Thursday 27 June 2013

Chairman's Reserve Spiced - what spiced rum should be like

In the interests of full disclosure let me say up front I'm far from a fan of spiced rum, largely I find their devotion to vanilla overpowering and boring. The usual aquatically themed mega-sellers, Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry and Kraken don't do a lot for me.  That being said I'm a big fan of St Lucia Distillers, their standard expression and the Forgotten Casks are two very good rums indeed so I figured, in the interests of science I'd give their spiced rum a go and, at £24 a bottle what's to lose?

Spiced rum were, for a long time, a way for manufacturers to sell cheap, crappy spirit by lobbing in a boatload of spices that would hide the flavour and help pad their bottom line.  After all, you wouldn't use a nice rioja to make mulled wine so why use a good rum to make spiced rum?

Thankfully over the years this viewpoint had changed (mostly) and the spiced rum market is growing at a rapid rate, most bars you visit will have at least a few of the usual suspects behind the bar, even if they have damn all else in the way of rum.

This particular rum is bottled at 40% ABV and uses local spices such as coconut, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla (of course), lemon, orange, all spice and a local tree bark, Richeria grandis which is allegedly an aphrodisiac. St Lucia Distillers add their spices at various stages during maturation and blending, with some getting up to a year to marry with the spirit.

Having drunk this it feels like the base rum for this is the same as the Chairman's Reserve, a mix of copper pot and continuous stills that gives a lightness to the rum while still having a depth of flavour.

Picking up this bottle you're struck immediately by the colour of the spirit, a deep mahogany with red tinges

Seriously, it's really red
Once I cracked open the bottle the room was filled with the scent of cinnamon and baking spices which really surprised me, after all, spiced rum = vanilla doesn't it?  Pouring into the glass and actually having a proper sniff you're hit immediately with cinnamon, not harshly but more like a freshly baked cinnamon bun, after that the rest of the Christmas-y spices come through, nutmeg, cloves and candied orange peel.

Really, really red

A sip follows the same profile, a cinnamon hit that warms you up for a wave of different flavours to wash over your palate, all the notes from the nose come though in turn with a little bit of the vanilla, giving you the feeling of being sat in a bakery at Christmas, feeling warm and content.

On the way down this is remarkably smooth, the finish is lingering and warm with a dryness that creeps up on you from the ageing in ex-bourbon casks. 

I'll freely admit to being very surprised by how sippable this is, a £24 bottle of spiced rum that doesn't need to be drowned in coke? Bargain.

Now, most people will mix this so here's a few suggestions

  1. Mix with cloudy apple juice and a squeeze of lime, in winter time try warming the apple juice first and this will be a lovely winter warmer after a bracing walk in the snow
  2. Cranberry juice brings out the dryness more and makes for a very refreshing, and very tart, summer drink
So, will this convert me to the cause of spiced rums? perhaps not fully but this is definitely a welcome addition to the Nerd's booze cabinet


  • 40% ABV
  • £24 a bottle
  • Nose - cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, orange peel
  • Flavour - cinnamon, nutmeg, orange, cloves, hint of vanilla
  • Finish - very smooth with a lingering dryness
  • Mixing - Good with cranberry juice or cloudy apple juice

Cana Negra - this is not just rum..

An interesting little number this that a wee bit of detective work shows is a hidden gem. For non-UK readers Marks & Spencer are a very middle of the road supermarket, the kind of place your mum goes to get a nice bit of food, where maybe you got your first suit as a young man.

I'd heard some chat about this so picked up a bottle today and, first impressions, it's a nice looking bottle, fairly plain but a bit of googling shows you that Ratalhuleu is where the fine folk of Ron Zacapa make their booze. As there's only one rum distillery in Guatemala that kinda tells you who's making this.
Now, interestingly, the blurb tells us it's aged in bourbon casks, 2 sherry casks then finished in cognac barrels in France and there's only one company doing that so what we have here, effectively, is a Plantation Zacapa rum.
Anyways, after all that, is it any good?

