Wednesday 30 December 2015

Book review – Classic Cocktails and Cuban Cocktails

Note – I won these books in an online draw courtesy of the ever-excellent Floating Rum Shack and Sterling Epicure publishers.

Two books dropped though my letterbox just before Christmas and while quite different in their styles both are written by people who truly care about a good cocktail and have a quite staggering array of experience to call on. 

Classic cocktails by Salvatore Calabrese

This is a pleasingly hefty new edition of Calabrese’s 1997 tome, a veteran of various legendary London venues such as the Lanesborough Hotel and Dukes Hotel Calabrese is clearly passionate about his drinks. 

An engaged and clearly passionate writer Calabrese takes his time discussing the history of the cocktail, glassware, ice-handling and even famous bartenders and drinkers of the past before diving into a chapter devoted to the Martini. The book is gorgeously illustrated with photography so the cocktails juxtaposed with old and rare bottles of the spirits concerned, drawing the reader into the notion that these are drinks that have been around for decades and we drinkers are another part of that history.

There are another 200+ cocktails detailed within the book, all being at the more refined end of the spectrum, as you’d expect from the title, with little titbits about their history here and there.  At the end is a sections of “Calabrese Classics”, drinks he has created over the years for family members, celebrities and special occasions including the wonderful Breakfast Martini.

I only have one small quibble with the book, while Calabrese is clearly a very enthusiastic and passionate man the exclamation point is deployed much too often for my tastes and it did begin to grate a little after a while. That is, admittedly, a very minor point and a question of personal taste more than anything else.

Currently at £14.94 on Amazon this is an interesting read, with some delicious sounding cocktails I look forward to trying out myself.

Cuban Cocktails by Ravi DeRossi, Jane Danger & Alla Lapushchik

Reflecting a generational difference to Calabrese this is a more rrelaxed, informal feeling book.  The writers have cocktail CV’s including some of the legendary US venues such as Death & Co, PDT and Cienfuegos, the Cuban rum bar that inspired this book.

Now, there’s one rather obvious problem with a book on Cuban cocktails from the US, they can’t actually use any Cuban ingredients thanks to that pesky embargo (naughty, naughty communists). This being said once you accept that it’s an enjoyable book to dip into with some delicious sounding recipes that are more Caribbean-inspired than strictly Cuban in a lot of cases e.g a mint julep with Barbancourt rum from Haiti it’s very enjoyable. 

The book shows some serious knowledge and it’s worn lightly with a conversational writing style that’s relaxed and friendly with a section covering the history of Cuba before an introductory section covering the essential techniques, ingredients and so on.

The recipes themselves are divided into four sections covering colonial times, citrus drinks such as the daiquiri, Tiki drinks and modern interpretations.  

The photography mixes street scenes from Cuba with shots of the cocktails themselves, both are evocative and enticing, making me simultaneously crave a Daiquiri and to start pricing flights to Havana.

At £17.99 on Amazon this is a well-presented and gorgeously photographed book, albeit it feels more like a book to leaf through on an idle Sunday afternoon than one I’d pick up and start trying to make the drinks mentioned, delicious though they do sound.  

Thursday 5 November 2015

Caribana Sol - an insulin chaser please barman!

Spiced rum has a bad reputation and, while there are some decent ones out there its reputation as a drink for the young and the skint is pretty accurate, largely it's low grade spirit whacked full of sugar, vanilla, maybe some cinnamon and has a vague nautical theme on the bottle.

Picked up by a friend coming through Miami duty free as a bit of a joke (I hope) for the princely sum of $14, it’s fair to say I held little hope for this bottle and yet it somehow still managed to limbo under that very low bar.

At 35% ABV this doesn't strictly qualify as rum, but given it doesn't qualify as drinkable we can let that minor quibble slide.

The bottle insists it was established in 1893 but I can find almost nothing out about this rum online other than the makers website which, after invoking the usual hackneyed and cliché ridden imagery of pirates and carnivals, tells the reader it's made with "Barbados virgin rum with spices and natural flavours". I'm taking that to mean it was aged as long as it took the distillate to come to room temperature.

