One of the continuing themes of this blog is a sentence at the start vaguely conforming to a pattern of ‘One of the boozes I don’t know well is X and it was lovely when Y asked me along to try some for REASON Z’. So, assume that I’ve done that again with X=light rum, Y=The London Cocktail Society and REASON Z is basement bar Bourne & Hollingsworth choosing their house pouring rum, and we can then move on from this opening paragraph.
Despite having heard a bit about it over the last year or so I’d still not made it over to Bourne & Hollingsworth and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The reviews seem rather polarised, with complaints about it getting packed leading to long waits at the bar (justified – it’s a small room with a small bar, with most of the space taken up by an open area for people to mill around in front of the bar) and that they charge too much for drinks which generally are distinguished by being served in teacups (unjustified – if you are going to a decent cocktail bar in London and are complaining about paying £7.50 for a cocktail no matter what type of receptacle it’s served in then you are probably in the wrong kind of bar. Bourne & Hollingsworth’s drinks quality certainly push it into the £7 a go bracket of London cocktail bars). It’s small and a great place, I suspect, on weekdays, but based on a Saturday night I can see it quickly turning into my idea of packed bar hell. But then again, I do hate people…
The London Cocktail Society’s role was a simple one – find a discerning crowd of cocktail drinkers to come down to the bar on a Saturday night and then taste their way through the candidates for the new house pouring rum – Ron Barcelo, Flor de Caña and El Dorado. To add a bit more competitiveness to the evening we were also joined by brand ambassadors from two of the three rums, with bar boss Dino Koletsas taking on the role of El Dorado’s rep, who couldn’t make it along that night. Along with the three in contention we also had a glass of Mount Gay Eclipse, their current golden pouring rum.
We started the evening with Dino giving us a history of rum. I’ve wittered about this before (and have at least one other post in the pipe with yet another history attached) so I won’t go into it much other than to mention a couple of specific pieces that have somehow not come up in previous tastings I’ve been to. First up is the slave trade. I’m not sure how this hadn’t appeared quite so strongly on my radar before, but it’s been part of every discussion about rum I’ve had since. The Caribbean and its sugar plantations were not only the centre of the rum trade but also of the use of slaves, and rum was connected with it not only through production but also as a key part of trade. Rum was used as currency to buy slaves but was also used to fill the holds of ships before they departed eastwards again, making sure that there was never an empty hold going to waste. More research needed.
Secondly is the effect of prohibition on rum production in North America. I hadn’t realised that there were a good number of rum distilleries in the USA before the Volstead act came into force, but the rise of the Temperance movement and the various other backgrounds reasons for Prohibition hit the US and rum fell by the wayside. This led to a strong trade between the Caribbean and South American countries and the US, now that there was little domestic rum production. However, Prohibition killed that, on the legal end of things at least, and led to a large amount of smuggling of rum into the US. This was easier than with many spirits due to the land border with Mexico meaning that it wasn’t necessary to ship booze in by land and sea.The post-prohibition cocktail boom was led by the poor quality of spirits, with drinks combinations originally designed to hide the flavours of bad booze, but rum quickly returned as a premium spirit and a key element of many cocktails.
Thirdly was a reason behind one of the evolutions in rum styles over time. In earlier rum production the use of pot stills and inconsistent product led to heavy aging in an attempt to produce a drinkable spirit, which gives us the world of dark and golden rums on the market. However, the switch to continuous distillation and modern quality control allowed lighter styles of rum to be produced, leading to the popularity of white rum as a spirit category. That bit of exposition leads into the plan for the evening – try out three quite different white rums and choose which one we thought the bar should be stocking.
We started off with Ron Barcelo Gran Platinum, a relatively new rum to the UK market that I had appear on my desk a couple of weeks back to put up on our website. It’s from the Dominican Republic, where there are currently three main rum producers – Brugal, Ron Bermudas and Ron Barcelo. It’s a family a owned company founded by a pair of Majorcan brothers, Julian and Andreas, who set up a distillery in 1929 in the town of San Domingo. Then in 1930, just as they were getting going, the island was hit by a massive hurricane which destroyed the town and the distillery. Andreas gave up on the place as a bad deal and moved to Puerto Rico but Julian stayed on and started selling rum made by other people. For 16 years he travelled round the island selling from the back of his truck until he’d raised enough money for a new distillery, which was built in 1946 by the Osama river. By 1980 his rum was the most popular in the Dominican Republic, overtaking its older competitors, and in 1982 Julian died leaving the company to his son José. He started growing the business internationally, exporting to the USA and Spain with the success helped along by the 1980s rum boom and Mojitos flying off the backbar. By 1994 they were exporting to 10 countries and by 2009 (with some extra Spanish investment helping them along the way) they’d reached 50 countries.
