Checking out Afrohead XO Rum

Unless you’re a spirits aficionado, you might not know about blending and the role of the “master blender.” And it might be a surprise to you that, say, a seven year bourbon isn’t simply liquor that sat in a barrel for seven years before it was bottled, straight from the barrel. It’s also not generally known that the identical spirit, when placed in different barrels and stored in different locations, may end up tasting radically different. The role of the master blender is twofold:  To either create a new flavor profile, or work to create a consistent taste, year after year. In the second case, a master blender must be so familiar with an existing product that, working from the available barrels that a distillery has at hand, he or she can determine the precise amounts and ratios of spirit from various barrels to create the flavors that a brand’s supporters have come to know and love. Very few people–with exceptional palates–can do this exacting work. Toby Tyler of Afrohead Rums is one such practitioner.
A few months back I received a bottle of the new Afrohead Premium Aged Dark Rum (“seven-year”) for review. I put it through its paces, wrote my review, and figured that was the end of the story – on to the next rum. In my review of the Afrohead seven-year, I compared it to Angostura’s seven-year rum and found them very similar in flavor profile. After posting my review, the Afrohead PR firm asked if I was interested in trying out the fifteen-year X0. But of course! As luck had it, Miami Rum Renaissance was coming up very soon, and Afrohead was exhibiting. Perfect timing for me to dig in and learn more.

Afrohead booth at Rum Renaissance 2015 in Miami
I won’t repeat the entire Afrohead backstory from my previous review, but here are the essentials: A few years back, Joe Farrell and Toby Tyler, co-owners of The Landing, a hotel on Harbor Island, Bahamas, created a house-rum blend using rum from Angostura Distillers in Trinidad. More recently, an investment group set up the Harbour Island Rum Company in Nokomis, Florida, to import the rum into the US. Currently Afrohead offers two rums: The seven-year and the XO, aged for fifteen years.
Toby Tyler, Cocktail Wonk, Joe Farrell at Miami Rum Renaissance 2015
Immediately upon entering the Rum Renaissance show the first day, the large Afrohead booth jumped out and demanded attention. I immediately spotted Joe and Toby (I’d seen photos) and headed over for what would be a lengthy conversation, where I got answers to all sorts of questions I’d had after my review of the seven-year, as well as learning more in advance of this review of the XO.
Toby Tyler at Angostura Distillery (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
Blending room at the Angostura Distillery (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
First and foremost on my mind was the similarity between the Afrohead seven and Angostura seven. Toby (Afrohead’s master blender) told me of his experiences at the Angostura blending laboratory where he worked side-by-side with Angostura’s master blender to create both the seven-year and the X0 blend. At one point he grabbed his iPhone to show me pictures of his more recent trip (a few of which he has generously supplied for inclusion in this post); Toby was at Angostura last July and will go back again soon. Once he develops his exact flavor profile, the blenders at Angostura will replicate it, but Toby still visits the blending house to confirm that each batch is consistent with what he believes the Afrohead expressions should taste like. One thing Toby emphasized several times during our meeting is that the Afrohead rums have a very “clean” finish, with no added sugar and very little palate fatigue after repeated tastings. I have to agree with Toby in that regard – the finish is very clean.
Sample bottle at the Angostura Distiller (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
Another thing I learned in my meeting with Toby and Joe Farrell is that the Afrohead line is well-funded and positioned for growth. Joe told me that many beverage executives visit The Landing and have wanted to take the Afrohead rum to the US market in the past. Eventually, a deal was struck with a group of investors with extensive beverage industry experience. A little internet searching turns up that two of the three Harbour Island Rum Company executives have worked as high-level executives for Bacardi and are now working with “beverage alcohol startups” like Afrohead. One of the investors in the Harbour Island had previously invested in the company behind Angel’s Envy whiskey, which was recently acquired by Bacardi. It was quite evident from the Afrohead booth events at Rum Renaissance that Harbour Island Rum Company has the backing to spend a significant amount of money to make a splash in the US market.
Afrohead seven-year and Afrohead XO
With the company preliminaries behind, let’s take a look at the Afrohead XO, with callouts to the differences between it and the seven-year.
The XO bottle’s glass is identical to the seven-year. However, while the seven-year bottle is clear, showcasing the contents, the X0 bottle is opaque from a matte black paint (or similar) covering. The stopper fits the bottle, creating somewhat of a challenge to remove – I noticed this with the seven-year as well. The striking Afrohead logo (a woman with a very large head of air intermeshed with visual symbols) is, at a distance, visually the same on both the seven-year and XO, but up close the XO’s label is a nicer, heavily embossed foil. Whereas the seven-year bottle’s front label has latitude/longitude coordinates for The Landing on Harbour Island, on the XO bottles is an “X” overlaid with a “’15.” The backs of both bottles show the identical “Universally inspired, authentically crafted” Afrohead origin story.
The X0 weighs in at 43 percent ABV (86 proof), a tad higher than the seven-year’s 40 percent ABV. Pouring a bit into a glass, I noted that the color is very similar to the seven-year: medium to dark copper. The nose is inviting – it smells of “serious rum” with woody tones. The taste immediately brings to mind many years in heavily charred barrels, caramel, and a slight hint of smoke. Tasting the seven-year and XO side by side, the seven-year starts out lighter, fruitier, and slightly ephemeral, while the X0 dives down to darker wood and caramel tones. After the X0 fades away, my tongue still feels fresh, ready to go again immediately. The viscosity of the XO doesn’t suggest to me that sugar was added, as some rums do.
The Afrohead seven-year and X0 are obviously cut from similar cloth, but there are clear differences. As a sipper, the X0 is much more interesting. At about $60 retail, this is a bit on the more expensive side (there are plenty of good sipping rums in the $40-$60 range). In fairness, the closest obvious comparison to the Afrohead XO is Angostura 1824, a 12-year from the same distillery that retails for around $80, so suddenly the 15-year Afrohead seems reasonably priced. If you’re a fan of Trinidad style of rum with a lot of aging, and that doesn’t break the bank, the Afrohead XO is a solid choice.

