PVW15 is $120 plus tax. 

I’ve said for years “it won’t be any cheaper than it is today” has never been more true.  Back in 2007 I would shop online and buy whatever I wanted.  I purchased PVW15 for $36.99 and Old Rip 10 107 for $26.99.  In Montgomery County, MD ABC, I would pick up Old Weller Antique 7 year for $15.99 when it was on sale.  That same year, when you could buy booze on eBay, I purchased a 1976 Yellowstone in the box for $35.  I remember going into a VA ABC store in March of 2008 and buying the 2007 release of GTS for $44.99. 

Looking back in the blog, I wrote about this subject in 2014 noting that PVW15 was going for up to $700.  It only took 6 years for the valuation to more than double.  As much as things have changed over the corresponding years and we’ve all seen pricing jump and then jump again (Elijah Craig 18 for instance), some things do indeed stay the same.  Evan Williams Bottled in Bond and Old Grand Dad 114 are steady offerings at a fair price.  Over the years, I have had to reset the threshold of what I’ll pay for any particular offering and that includes lowering the threshold in some cases.  Just yesterday, I picked up four bottles of Elijah Craig 94 pf that was a single barrel selection done by a friend.  It’s actually a great selection and out the door was $35.  On the other hand, they also selected an Old Elk that was $80.  I was assured it was very good but I passed since I didn’t think the price was in line with a 6 year old whiskey. 

Now in 2021, there is a ton of bourbon white noise out there with a gazillion Non Distiller Producers (NDP’s) and sourced whiskey.  There is nothing wrong with sourced whiskey but what I find bizarre is something like a recent Smoke Wagon barrel selection selling for $675 on the secondary.  Smoke Wagon is MGP.  Years ago, we did a couple of barrel selections from Smooth Ambler with age ranges from 7-10 years and paid less than $50 a bottle.  I certainly understand the difference between retail pricing and the secondary valuation but the gap is cavernous in many cases. 

The question; is this the new norm? My interpretation of the history of now says yes.  Going forward there are some discriminators that play into my decision to purchase or not purchase.  I have a sizable collection so that is a factor (do I need to add more and yet more again).   I am drawn to certain profiles and I do tend to stick to stuff I know I like and shy away from things I don’t (Blaton’s, ETL).  We still do barrel selections so that feeds the need year over year but I find myself being far more discriminating when something new comes along.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Still Kickin and Drinkin

 Every once in a while I look back and see what I was doing and interested in 10 years ago and funny thing, not much has changed.  Still doing the whiskey and cigars bit albeit expanded to a large degree.  I know the blog has been dormant for over 3 1/2 years but I haven't been dormant, very much the opposite.  Much of my time is spent managing a private whiskey forum which is very active and over the last 10 years resulted in good friendships and north of 200 barrel selections.  I've contemplated posting now again but not for the sake of posting.  We're doing some interesting things and you in turn might find it at least entertaining.   

So, in this current era of COVID and the fact that I'm working week on/week off, I might as well make myself useful and post now and then.  So, maybe stay tuned.  I might be hanging around.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

State ABC's grow up....sort of

I've lived in Virginia for nearly 32 years and for that duration, the Commonwealth has been an ABC state.  Back when I moved here in 1985 my bourbon of choice was Wild Turkey 8 year 101 or Kentucky Spirit.  It took nearly 20 years to come around and realize there's a whole world of interesting whiskey's beyond what Wild Turkey offered.

Once that happened, my interest in acquiring different bottles was hampered by the fact that Virginia simply didn't put much effort in offering any variety to the extent that open market states carried a wide variety of spirits.  Thankfully, Maryland (not Montgomery County, a controlled jurisdiction) and D.C. were near by to help with my booze shopping.

On a fairly regular basis I travel to North Carolina which is also a controlled state.  While visiting family back about 5 year ago, I visited a local ABC near Lexington NC and was actually quite appalled at the anemic selection thinking at the time they were significantly worse than Virginia.

One of my early trips to NC I conducted a whiskey tasting for a group of local enthusiasts with two of the participants members of the NC ABC board.  One of the bourbons I featured was a Four Roses Single Barrel; one that shockingly they had not seen, at least not in the western part of the state.  Fast forward 1 year and I'm conducting the tasting once again (2017 was our 5th year going down) and the same two ABC board members are happy to inform me that western NC now carried Four Roses Single Barrel along with the Small Batch (I should get a kick back....seriously).  In my discussion with the two board members I encouraged them to broaden their selections.

In no way do I take any credit for what shows up on the shelves of North Carolina ABC stores.....maybe some minuscule influence but that would be it.  Last fall I was again visiting family in NC and was pleased to see ABC stores carrying a much broader selection that just a couple years previously.  I think this is in large part due to the huge popularity of American whiskey evidenced by the two rows of various rye and bourbon labels on the shelf of the ABC store.

Virginia has certainly changed their posture when it comes to whiskey and now feature a more diverse portfolio of whiskies, and not just bourbon and rye but a few more Scotch, Irish and Japanese as well.  I'm more inclined today to drop into my local ABC and see what's on the shelf. 