Once you pop it open there’s the obligatory cheap vanilla smell and such an overwhelming cloying caramel sweetness that you’re left wondering if there’s such a thing as nasal diabetes.

Tasting is just more of the same, vanilla and so much sugar you can almost feel your molars
dissolving with every sip, the finish is a lingering vanilla that will be familiar to anyone who's had a 99p cupcake from a petrol station.

Coke does improve things a little, offsetting the worst of the sweetness but it’s still pretty terrible.

Not every rum can be, or needs to be, a premium sipper, there’s a place for volume brands in the
marketplace and I've mentioned elsewhere how impressed I am by Captain Morgan’s white rum but
this just comes off as a lazy, cynical drink, created on a spreadsheet somewhere with the cheapest
ingredients that could be found and a general “eh, it’ll do” attitude.

Good rum doesn't have to be expensive, you can pick up some cracking bottles of rum for under £20
in most supermarkets these days, so, if you find yourself in Duty Free looking at a remarkably cheap bottle you know nothing about, do yourself a favour and spend the extra and get something genuinely good.  Unless you know someone with a masochistic taste for reviewing ropey rums that is..

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Bardinet Rhum Negrita - How bad can it be?

As I've mentioned in other reviews here I am a sucker for good packaging, so when I saw this little beauty peeking out of the shelves of a French supermarché you can imagine, I had to have it and the price point of a princely €3.49 doesn't hurt either.

Johnny Ive eat your heart out
Joking aside I was curious to see what on earth you get for that little money, would it be an abomination like Stroh or a French bargain like the Plantation range

From what I can see the Bardinet company has been around since 1875 and are a bit of a French spirits behemoth with a facility that ages 30,000 hectolitres at any one time while storing another 60,000.  To put that in perspective that's nearly 4.3 MILLION bottles of spirit sitting and maturing so, I figure, they must know what they're doing.

Information about the rhum itself is not easy to find, it's a rhum agricole being made from cane juice as opposed to molasses in traditional rum production (which the French term rhum industriel). The bottle itself only states "Iles Francaises du Rhum appellation d'origine" which just means it's from the French Rhum islands.  Others online have suggested it's a blend of rhums from Martinique, Guadeloupe and Réunion which certainly fits.

Once it hits the glass you get an initial huge hit of oaky vanilla that's quite overpowering but fades away quite quickly leaving not much behind to be honest, really inhaling deeply there's some fruit and the typical grassy agricole funky smell but you have to hunt for it.

Once you take a sip there's a lot of oak and a peppery spicy dryness that's not unpleasant but fades off very quickly leaving a slightly medicinal taste which I found oddly enjoyable in a Laphroaig kind of way.

There's a definite burn on the way down but nothing too harsh.  Now this is clearly not intended to be a sipping rum and, much like Stroh a lot of the material online is around cooking with it but using it in a rum and coke worked pretty well with the pepperiness holding up well to the coke sweetness.

Overall for €3.49 you really have nothing to lose with this, it's a serviceable rhum, not a great example of the agricole form by any stretch of the imagination but for sticking in a rum and coke while on your holidays it does the job.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Rum Blender - bespoke rum

The idea of blending rum conjurs images of dark, humid warehouses, barrels racked up as the angel's share escapes over the years while flavours mature and secrets passed down from blender to blender over the years. Much as I like that idea I live in Edinburgh so without a lottery win I'll not be in one of those warehouses any time soon.

Typical tourist, full of booze
Taking a deceptively simple concept and making it easy for your average drinker to make their own unique rum from the comfort of their couch (or on their smartphone while having a wee skive from work - sorry boss) rumblender  are a fascinating new entry into the rum world.

A company run by two of my fellow countrymen who already have a  whisky blending website and who have now expanded into the world of rum.