Checking out Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch, A Most Unusual Canadian Rye

As a cocktail wonk, I’m constantly expanding my spirits library, building an essential set of specimens representing the major spirits categories. My whisk(e)y collection has grown steadily, with dozens of bourbon, American rye, scotch, and Irish whiskey expressions. Inexplicably however, no bottles from Canada, our neighbor to the north and a whisky powerhouse on the world stage. I’ll confess that this was partially the result of my perception (widespread it seems) that Canadian whisky is composed of mostly spirits distilled to a very high alcohol percentage (thus stripping out most of the flavor), along with a bit of caramel and artificial flavoring

After seeing an announcement for the Seattle launch event of Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch, along with a host of well-respected Seattle bartenders participating, I decided that it was time to educate myself; the evening turned out to be highly educational, as I discovered a dark, complex rye with an unusual story (more on this below). I was also fortunate to meet Dan Tullio, Canadian Whisky Master Ambassador at Beam Suntory (who reminds me of a young Tony Bennett), and came home with a bottle of the Dark Batch to review here.

Continue reading “Checking out Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch, A Most Unusual Canadian Rye”

Checking out Amaro Lucano

 Several years ago, when I was a less-experienced cocktail wonk just starting with my spirits collection, I quickly ran head-first into the confusing category of amaros (aka amari), Italian for “bitter.” Amari are liqueurs created by infusing dozens of herbs and spices in alcohol, then sweetened and diluted to make them consumable neat–assuming you have a moderately adventurous palate. So many strange names– Campari, Ramazzotti, Gran Classico! So many unusual ingredients – gentian, cinchona bark, citrus peels, rhubarb, saffron! Where to begin? I quickly learned that collecting amaris, especially with so many hard-to-find bottles, can be an addicting and expensive habit. It’s a  bit like baseball cards were when I was a kid – once I had a few, I wanted the whole set which makes for a lot of bottles to track down. In this post we’ll take a close look at Amaro Lucano, a mainstream Italian amaro with a long history.