Of course as the state controlled monopolies increase their shelf selections, so too does the open market retailers in non-controlled states.  In my opinion, the ABC's will always be playing catch up to the rest of the country as their bureaucracy is a natural impediment to the freer movement of inventory elsewhere.  As an example, I've never seen Independent Bottlers of Scotch, etc release in ABC states.  Maybe they have but in my area I have to shop in non-controlled jurisdictions to find releases from Cadenhead, Caskers, Douglas Laing or Old Malt Cask.  What ABC's have done is single barrel selections form Jim Beam, Four Roses or Knappogue.

I do hope ABC states one day relinquish control and allow the open market retailers to do what they do best.  Sell a broad and diverse selection of great spirits.

Monday, April 17, 2017

In remembrance - Tim Davis

Understand it's been some time since I've posted and truth is, I got lazy for a while. 

A friend and fellow whiskey enthusiast passed away the afternoon of April 8th.  He wasn't old and had not been feeling ill.  It was just one of those things that happens and then you're gone.  The reasons for his passing are to this day still unclear.  His family understandably is deeply saddened by the loss of a husband and father.

Tim was only 49 years young and had a passion for life and the things of life.  My introduction to the fabled and rare Port Ellen Scotch was through the generosity of Tim.  When I had trouble sourcing a hard to find Japanese whiskey, Tim again helped out.  And when he was excited about a release of a 19 year old Caperdonach Scotch, Tim shared by sending bottles.  It wasn't just whiskey that he freely shared but his passion for his family and work.  All you have to do is peruse his Facebook page and see loads of pictures of his wife and two kids. 

His passing has left a hole for many of his friends and of course his family.  Too often we take for granted those that are around us only to realize when a person we care about is gone, the time was too short and regret sets in on missed opportunities of fellowship.

A group I head up, 1789b is still in a bit of shock over Tim's passing as he was one of our own.  In our own way we desperately want to help the family and as such we will be conducting some charity auctions and donating the proceeds to the Davis children's 529 Education Fund. 

We are partnering with Tim's employer Rockfish Innovation Group and Pappy & Co. who have graciously donated bourbon and Pappy Van Winkle Cigars. 

If you knew Tim or simply want to know more, I encourage you to read some recent words from folks who knew Tim best.

Rest in peace my friend.  It was my pleasure knowing you.

Tim doubling up his bourbon allocation

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving

Want to wish everyone a happy and safe Thanksgiving.  Among my enthusiast friends, this time of year always generates the question "what are you drinking this Thanksgiving?".  I don't know about the rest of you but I really don't map out what I'm going to drink.  Fine drinks will be consumed no doubt but I don't have a menu planned. 

A theme among my friends is to open a bottle of Wild Turkey in recognition of the day.  Not a bad idea and as a starter, I'll probably bring out a bottle of American Spirit.  It's open, it's Turkey so why not.  Other than that, the bar is open so what's poured will be whatever fancy's me. 

I'll most likely indulge in a nice cigar (cuban for sure) and now that I think about it, maybe a Port.  I have a very nice Taylor LBV 2010 that will pair well with a cigar. 

Enjoy your holiday and if you're going to drink, try and drink well.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

High West Goes Corporate

I've been a big fan of High West for quite a few years.  Their 21 year rye is probably my favorite rye whiskey.  So I had mixed feelings when it was announced last week that Constellation Brands purchased High West for $160 million.

David Perkins, the founder of High West, left his job at Genentech back in 2004.  His decision to move from biochemistry to distilling was due in part to a vacation he and his wife took to Kentucky.  In a conversation I had with David a number of years ago he made the observation that while touring the distilleries, he noticed some familiarity with that equipment and what he used as a biochemist. He stated to his wife "I could do that", and the seed was planted.

David at the outset sourced from Constellation among others and in my opinion, did a very good job with barrel selection and ultimately, blending.  Much of the success of High West is due in part to David's vision and execution and all you have to do is visit Park City Utah and see the High West compound first hand to see his dream in action.

So, back to my opening comment about mixed feelings of the sale.  David has stated he will be staying with High West as Brand Ambassador playing a very hands on role in the business.  His reason for selling had to do with growth stating that where he wanted to take the distillery couldn't happen without some bigger player with bigger money.  Enter Constellation Brands who also owns Corona, Modelo and Ballast Point beers and a whole gaggle of winery's and wine labels.  This to my knowledge would be the first spirits addition to their portfolio and truth be told, it's a good addition.  My first reaction was some sadness to see an independent distillery go corporate but I certainly understand the reasoning.  The purchase of Ballast Point didn't go so well and I hope that Constellation took some lesson's learned and won't repeat the same mistakes.  I glad that David and his team will be staying on to keep things going.

Time will tell how this investment will pay off for whiskey enthusiasts because that's all I really care about and of course curious as to what new products or innovations High West will produce in the future.