As this is a bit different to a standard rum write up I'll separate this into two sections: blending & buying the rum and the actual booze itself.

Blending & buying the rum - how hard can it be?

The website endeared itself to me immediately by just asking if I was old enough to be looking at it, rather than asking for my date of birth, which country I'm from and what I had for lunch. We're all adults and it's good to be treated as one.

Once you're in you're presented with a virtual empty bottle exactly like the one you'll receive and a choice of 7 different distillates you blend to fill it, 10ml at a time. Each has simple tasting notes ranging from the white rum named Buttered Strumpet to the smokier, heavier Smoke and a Pancake, the age and provenance of the distillates themselves are kept secret, understandably though there are apparently 218,618,933 different possible combinations!

Now, given this is the Internet you're obviously not able to taste it beforehand so there are six pre-chosen blends you can choose from and then tweak if you're not feeling brave enough to start from scratch. I went with the Heavy Stuff option as my previous attempts at rum creation did not end well.

After a wee bit of tweaking I finalised my blend.  I love big, bold flavours and thought upping the smoky proportion would work nicely, as I modified things the price of the bottle changed with it and I could always see what I was going to be paying.

Once I had finalised the blend it was time to name my rum, as a life-long fan of Hunter S Thompson I always loved the line uttered during Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo's hallucinatory drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400
"We can't stop here, this is bat country!"
After that it was a simple matter of paying and sitting back and waiting. One touch I very much like is that all blends are stored on-line and you can share it with anyone who might like to order it or tweak it and make it their own.

Now, to what is the first, and almost certainly the last, mention of logistics on this website. Anyone who orders goods on-line knows the vagaries of courier companies, just search for Yodel and see the apoplectic rage induced by them if you don't believe me. With rumblender their courier sent me emails and texts when the order was dispatched which let me re-direct to a shop near work so I could pick it up rather than have to trek to an industrial estate in the backside of nowhere and told me once it had been delivered. It may be a small thing but it makes a huge difference to the customer experience.

Also worthy of note is that I ordered my bottle on a Thursday afternoon and was picking it up by Tuesday lunchtime, a very fast turnaround indeed, I have to say the customer experience is absolutely flawless.

The rum itself

On to the actual booze itself, which came in a beautiful, understated presentation box that was a little extra at checkout but I'm a sucker for good packaging. 

Simple, elegant packaging
On opening you have a wee certificate of blending and the decanter itself, it's a lovely shape, nice and solid and feels very premium in the hand.

A small thing perhaps, and indefinable, but this bottle has a very satisfying cork-sound.

Now, to the liquid itself, it's bottled at 40% ABV, personally I find an extra 2-3% can really make a difference but I understand why companies prefer to keep it to 40%.

This is a somewhat odd review, given I'm the eejit/genius responsible for this rum so I'll try to be as objective as possible.

Pouring a glass and giving it a swirl there are good, thick legs to it suggesting a good amount of pot-still rum.  On the nose it's full and rich, with some Jamaican/Agricole style funk coming through along with the promised smokiness. Taking a sip you get a pleasing dryness with woody, leathery notes blending with light hints of vanilla and dark chocolate before the smokiness comes through strong but not overpowering.

On the way down it's smooth and you're left with a refreshing dryness and an almost meaty flavour. Overall I'm very happy with this, at a guess I'd say there's maybe Jamaican and Trinidadian rums in the mix here for the funky, earthy notes and the light but dry notes but whatever it is I sure as hell enjoyed it.  Personally I loved the big,bold flavours from the "Smoke & a pancake" but a little does go a long way so tread lightly if adding it to your own blend.

Overall this was a fast,easy and enjoyable experience that let me create my own unique rum, something I've always wanted to do but have never had the mechanism to do so before. Yes there is the risk that you won't like what you create but there is that risk with any bottle you buy and at least with this you can pour someone a glass of a rum that is uniquely and unmistakeably your own.