Continue reading “Checking out Amaro Lucano”

Getting in sync with Sauza 901: Justin Timberlake wants you to buy, buy, buy* his new tequila

With the rise of upscale artisanal tequilas like Partida, Fortaleza, and Suerte, the big tequila heavyweights like Jose Cuervo and Sauza have seen an opportunity (or threat) and released new products targeting an upmarket niche. A notable recent example is Patron, already considered upscale in some circles, with their release of the Roca line. Sauza, one of the big players, has gone the celebrity partner route, teaming up with Justin Timberlake as co-owners of Sauza 901. I was provided a bottle of Sauza 901 to review, so let’s take a wonky look at it.
Sauza is owned by Beam Suntory, putting it under the same corporate umbrella as Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Laphroaig, Cruzan rum, and Pinnacle vodka. The Sauza subsidiary comprises several well-known tequila brands, including Hornitos and Tres Generaciones, in addition to the base Sauza line.
Let’s address the obvious question first:  901 what? Apparently it references the telephone area code for Memphis, TN, Justin’s home town. 
The Sauza 901 bottle shape is visually striking – tall and slender with a sharp angled-face and curved back. Viewed from above you’ll find that the front half of the bottle is hexagonal (six-sided) while the back is circular. Fueled by enough Sauza 901, it starts to resemble a squashed cartoon rendition of the Millennium Falcon. Sauza’s rooster, a company symbol, makes two bottle appearances –on the front as a dime-sized image, and a much larger rendition dominating the reverse.
Inside the bottle is blanco (“silver”) tequila at the usual 80 proof. Unlike many tequila lines which offer blanco, reposado, and anejo versions, the Sauza 901 has a single blanco expression. The story starts with blue agave that’s reached at least seven years of age prior to harvest. A short fermentation process “prevents the development of off-notes and promotes more agave flavor.” Following fermentation, Sauza triple distills it, first in a column still and then twice through a pot still. (By regulation, tequila must be distilled at least twice.) The fermentation and distillation choices are somewhat surprising — I’ll come back to these later. Tequila regulations say a blanco tequila can be unaged or aged up to two months, but I wasn’t able to determine if the Sauza 901 spends any time in wood.
Pouring a bit into a tasting glass, the nose is subtle – a moderate hint of agave and not much more. Sipping reveals a very smooth, almost demure agave flavor. I struggled to pick out any flavors of significance beyond the base agave and slight floral note. I could easily imagine casual tequila drinkers sipping this over ice, as it doesn’t overwhelm, even sipped neat at room temperature. It’s very clean, smooth and subtle with a moderately short finish.
If you’re looking for pronounced flavors in your blanco tequila, the Sauza 901 isn’t the first bottle I’d point you toward.  For comparison purposes I tasted it side-by-side with Cabeza and Partida Blanco expressions. Both were significantly more intense in flavor: The Cabeza is more brash and peppery, and the Partida has a lush creaminess. While you can certainly mix with the Sauza 901, I can see bolder tastes such as lime, ginger, and bitters overwhelming its delicate flavor. It would play well in something like this Negroni variation, featuring only light-colored spirits:
El Negroni Amarillo
  • 2 oz Sauza 901
  • 1 oz sweet white vermouth (such as Dolin Blanc)
  • 0.5 oz Suze

Stir over ice, serve in chilled coupe, express orange peel, then drop in.
Having gone several rounds with the Sauza 901 and its marketing material, it seems the target market is not so much the spirits connoisseur looking for an intense, defining character. Instead, the promotional imagery focuses on Sauza 901 over ice in a fancy glass, rather than just another tequila for frozen margaritas. It also pumps up the #nolimesneeded hashtag, a reference to people using limes and salt to mask the rough-tasting, bottom shelf, rotgut tequila flavors you all remember from your college drinking days. For Cinco de Mayo this year, Sauza put out a humorous video (I laughed more than once) called “No limes needed,” starring Justin Timberlake himself as Rick “Sour” Vane, his head encased in a giant lime, bemoaning how the Sauza 901 has killed off the demand for limes after decades of being the number one cocktail condiment.  Never let it be said that Justin Timberlake won’t go all the way for a laugh.    (See also, “Dick in a Box.”)
From the perspective of a casual consumer, the Sauza 901’s production choices make sense:  A short distillation process produces fewer of the organic compounds that make up the flavors we perceive of as “fruity” or “creamy,” but those same compounds are also responsible for some of the more challenging flavors as well. Likewise, each additional distillation pass makes a spirit more pure and “smooth,” but also reduces their distinctive flavor. Distill enough times and you’ll end up with perfectly pure vodka–and literally no taste. The Sauza 901 tequila tilts toward the subtle and smooth, rather than brash and bold – it’s a pleasant lifestyle tequila designed for folks who perhaps want an alternative to vodka, with a moderate agave flavor without being overly assertive.
*You can blame Mrs. Wonk for the bad title pun. Though she wants it to be known that she has never, ever been an ’N Sync fan and only dances to “SexyBack” at the company Christmas party after she’s had a few craft cocktails.