  • Atmosphere - watching a replay of the British & Irish Lions win over the Melbourne Rebels post work.
  • £22 a bottle
  • 40% ABV
  • Aged in ex-Bourbon barrels, Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks while in Guatemela then finished with 6 months in Limousin cognac casks
  • No age statement but I have e-mailed M&S to ask, besides it's from a solera so age isn't so important
  • Some caramel added - I like that they're upfront about this on the label
  • Colour - dark golden honey
  • Nose - sweet butterscotch with some orange and a little floral element at the end
  • Flavour - the sweetness combined with dried fruits (apricot, maybe peach) comes through followed by dark chocolate. There's definitely a buttery mouthfeel, makes you want to hold it in your mouth that bit longer
  • Finish - very, very smooth going down and then the time in the cognac barrels gives a very pleasant dryness, there's a little hint of peppery spice there as well but it's very subtle
This compares very favourably to the Zacapa 23, the mouthfeel is a little thinner, suggesting slightly younger spirit but the dryness helps to subdue the sweetness that can make the Zacapa, for me, a bit one note at times and the sweetness is in itself less up-front than the Zacapa, allowing other flavours to shine through.
This is a rum with more complexity than the Zacapa, and, at £22 a bottle an absolute, flat-out bargain.  I'm very impressed by this, for a supermarket own label a lot of time and effort has gone into making a top-notch sipper.

Monday 17 June 2013

Chairman's Reserve

The quest for a good, inexpensive rum continues and brings us to St Lucia, the home of Chairman’s Reserve. Previously I’ve reviewed (and loved) their Forgotten Casks expression but this time it’s the core offering I’m looking at.
This has only been available since 1999 and is a mix of column and pot stills (John Dore and Kentucky Vendome specifically for the still nerds out there).

  • 40% ABV
  • £20 a bottle
  • Average of 5 years old
  • Aged in ex Jack Daniels’, Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam barrels. Ageing is separated by still before the liquids are blended and then aged for a further 6 months in newer casks to marry up the flavours
  • Colour – dark amber
  • Nose – You get a little hit of alcohol initially followed by cloves and a rich, honeyed fruit coming from the pot still distillation
  • Flavour – Raisins, honey and tobacco initially, vanilla comes through eventually but it’s quite subtle. The mouthfeel is very creamy.
  • Finish – Medium and slowly fading with the burnt sugar from the top of a crème brulee leaving a dryness from the newer oak of the final ageing. There is a burn on the way down which is to be expected in quite a young rum.
Overall it’s an interesting rum, if rough around the edges and feels like it needs more time in the barrel to become something rather special. Comparing it to the Forgotten Casks you can see the same traits that develop to a more satisfying conclusion in the older expression.

  • This is a bit too subtle for mixing with coke, the flavours are overpowered with the tobacco coming through and not really working too well with the coke.
  • With tonic (Fever Tree) it works very nicely, the bitterness of the tonic lifts the flavour and compliments the oaky notes to give a very refreshing drink.


This is about the same price and the same age as the Mount Gay Eclipse and Appleton’s V/X, overall none of them is a sipper but the Chairman’s get closer than the other two, just being let down by its youth and lack of refinement. As a mixer it doesn’t go as well with coke as the Appleton’s nor as well with tonic as the Mount Gay but it’s still a fine rum for all that and it's a good addition to the booze cabinet.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Mount Gay Eclipse

While perusing the booze aisle at lunchtime I spotted a bottle of this for £15 and, in the interests of science, picked it up to do a comparison with the Appleton from the other day.


Mount Gay is the world's oldest rum distillery, the earliest known record of production here is from 1703 (though theories are that rum was produced from 1497) when a legal deed recorded the property of the estate, including;
Two stone windmills... one boiling house with seven coppers, one curing house and one still house.

Various sugar plantations in the north of Barbados were consolidated over the years into the Mount Gilboa estate until one owner asked Sir John Allenby Gay to run it for him and he did such a good job that, after he died, it was renamed Mount Gay.

Now this bottle is named eclipse after the event in 1910 when a total solar eclipse coincided with Haley's Comet passing by.

Incidentally, originally rum was called killdevil in Barbados, either because of the rotten hangover it gave you or because of its medicinal properties, depending on who you believe.


So, history lesson over and on to the liquid

  • 40% ABV
  • Usually around £20 a bottle
  • A mixture of pot and column stills
  • No age statement but aged at least 2 years in ex-bourbon casks
  • The website makes a bit play of maturation rather than ageing, saying that the temperature variations can mean one year in cask can age it anything from 6 months to 2 years
  • Pot stills used are double pot, a relatively rare situation
  • Light golden colour
  • Nose - Subtle, you have to really get your nose in there but apricot, banana, a wee bit of vanilla and a hit of alcohol
  • Flavour - A punch of flavour initially that's a bit overwhelming but citrus, cloves, cinnamon and general wintry spices come through with a bit of a tingle. 
  • Finish - short, some of the spices come through but this burns on the way down, just on the border of being unpleasant to my mind
So, as with the Appleton this isn't a sipper, in comparison this is definitely a younger, punchier spirit but equally it feels like the elements hold together better.  It tastes like mainly column becuse of the lightness but the pot stills do bring the fruity elements to play.