The UK range consists of 4 rums:
* Añejo – aged up to 6 years
* Gran Añejo – aged up to 8 years
* Imperial – aged up to 10 years
* Gran Platinum – aged up to 8 years
All the rums are agricole style, made from sugar cane juice rather than molasses, and the cane growing, rum production and bottling all happens in the Dominican Republic. They distill in a continuous still and take the spirit off at 96.3%, producing about 50k litres per day. The rum is aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels (Heaven Hill?) for at least 18 months, 6 months longer than the Dominican legal minimum of 1 year.
The Gran Platinum is the most recent addition to the range, introduced into the Dominican Republic in 2009 and the UK earlier this year. It is a response the continued rise of rum as a cocktail ingredient, often calling for a lighter flavoured and coloured rum that won’t dominate the palate or alter the look of the drink too much. It is a version of the Gran Añejo filtered through charcoal before bottling to remove the colour as well as some of the heavier flavours picked up from the wood. On the nose it was very light, with pithy lemon and vodka like spiritiness. To taste there was more, with sweet coconut and a buttery, silky mouthfeel – all in all a reminiscent of a lightly sweetened coconut vodka.
The second rum was from Flor de Caña – a Nicaraguan rum, but made in the lighter Cuban style. The distillery is in the north-west of the country in Chichigulpa and was built in the 1890s to produce rums under a number of different names. In the 1950s they started producing Flor de Caña for the local market, moving to export in the 1990s. The company is family owned and the current master distiller has been with them for 39 years, his predecessor ‘only’ having managed 30… As one of the major industries in the area they have put quite a lot back into the local economy, investing in schools and hospitals as well as building industries around the by-products of rum distillation, including paper mills and electricity plants.
The Nicaraguan climate is quite different to the Caribbean, drier and cooler, which gives it more similar yearly evaporation rates of maturing spirit to Scotland – ~3% per year as opposed to ~10% on the islands. This allows Flor de Caña to be matured for longer without getting too woody – while maturation in wooden casks in hot climates is often referred to as ‘maturing’ the spirit faster, it’s only allowing the wood to have an affect faster, which isn’t quite the same: John Hansell made some comments recently about this on his blog. However, the country does also have quite a big variation between day and nighttime temperatures, which causes the porous casks to work more actively than usual, with the spirit being driven in and out of the wood as it expands and contracts as the temperature changes. All of this gives Flor de Caña a good chance to develop interesting flavours during its years in the barrel.
The way that the Flor de Caña rums are named and produced is also slightly different, with each rum being blended in small 20-30 barrel batches from casks of the same age – in other words, if the rum is listed as being a 12 year old, all of the rum in it is 12 years old. In order to keep flavour consistent between batches they use warehouse location to change the way that the rums develop – different heights up the rack in different parts of different warehouses will give different temperatures and humidities leading to enough variation in the finished rums to allow the master blender scope to create the flavour profile they need. In another difference to the maturation of many other rums they top up the barrels each year, replacing the spirit that has evaporated with more similarly aged spirit to keep the headspace in the barrel low to stop an acceleration in evaporation by keeping the surface area in contact with air to a minimum.
The rum is based on molasses and they distill to a lowish 78-80% to retain some of the cane spirit’s flavour. They then use a mixture of 80% bourbon barrels from Heaven Hill and 20% Canadian whiskey barrels to mature the rums for their regular range between 4 and 18 years. They make both a white and gold 4 year old and then 7, 12, 15 and 18 year old rums bottled with no artificial colouring or other additives, and dilute to bottling strength with local water.
We were trying the filtered 4 year old, the white rum in their line-up – similar to the golden 4 year old that it’s based on, but with less of the woodiness as well as none of the colour. On the nose there was coconut again like with the Ron Barcelo, but it was joined with butter and limey citrus. To taste it was lightly sweet with banana cream, coconut and a touch of sweet liquorice.