Suitcase Rum: Elements Eight Gold Rum

As a US-based rum wonk. I’m constantly pining over all the interesting rum lines coming out of Europe, and especially England – a hotbed of rum going back to the 1600s. One brand I’d heard of numerous times was Elements Eight, primarily in reference to their spiced rum. So on a cold December day in late 2014 at The Vintage House in London, I found myself staring down a treasure trove of rums I couldn’t ordinarily get, and the Elements Eight Gold was one rum that went on my short list straightaway.

The Element Eights Rum Company is London-based, formed in 2005. It’s run by two spirit industry vets, Carl Stephenson and Andreas Redlefsen, both previously at J. Wray & Nephew, the company behind the well-known Appleton brand. Element’s primary market is the UK, although distribution to other counties (such as Spain, Germany and Canada) is growing, although sadly, they’re not in the US yet. Continue reading “Suitcase Rum: Elements Eight Gold Rum”

Checking out Afrohead’s Seven Year Rum

Mrs. Wonk and I spend more than our fair share of time in bars, where one of our pastimes is scanning the backbar and picking out most interesting and worst looking bottle, based solely on appearance. The Afrohead rum is one such bottle that grabs your attention. A recent arrival on US shores, the Afrohead rum line is produced by the Harbor Island Rum Co., out of the Bahamas. There are two bottlings, a seven year as well as a fifteen year “Grand Reserve” edition. The Afrohead rum line first came to my attention when I was provided a bottle of the seven year for review by their PR firm. The Afrohead rums are truly a multi-island affair: In addition to being based in the Bahamas, it incorporates molasses from the Dominican Republic, is distilled in Trinidad, and bottled in Barbados.

Continue reading “Checking out Afrohead’s Seven Year Rum”

Checking out Amaro di Angostura with a New Cocktail Recipe – The Gaspar Grande

Even non-cocktailians are aware of Angostura bitters, the ubiquitous bottle in bars everywhere with the oversized white label, which bartenders use like salt and pepper in all sorts of drinks. Recently, the Trinidad-based company took a bold step and released a new spirit — Amaro di Angostura. Unlike the brand’s well known orange and namesake Angostura bitters, the Amaro Di Angostura isn’t intended to be used just few dashes at a time. I was intrigued enough to contact Angostura USA’s PR firm and they graciously sent me a bottle to review.

First, consider the name. Per Wikipedia, an amaro is “an Italian herbal liqueur that is commonly drunk as an after-dinner digestif. It usually has a bitter-sweet flavor…” Using amaro in the name is an interesting choice – technically it’s correct usage, but may be confusing to people who don’t realize that amaro is a category of liqueurs, rather than a specific brand.

To truly understand Amaro Di Angostura, it’s first necessary to really grasp the flavor of Angostura bitters. Angostura bitters are typically used in small quantities as part of a cocktail, so many people would be hard pressed to describe the flavor in isolation. Taken straight, the Angostura bitters flavor is very strong and quite bitter (no surprise given the name), with gentian root, cinnamon, clove, and citrus flavors. The exact ingredients are a closely guarded recipe – supposedly only five people know the Angostura secret.

Here’s a fun fact I spring on people: Angostura Bitters are 90 proof, equal to that of your typical rum, gin, or whiskey, so it’s entirely possible to use it as a full-fledged spirit in a cocktail, rather than as an accent. Two house favorites that do exactly that are the TrinidadSour and the Port of Spain, each utilizing up to a 1/2 ounce or more of bitters. (Budget tip: Buy your Angostura bitters in the 16 oz. size. I have several such bottles in reserve at any given moment.) The deep red color of Angostura bitters also adds a wow factor to drinks that feature it in large quantities.