Saturday 27 June 2015

Jefferson's Extra Fine Dark Rum - A Northern oddity

Caribbean rum..from Whitehaven?
For a drink so intimately associated with the tropical climes of the Caribbean rum has a long history in the UK.

From the centuries of tradition behind London's Smith & Cross to the upstart Dark Matter in Banchory the booze reaches across the centuries.

Wandering the rum selection at Royal Mile Whiskies I came across this interesting looking bottle, at £27 it didn't really scream "buy me" but one of the staff recommended it so I figured why not?

Whitehaven in Cumbria is a historic trading port, merchants imported tobacco from their holdings in Virginia until the American War of Independence saw them pushed out and into the Caribbean where sugar and its byproduct rum started to be traded back to the mother country. The Jefferson's, distantly related to US founding father Thomas Jefferson started shipping rum in 1785 from their Yeaman estate in Antigua, hence the name of this rum. Over the years the Jeffersons expanded their booze empire and were the suppliers of fine wines & spirits to White Star Lines, owners of the ill fated RMS Titanic.

I've been able to find very, very little information about this rum, the bottle describes it as
"an impressive marriage of two classic rum styles aged in oak casks to impart a complex balance of flavours"
which is nice, but doesn't say what those two styles are or how long it's been aged! From what I can glean the spirit is imported from the Caribbean then blended and aged in a bonded warehouse in Liverpool.

Once you pour a glass of this and give it a swirl you see the long, long legs and get a pungent, slightly grassy hit of toffee & nuts. This is clearly heavy on the pot still distillate and has some similarities to Smith & Cross  on the nose but is a tamer 40% ABV.

A sip gives you an initial light toffee and nutty, banana-y notes follow with dark chocolate and slightly burnt treacle edge to things, the mouthfeel is thick and chewy, you can feel it coating your mouth but then it gets a little thin as you swallow it, likely due to the young age and/or some column still making its way into the blend. Most likely it's a bit of both, column distillate is relatively expensive so a cheaper column distilled rum can help keep costs down while also adding lightness to the rum.

It's certainly warm on the way down but stops short of being harsh and there's a lingering after-taste of stewed bananas.

It works perfectly pleasantly with coke but trying it in a treacle is really impressive, there's a real depth of flavour that makes for a particularly good cocktail.

All in all this is a good buy for the price and something a bit different.

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Dark Matter Spiced Rum - science for the win!

Spiced rum, the creator of myriad student hangovers, a drink that somehow takes the word "spiced" to mean "a ton of synthetic vanilla".  With a few, very few, honourable exceptions I'm not a fan of the breed.  Into this market, dominated as it is by the nautical themed behemoths that are Captain Morgan's Spiced and Kraken comes Dark Matter.

Founded by brothers Jim and John Ewen this new micro-distillery based in Banchory in North-East Scotland is about as far as you can get from the "yo-ho-ho" "but why is the rum gone?" marketing that predominates in the rum world both in approach and geography.

Taking a scientific approach to the rum making process the brothers spent two years experimenting with different yeast strains and indeed isolated a local wild strain of yeast in an effort to perfect their product. After changes to the tax laws made micro-distilleries more economically viable they spotted that while new gin distilleries are popping up everywhere there was no-one else distilling their own rum.  

Working with a custom still that is designed to give lots of lovely copper contact to the liquid the brothers have started their portfolio with this spiced rum at £35 for a 70cl bottle at 40% ABV. Made using the highest purity molasses available in a custom built distillery this is obviously going for a more discerning drinker, the type of consumer that has helped fuel the craft beer and micro-distilling explosion in recent years.  

Firstly I have to say I love the bottle design, it's simple, it's clean and it's distinctive bearing the statement:
"Our curiosity drives us while science inspires us. Combining knowledge and imagination we obsessively pursue flavour through systematic study, observation and experiment."

Now many a lovely bottle has been let down by a poor liquid but opening a bottle of Dark Matter you're immediately hit by, well, spice. Ginger and cloves mixed with stewed fruits give an immediate warmth.