Third on the list was El Dorado, from Guyana. There’s quite a lot of rum heritage in Guyana, starting with the British settlement of areas near the Demerera river in the mid-1700s and continuing to the present day. Sugar cane and rum production both need water and trade routes, making the river regions perfect and distilleries sprung up all over the place. The British left in 1966 and over time the distilleries and sugar plantations combined until the 1980s, when the remaining distilleries consolidated under the banner of the state owned Demerera Distillers Ltd. This consolidation did lead to the closing of many distilleries, but their distilling equipment was packed up and moved to one location, allowing them to produce rums of all the various styles that were once produced across all the distilleries.
El Dorado is molasses based, using local sugar cane, and has a 22-26 hour fermentation using an introduced cultured yeast rather than the spontaneous fermentation that some distillers use. Their blends are made up of rums from a couple of the many stills at the Demerera distillery, maybe even including spirit from their wooden still, the last one still in use in the Caribbean today.
We were trying the 3 year old, which is matured for at least 3 years in Kentucky whiskey barrels and is then double charcoal filtered, to remove colour and some of the heavier flavours, and then bottled. On the nose it had banana, sweet fruit and caramel. To taste it had milk, sour cream, sugar and coconut – a similar but much bigger flavour than the last three.
To round out the tasting we also tried the Mount Gay Eclipse, Bourne and Hollingsworth’s current house pour golden rum. I have a bit of a history with Mount Gay, as in my rum drinking days (before I got so heavily into whisky) it was my standard tipple and the first years of my working life were fuelled by late night Paramount comedy channel programmes and Mount Gay Old Fashioneds – still one of my favourite drinks of all time.
Mount Gay is from Barbados and claims to be the oldest rum brand in the world, tracing its heritage back to 1703 (even though it may have been renamed to Mount Gay in the late 1700s). It’s named after Sir John Gay Alleyne, owner of the distillery in the mid-1700s, who later became an MP in the Bajan government and Speaker of the House. It is the biggest rum in Barbados and one of the only ones exported from the island, although there are a bunch of locally distributed spirits as well. They produce a variety of rums, but we stuck with the standard golden expression – Eclipse. On the nose it had vanilla, honey, fruit stones and demerera sugar, with a palate of cream, caramel, pepper, ginger and a bitter end. Still one of my favourite rums, although as I try more brands I am being tempted away.
Having tasted the rums we were invited to cross the barstaffs’ palms with silver and order one of a number of drinks that they’d put on for the night, each with a user-selectable rum component to allow us to compare the different spirits in a cocktail as well as neat – as Bourne & Hollingsworth are a cocktail bar mixability is rather important. Before trying the cocktails we discussed how thought the rums would perform and came up with our predictions:
* The Barcelo was lightly flavoured, so would be easier to make cocktails with, as the flavour would not overpower the other ingredients.
* The Flor de Cana was tastier on its own but might not work so well in all rum cocktails.
* The El Dorado was a great sipping rum, but its strong flavours would clash in a mixed drink.
We decided to stick with the Flor de Cana and El Dorado as we thought the Barcelo would get a bit lost. First up we tried The Airmail – rum shaken with lemon juice and acacia honey, topped up with champagne. This was a bit of a washout on the rum front, with the champagne and lemon killing all of the others flavours and giving us a sweet and citrusy fizzy drink in a flute. We followed it with a Rum Cobbler – rum and port stirred with lemon juice, liqueurs and fruit, served in a tin cup over crushed ice. This was much more successful and despite my initial guess that the Flor de Cana would win here the El Dorado sang, with its creamy taste and texture adding rather a lot to the cocktail. After a bit of discussion it looked like it wasn’t only the Cobbler that suited the El Dorado and I duly cast my vote for it. We’re still waiting for the results but scuttlebutt suggests that the El Dorado was the overwhelming winner – a noble victory.
Many thanks to Kate from the LCS for organising, Dino from Bourne & Hollingsworth for making it happen, and Joel from Lovedrinks and the lady from Amathus whose name I’ve forgotten (Auror? My notes are rubbish) for the talks about their drinks.