The marketing story of the Amaro Di Angostura unfolds like this: “… [We] combined Angostura® aromatic bitters with neutral spirit and added more spices until a magnificent herbal liqueur was created. The spirit, spices, and bitter herbs were mixed and then left to marry for 3 months.”  In short, Amaro Di Angostura is a combination of Angostura bitters, neutral spirits and more spices. Given that the House of Angostura also makes rum, the neutral sprit is likely rum distilled to a very high proof.

When I read this, my wonky senses lit up with questions: While Angostura Bitters are 90 proof, the Amaro di Angostura is 70 proof, so 10 percent less ABV by volume than the bitters. Yet if the description is to be believed, neutral spirits (at close to 190 proof) were added to the mix, presumably to aid in the extraction of flavors from the additional spices. To bring the proof down to 70, water must have been added–something not mentioned. What’s more, Amaro Di Angostura is sweeter than straight Angostura bitters, so some sort of sweetener, e.g. sugar, was likely added. This isn’t to say that Amaro Di Angostura isn’t a pleasure to drink – just that the marketing material likely omits a few things.

As an experiment, I took a half ounce of Angostura bitters and diluted it with enough 1:1 simple syrup to bring it down to 70 proof, equivalent to Amaro Di Angostura. Side-by-side, the sweetness was roughly equivalent, but I found the Amaro Di Angostura to be less harsh. I also enlisted Mrs. Wonk in a blind tasting, and she much preferred the Amaro Di Angostura. The marketing description mentions cinnamon, toasted caramel, liquorice, and chocolate notes. I get the cinnamon and to a much lesser extent the chocolate; Mrs. Wonk noticed the toasted caramel and cinnamon too.

The Amaro Di Angostura is eminently sippable straight. However, with its palate of intense flavors, it begs for use in cocktails. Since Angostura bitters, cinnamon, and sugar are frequently found in Tiki drinks, it was a no-brainer to go that route. And since Angostura makes rum, the choice there was obvious as well. I named the drink after a small island off the coast of Trinidad rumored to have a storied pirate past, including buried treasure.

Gaspar Grande
  • 2 oz. Angostura 1919 rum
  • 1 oz. Amaro Di Angostura
  • 0.5 oz. lime juice
  • 0.5 oz. honey syrup (honey and water, 1:1)

Shake with ice, serve in double old-fashioned glass or tiki mug over crushed ice.

The packaging for Amaro Di Angostura is attractive and reasonably classy without going overboard. The slightly ribbed bottle has a hint of elegance, and the bright yellow cap remains true to the yellow cap tradition of the Angostura Bitters bottle. The Amaro Di Angostura retail for around US $25 for a 750 ml bottle. While it’s quite a bit different than your traditional Italian amaro, if you’re a fan of the classic Angostura bitters taste I’d recommend having a bottle on hand.

Checking out Lyon Distilling’s Dark Rum

Although rum is most frequently associated with the Caribbean and Central America, its production has a long history on the eastern seaboard of the United States, going back to the colonial era. Using molasses imported from the Caribbean, rum was produced in distilleries in New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland. Eventually, nearly all the Northeast’s rum distilleries went under, victims of economic forces, prohibition, and a swing to other spirits such as bourbon, which could be produced from locally grown grains rather than imported goods. With the recent upswing in craft spirits, distilleries such as Boston’s Bully Boy and Lyon Distilling in St. Michaels, Maryland, have revived the east coast rum tradition. Lyon Distilling has three different rums for sale, and here I’ll take a look at their most popular version, Lyon Dark Rum.

Continue reading “Checking out Lyon Distilling’s Dark Rum”