  • The bottle suggested this with tonic, which sounded bizarre but, hey, why not and it was a revelation.  The bitterness of the tonic cuts through the youth of the rum to make a very refreshing summer drink.  I used a bit less than a 2:1 tonic to rum ratio (2:1 and a subsequent splash) and this is now on my drinks list for sure.  This was just with bog-standard schweppes tonic which is a bit crap, so with a good one like fever tree or fentimans this would be great.
  • With coke it works fine, you get some vanilla maybe a little woodyness but not much else, perfectly pleasant but not a huge success.
  • Going for ginger beer doesn't really work, the ginger beer is a bit too overwhelming, you can taste the rum on the finish and on the way down but that's about it, for all the youthful aggression around the edges this rum is quite delicate in its own way and can't stand up to this.


So, overall, this is a good mixer and if doing a rum and tonic it's rather delicious.

Compared to the Appleton V/X it depends what you're after really, given they're both cheap and widely available get both and see for yourself. It's definitely going to be a fixture in my library of booze for summer.

Monday 10 June 2013

Zacapa XO - an indulgent masterpiece

Before getting to the liquid itself it's important, I think, to understand the solera system that is sometimes used in rum production.

The solera system is something created by our Latin cousins in Spain and Portugal to create a consistent product when making sherry.
You take a series of barrels in age order and each year move some to the next barrel and at the end of it bottle some from the oldest barrel, the proportion being at the blenders discretion.
In this way you get a consistent flavour profile and each barrel contains a little bit of the oldest, that proportion will decrease over time until you're left with a booze version of homeopathy (but more delicious).

The wiki article explains this a lot better than me so have a look.

Zacapa tweak this by using a variety of barrels and adding in a mixing step between barrels. The liquid is decanted into a mixing barrel and the blenders add in a secret amount of super secret reserve rum to balance the flavours.
In order the barrels used are:
  • First fill bourbon
  • The same bourbon barrels but heavily charred
  • Sherry butts
  • Pedro Ximenez sherry
  • Cognac
Once it's done in the cognac barrels it's time for bottling while some is held back for the mixing. This slightly ropey diagram I've knocked up might help.

The time in first fill is between one and three years and the cognac is for two years so at the end of it you have a bottle that contains a blend of rums from six to twenty-three years old.

Zacapa make their rums from what they call sugar cane honey, unlike most other rums which use molasses (excluding agricole rums and cachaca which start from fermenting the sugar cane juice).

Once you have your sugar cane you extract the juices from it crushing/cutting it up, this is then boiled repeatedly to drive off the water and extract the sugar crystals.

This is usually done 3 times, with each boil leaving a thicker and darker residue behind, the 1st boil gives us what Spaniards call miel de caña or what we'd call golden syrup in the UK, the second boil gives second molasses and the third gives blackstrap molasses.

This rum is aged at altitude (7,558 feet above sea-level) in the Guatemalan highlands which allows a slower maturation thanks to the constant temperature.
High temperatures and humidity speed up the aging process with most Carribean rums maturing 3-4 times faster than a Scotch whisky.

OK, science bit over with and on to the liquid itself
  • Atmosphere - awed silence
  • This is beautifully presented in a cognac style bottle, in a nod to the finishing in French oak
  • Around £100 a bottle
  • 40% ABV
  • No adding of caramel or chill-filtering
  • Very long, full legs in the glass
  • Nose - rich, smooth and sweet initially with a very light toffee note (or tablet for UK drinkers), oak and lightly caramelised orange slices
  • Flavour - Sweet but not cloyingly so, vanilla, chocolate orange, raisins and some spice with an overarching oakiness in the background. Slips down incredibly smoothly. A full, creamy mouthfeel.
  • Finish - A lingering sweetness with hints of spice on the palate and a little bit of dryness from the time in French oak
This really is an exceptionally good rum, well-balanced, rich and full but with more character and depth than most rums manage, it's undeniably a sweet rum but you never get that cloying sweetness that some others have.

Now, having said all that I'm left with two questions:
  • would I pay the thick end of £100 for a bottle of this?
  • Is it twice as good as the 23?
To be honest I don't know the answer to those questions, and that's the problem with the super-premium end of the market for me. For the price of this you could pick up a bottle of the 23 and an El Dorado 15, which are both superb rums.

