Having recently inventoried and loosely categorized my ever-growing rum collection in a spreadsheet (because that’s what wonks do), it’s no surprise that Jamaican rums are among the best represented on my shelves. Why the love affair with Jamaican rum? Distilleries in Jamaica use “muck”–a big slug of bacteria grown in pits in the ground (stay with me here), that when added to the fermenting molasses creates tons of chemical compounds known as esters, rendering the rum full of fruity, banana funk, also known as “hogo.” You may have heard muck referred to as “dunder” — they’re related but not exactly the same thing. No other style of rum comes close to this particular character, and I can’t get enough Jamaican rum in my life.
Beyond the household name Jamaican brands (Appleton and Myers), it takes a bit more work to hunt down lesser known brands like Smith & Cross, Coruba, and Wray & Nephew – they’re available, just maybe not at your corner liquor store. Once those are in your possession, however, it gets exponentially harder to add to your Jamaican collection, often requiring international trips or friends shipping you limited releases. Thus, I’m excited that the Mezan line of rums, including two Jamaicans, is finally available here in the U.S., brought to us by Niche Import Co. Here I’ll take a wonky look at the Mezan Jamaica XO, batch 8146, provided to me for review.
While I’d heard of Mezan rums previously, until researching this review I wasn’t familiar with their backstory. Mezan is a UK-based independent bottler of rums; instead of making their own, they purchase from various distilleries, then continue to age and/or blend to create special releases. In the rum world, this is already somewhat common practice, with a number of independent bottlers–including Bristol, Cadenhead, Rum Nation, Berry Brothers & Rudd, and Plantation—doing the same thing.
Tracking down the Mezan story requires a bit of detective work, and the genesis of the brand is still not well documented in stories or interviews, but here’s what I’ve learned. More than a decade ago, a chap named Neil Mathieson began purchasing casks of rum in the Caribbean and shipping them home to England for additional aging. The original company (as best I can determine) was Spirimonde Ltd. More recently in 2012, another company, Eaux de Vie comes into the picture and is listed as the Mezan parent company. The common element is that Neil is the managing director. Neil is also a category chairman for the International Spirits Challenge for the “Brandy, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, Grappa and Pisco” category. A series of consolidations lead Eaux de Vie to become part of Marussia Beverages UK Ltd., itself a subsidiary of the Dutch-based Marussia Beverages BV, which owns a number of premium spirit brands including Mamont Vodka and Clos Martin Armagnac. (Update: See the end for additional information I learned from Neil after publishing this.)
Initially releasing in the UK market, Mezan has had a number of limited releases. With one exception (the Jamaican XO, which is a blend), Mezan releases are single distillery, single vintage bottlings– the 1999 Panama from Distilleria Don Jose, for example, which I acquired on our most recent UK trip, and which is simply divine. Mezan emphasizes that all their rums are “Unblended, unsweetened, uncolored, and only lightly filtered,” which I heartily applaud. Give it to me straight!
The traditional categorization of rums commonly used in cocktail recipes (e.g. dark, silver, aged) is completely useless to anyone but a newbie consumer; a clear Bacardi rum tastes nothing at all like a clear agricole-style rum. But even specifying “Jamaican rum” leaves far too much ambiguity when targeting a specific flavor.
Here’s how I break down the Jamaican rums: The mid-tier Appleton lineup (Signature, Reserve, and 12) are quite enjoyable, but are conservative, targeting broader appeal via a less hogo-centric profile. The Dark Jamaican rums from Coruba and Myers are inexpensive, heavily colored, and have flavorings added – fine for mixing punches, but not what I’d call a fine Jamaican rum. The unaged overproofs, such as Wray & Nephew and Rum Fire, are off the charts in funk but not much in the way of refinement – great in a Tiki drink but not so much in an Old Fashioned.
Of all the Jamaican rums, the most interesting to me are the aged, full-funk Jamaicans. Here in the U.S., Smith & Cross, a blend of rums rumored to be from Hampden Estate, has achieved beloved status among rum cocktail enthusiasts. It’s decently priced and powerfully flavored. The K&L Faultline Jamaican Rum (also from Hampden Estate), falls into this category too, as does Bristol Classic Rums 2002 Bristol Vale Royal Wedderburn (also squired home as suitcase booze on our last jaunt to London). These are the more upscale, refined Jamaicans, and Mezan Jamaica XO fits solidly within this group. Let’s take a closer look.
The Mezan Jamaica XO is bottled at 80 proof and is a blend of rums from Jamaican distilleries. Prior batches of this rum are a blend of Hampden and Monymusk distilleries; I’m still trying to verify the distilleries for this batch. The clear bottle, common to all Mezan releases, shows off the medium straw color of the rum. The plastic screw cap (also common to all Mezan bottlings) is an unusual choice for a category dominated by cork stoppers, but at least it’s not a cheap, stamped metal cap like low-end rums. The front label says “… a pungent nose with fresh banana and sweet spice and a surprisingly light palate that shows complex spice with hints of tobacco.” The back label declares that the bottle is part of a 5,000 bottle batch and that “Each batch of Mezan XO is re-aged following blending to encourage the marriage of flavors and enhance the structure and subtlety of the rum.” The additional aging is done in ex-bourbon barrel casks.
Pouring a bit into a glass, the nose is wonderful and very representative of the Jamaican style — banana and sweeter fruit. Taking a sip, I immediately notice the light, round mouth feel. After a few seconds the flavor intensifies with a banana explosion, and a moderate alcohol burn comes into play, however, I don’t pick up the tobacco notes that the label refers to. It’s readily apparent, as the label says, that this rum hasn’t been sweetened. It doesn’t need it – it’s thoroughly enjoyable just the way it is.
In my opinion, the closest comparable rum to the Mezan Jamaican XO here in the US is Smith & Cross. Both are blends, rather than single vintage, and are similarly priced at around $35. The crucial difference is that Smith & Cross, at 114 proof, is less dilute so is naturally more pungent and estery. The Mezan appears to have spent more time in the barrel (exact details are hard to come by), and tastes more refined.
The Mezan Jamaica XO should be in the collection of any Jamaican rum devotee. It’s very reasonable priced for the value found within the bottle. While bottling it at 80 proof yields more bottles from a limited number of casks and makes it more broadly available, for something as delightful as the Mezan Jamaica XO, it would be incredible if a cask-strength version were to be released. Between the Jamaica XO, the Panama 1999, and a few other Mezans I tasted at Rum Renaissance, I’m now determined to collect as much of the Mezan lineup as I can get my hands on.
6/10/2015 Update: After publishing this, I heard back from Neil Mathieson who generously shared more details about the Jamaica XO, my desires for an overproof version, and the Mezan brand backstory. Briefly:
- The Jamaican XO source distilleries will vary from batch to batch.
- When blending, there’s a “base” blend that makes up the dominant share of the rum, and as well as higher potency “dressing” rums added to augment the base flavor profile.
- The Jamaica XO base rums are a blend of light to medium ester rums. After blending they’re re-casked at 65% ABV in ex-bourbon barrels.
- The dressing “...varies depending on the development of the base but can include rums which exhibit a much greater degree of oxygenated flavour or those that have come on quicker in the second casking.“
- When creating rums for drinking straight, Neil finds it difficult to go higher than the 40-43% range.
- The higher the esters in a rum, the less likely he is to taste the rums at over 40%, even the cask samples.
- Eaux de Vie is the distribution arm, and has been around since the 1980s. Spirimonde was started to manage bulk spirits in aging cellars, and is the actual bottler of the Mezan rums.
- Neil did release some overproof rums before 2000, and perhaps more will be forthcoming.