That ginger comes to the fore on the first sip followed by pepper and a soft chilli and the fruit mellows everything out to create a very well balanced drink. 

There's a very pleasant lingering aftertaste and this goes down very, very smoothly for a rum that must be very young indeed given their first distillation was only in April.

Some of the depth and complexity of flavour comes from borrowing a technique from the bourbon world. As the molasses is fermented some of the liquid that is left in the still after distillation is added back to increase the complexity of flavours produced, bourbon fans will recognise this as "sour mashing".

This is a very, very impressive rum indeed, a spiced rum that is truly spicy, that can be sipped easily.  Innovation and craft like this should be applauded. 

What a rum aged in the Aberdeenshire climate will turn out like I'm very keen to find out and also look forward to the white rum that is in the pipeline.

This is an excellent purchase that I truly did not expect to enjoy as much as I did. 

Monday 18 May 2015

Captain Morgan's White

It’s strange to think of a £45bn company like Diageo as an underdog but with the global spirits and
beer behemoth taking on Bacardi in the white rum market then Diageo really is the Rocky to the
Puerto Rican Ivan Drago, pretty intimidating on its own but dwarfed by the opposition.
Morgan's White Daiquiri

Captain Morgan boasted the 2nd highest sales figures for rum in 2013 selling 10.3m cases but this is dwarfed by Bacardi’s 19.1m.  As the spirits market becomes ever more competitive both companies seem to be taking aim at the other's areas of strength, Bacardi have expanded their range to offer more premium sipping rums with the Facundo range while the Captain Morgan’s range has seen some interesting innovations lately from the frankly awful sounding Tattoo, the flavoured parrot bay and the actually rather good private stock.

The folks at Diageo look to be trying to either pull in new rum drinkers from the vodka sector or have something for your standard Captain Morgan’s drinker to move onto as their tastes mature.

Now as you'll have been hard-pressed to have avoided the recent ad campaign's for Captain Morgan's with the mandatory images of swashbuckling, busty wenches and so on it's interesting to remember that Captain Morgan was an actual historical figure, albeit one where history has definitely been written by the victors (and polished by the Diageo marketing department).
Henry Morgan:
adventurer, sailor, kind of a dick

Henry Morgan certainly lived a long and varied life rising from his Welsh roots to be, variously, a privateer, a pirate, an Admiral in the Royal Navy and Governor of Jamaica and amassed a fortune of around £10m in today’s money from raiding Spanish interests from Cuba to Panama.

A privateer is basically a licensed pirate, carrying a Letter of Marque from a government which typically detailed where they could operate and against which nation’s shipping, pirates on the other hand went wherever and raided whoever they felt would be most profitable.   From a victim’s point of view any difference would be fairly academic when armed men are swarming your boat and stealing anything that isn’t nailed down.  Certainly Morgan had a reputation for using torture to extract information and, had be been captured by the Spanish probably would have been swiftly executed.

For a fascinating read about the golden age of piracy that discusses Captain Henry Morgan, Blackbeard et al I cannot recommend Colin Woodard’s “The Republic of Pirates”  highly enough.

White rums live and die on how they are as a mixer, with very few exceptions they're not sippable nor are they designed to be and Captain Morgan's White is no different in this respect. Taking a sip neat is a little harsh, with a soft sweetness and a tiny bit of vanilla and funk on the back end, this is apparently aged for a year in barrels to take a bit of the edge off it which, while it has certainly softened it you're under no illusions this is aged for any significant length of time.

Where I was very impressed though is in a daiquiri (more on this glorious cocktail here).  Using a 10:3:2 ratio of rum/lime/sugar from the ever excellent Difford's Guide the slight funkiness of the rum is cut through nicely with the lime and the absence of the coconut aftertaste that, for me, dominates Bacardi superior makes for a very refreshing cocktail, at 40% it holds up well enough to the sugar and lime to give a bit of bite.