What I would say though is that if you see this in a bar, and you're feeling a bit flush, maybe your horse came in at the races or you got a promotion, hell you just feel like treating yourself then order a good-sized measure, sit back, relax and the world will seem a better place.

Appleton V/X - a bargain mixer

so its back to the quest for a good, everyday mixing rum and this time it's Jamaica we head to after the disappointment of Tesco's offering

Historical bit
Appleton Estate have been around since at least 1749, with the land having been granted to a Francis Dickinson in 1655 for his work during the conquest of Jamaica. As with all rums, sadly, his product in rum or sugar form would have been part of the triangular trade moving slaves, raw materials and finished goods between Britain/America, Africa and The Caribbean. Currently Appleton are owned by Wray & Nephew, who are famous for their deadly over-proof rum that you mainly see on fire atop a zombie.

Science bit
Jamaican rums typically use a by-product called dunder in their distillation. Dunder is what's left in the still after you're finished driving the alcohol off. This residue is high in nutrients and Jamaican distillers will gather this in "Dunder pits" and let it ferment then use some of it to feed the yeast for future brewings. Bourbon drinkers will know dunder as sour mash.

While it's fermenting the dunder will give off lots of esters, these are the chemical compounds which give you that pungent, fruity, banana-y smell that's so typical of Jamaican rums.

And on to the booze itself

  • Atmosphere - relaxing on a Sunday evening watching the British & Irish Lions beat Queensland
  • Around £20 a bottle
  • 40% ABV
  • A blend of 15 -20 rums produced using a mix of column and pot stills, all between 5 and 10 years old, hence the V and X.
  • Aged in ex Jack Daniels casks
  • Colour - golden honey
  • Nose - A grassy aroma with citrus and banana
  • Flavour - A little bit of vanilla, raisins and pralines, oranges and over-ripe banana bread, a bit rough around the edges and pungent
  • The finish is a little dry and woody but pleasant enough
As a sipper this is a non-starter really. The flavours, while good, don't balance in the same way a higher-end rum will. You can taste the potential this has, and Appleton do make some very good older expressions, but it's not quite there yet.

Now, stick this in a rum and coke and it's a whole different story. The slightly over-pungent aroma is taken off by the sugars in the coke and the fruity flavours compliment it beautifully, add a twist of lime to cut through it all and it's ideal for a sunny afternoon.

Definitely my go-to mixing rum and very reasonable at around £20 a bottle, a widely available rum in most bars if you're looking to wean a friend off the Bacardi.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Tesco West Indian Dark Rum

While the high-end sipping rums are great we all need a good day-to-day mixing rum, something to sling into a rum and coke on a hot day and just relax. With summer nominally having arrived in Scotland I grabbed a bottle of this from Tesco and fired into it.

  • Atmosphere - a spot of Queens of the Stone Age some good stoner rock to help the flow of alcohol

  • £6 for a 35cl bottle
  • 37.5% ABV
  • Colour - light golden, which is a tad confusing for a nominally dark rum, the shot below is slightly backlit (just sunlight) but this is very light.

  • Nose - a big initial vanilla and toffee hit that is swamped by a pungent almost agricole style grassy, vegetal smell
  • Flavour - meh, not much flavour of anything at all, a little bit of sweetness, some hints of the vanilla and toffee.
  • Finish - Actively unpleasant with a lingering bitter aftertaste

So, straight up it's not a winner it's safe to say. It's way too light for a dark rum but it's not meant to be drunk straight so I moved onto the traditional Rum & Coke and a Dark n Stormy, using a 3 to 2 mixer to booze ratio.

  • The coke hides the pungency well but there really isn't any flavour here and the finish becomes more bitter

Dark n Stormy
  • This really kills the flavour of the ginger beer, and the fizz, rendering it flat and insipid
  • Used Old Jamaica for the ginger beer which is usually excellent for a Dark n Stormy

Now all it says on the bottle is West Indies for the origin of this rum, and going from the vegetal notes and almost musty nose I figured it for a very young Jamaican rum, still, I was curious and e-mailed Tesco to ask where it was from and how old. Now in fairness to them they came back within 48 hours telling me:
"our Quality team can confirm that the rum is from Guyana but the age is unspecified and we do add some caramel for colour"
Which really surprised me, I generally love Guyanan rums and if it's that colour after having caramel added it must be very, very young indeed. The caramel does explain the bitterness so they must be adding a lot

So, overall, a failure as a mixing or sipping rum, the low cost is a false economy when the liquid is as bad as this is