It will be interesting to see how this expression fares, the spiced is already ubiquitous and other white rums such as Havana Club are also nipping at Bacardi's heels.  Price-wise I would expect this to be on a par with Bacardi at the £18 a bottle mark or so

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Rum World Cup - Last Rum Standing

It's hard work sometimes
2015 saw 40 hardy competitors drawn from across the globe compete in the inaugural Edinburgh Rum World cup organised by the fine people at Kilderkin

A supreme athletic endeavour over three months saw each rum blind tasted and scored for aroma, taste and finish in an alcoholic version of Battle Royale (but with rum instead of Japanese teenagers).

Kilderkin, Bennets, Skean Dhu, the Blue Blazer and the Windsor Buffet each served two  flights of four rums a piece at the very friendly price of £8 a flight

To keep things reasonably fair the organisers tried to keep the rums to an average of 8 years old, a tricky endeavour given the loose age statements on certain rums.

Given the  titanic amounts of rum consumed over the period the top 7 rums were re-tasted and re-scored on Easter Sunday before the final identity of the winners (and losers) were revealed.

The top 7 rums were revealed to be (position prior to re-tasting in brackets)....

1 - Pampero Aniversario - Venezuela  (1)

2 - Captain Bligh XO - St Vincent  (4)

2 - Ron Milonario Solera 15 - Peru  (3)

2 -  Ron Zacapa 23 - Guatemala (2)

5 -  English Harbour 5yo - Antigua (6)

6 - Chairman's Reserve - Forgotten Casks - St Lucia  (5)

7 -  Appleton Estate 8yo - Jamaica  (7)

The big surprise was Captain Bligh which for a rum that retails at £28 a bottle beat some illustrious names to claim joint second place and Old Monk of India hitting 10th place while a personal favouite like Pusser's Blue Label only managed 19th place.

While it's a tricky thing to compare these spirits, given some are more aimed at the sipping market and others at mixing (or drain cleaning in the case of Stroh) it was a lot of fun and an interesting experiment in just how much your perception of a spirit is influenced by packaging, price etc.

The other nations and their positions were:

8 - Angostura 1919 - Trinidad & Tobago 
9 - Bacardi 8yo - Puerto Rico 
10 - La Mauny XO - Martinique 
10 - Old Monk - India 
12 - Gosling Black Seal - Bermuda 
12 - Fair 5yo - Belize 
14 - Mount Gay XO - Barbados
14 - Barbancourt 5 Star - Haiti 
16 - Abuelo 7yo - Panama 
17 - Flor de Cana 7yo - Nicaragua 
17 - Cruzan Single Barrel - St Croiz 
19 - Pusser's Blue Label - British Virgin Islands 
20 - Cubay Anejo - Cuba 
21 - Mekhong - Thailand 
22 - Cadenhead's Green Label - Brazil 
23 - Papagayo White - Paraguay 
24 - La Hechicera - Colombia 
25 - El Dorado 8yo - Guyana 
25 - Seven Fathoms - Cayman 
27 - Alchemist - Guadeloup 
28 - Pyrat XO - Anguilla 
29 - Don Papa - Phillipines 
30 - Berry Bros & Rudd - Grenada 
31 - Flamboyant - Mauritius 
32 - Cadenhead's Straight from cask in store - Scotland 
33 - Montanya Oro - USA 
34 - Ryoma 7yo - Japan 
35 - Ron Prohibido Solera 12 - Mexico 
36 - Bundaberg - Australia 
37 - Brugal Extra Viejo - Dominican Republic 
38 - Jefferson's 1785 Dark Rum - England 
38 - Berry Bros & Rudd - Fiji
40 - Stroh - Austria 

If you do ever find yourself in Edinburgh and in need of some rummy goodness I really can't recommend any of the bars that participated in this highly enough.

Wednesday 25 February 2015

23 things only a Smith & Cross rum drinker will get!

Apparently BuzzFeed listicles replete with gifs are mandatory now, so here's mine

1 - Smith & Cross is tasty