Checking Out the Partida Tequila Lineup

Tequila is one of those spirits that has fought a long battle for respect from the casual drinker. All too often, people’s tequila perceptions are formed in some drunken college haze ending in an incident with vague memories of pressing their face to a cool tile floor, causing them to declare “I don’t do tequila.” Even if an early experience doesn’t cause people to keep a wide radius, there remains a wretched culture of tequila shots, the assumption being that tequila tastes so awful that it must be pounded with a lime and salt chaser. There’s even a blog and Instagram account devoted to tequila face. The truth is, artisanal tequila can hold its own with the world’s great spirits.
The basics of tequila are simple: It’s made in Mexico using the heart of the agave plant, which is baked, crushed to extract the juices, which are then fermented prior to distillation. Per Mexican government regulations (known as NOMs), to be legally called tequila, the agave must be of the Weber Blue variety and the production must occur within the Jalisco region of Mexico, on the western coast of Mexico about 1300 miles south of the US border. Tequila is a subcategory of the broader category of mezcal, which I’ve writtenabout previously. The short synopsis of the difference between tequila and mezcal is that mezcal can be made with a wider variety of agave, and within a larger region within Mexico.  So in short, all tequila is mezcal, but all mezcal is not tequila.
As with many spirits, tequila is sold in both aged and unaged varieties. Formal categories denote the amount of aging:
  • Blanco (little or no aging)
  • Reposado (more than two months, but less than one year)
  • Anejo (at least one year)
  • Extra Anejo (at least three years)

The typical drinker’s perception of tequila starts and ends with Jose Cuervo. This and other low-end tequilas (known as “mixtos”) are required to be made from at least 51% agave, with the remainder coming from “neutral cane spirit,” essentially vodka. Slightly more advanced consumers drink Patron, which occupies the “high-end” tequila niche in most people’s minds.

Beyond the heavy hitters in the tequila space– Jose Cuervo, Patron, Sauza–are quite a few smaller, artisanal producers who make topnotch, thoroughly enjoyable spirits, yet with a price point that’s a bargain compared to more trendy offerings like bourbon, scotch, and “premium” vodka. Dozens of smaller tequila brands, such as Corzo, Fortaleza, Casa Noble and Don Julio, are taking their share of shelf space, and the space is heating up with celebrity owners, two notable examples being George Clooney’s Casamigos and Sean “Diddy” Combs’s DeLeón. In this post I’ll take a look at the Partida line of tequilas, well-regarded by tequila aficionados. I received 50 ml samples bottles of the Blanco, Reposado, and Anejo bottlings for this review. Partida also offers an extra Anejo, but at $300 or more for a bottle, review samples are understandably scarce.
The origin of the Partida line starts with Gary Shansby, a California native who made his fortune in marketing brands such as Famous Amos cookies, Mauna Loa macadamia nuts, and Vitamin Water. After these successes, he was looking to build a company from scratch that integrated his personal passion for Mexico. Around 2005 (dates differ depending on the source), he partnered with Sofia Partida, a California woman with family connections in Mexico.  These connections include her uncle Enrique Partida, who farmed 5,000 acres of agave crop in Amatitan, southeast of the city of Tequila and northwest of Guadalajara. Sofia, an executive at Partida, functions as a global brand ambassador. Given the current interest in artisanal tequila, it’s surprising that Partida hasn’t been snapped up by one of the big liquor conglomerates like Diageo or Pernod Ricard, perhaps because Shansby isn’t looking for just another corporate payday.
When selecting agave to harvest, Partida uses stock that’s reached at least seven years of age, letting the agave heart reach an optimal sweet flavor profile. The Partida Reposado and Anejo expressions are aged in once-used Jack Daniels American oak barrels. By sticking with one barrel supplier–and one with an enormous pipeline of stock–Partida can maintain its consistent taste profile. Shansby’s strong marketing background is evident in the bottle design: Rather than a standard cylinder or squared bottle, Partida’s rounded horseshoe shaped bottle (for lack of a better description) make the bottles distinctive and very easy to spot in a crowd. All three versions of the Partida come in at the typical 80 proof.
The Blanco has a very pleasant nose that reminds me of creamed honey – I enjoyed it quite a while before sipping it. The initial sip has a very slight burn on entry, a nice mix of spices in the middle, and ends with a bit of pepper. Upon subsequent sips, I noticed a buttery, creamy note which I’ve experienced before in certain agricole rhums. Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits distillery tells me this is likely the presence of ethyl lactate, commonly found in distilled spirits.
For comparison, I tried the Blanco side-by-side with Cabeza tequila, my normal go-to for a solid mixing blanco-style. The Cabeza is fruitier and has a tiny bit more burn, not surprising given that Cabeza is three percent higher in ABV. I found the Partida Blanco to be quite enjoyable by itself, but it would also be great in a Ti’ Punch-type drink, simply subbing the Blanco for the normal agricole rhum. Mrs. Wonk wasn’t as much a fan of the Blanco, calling it “too earthy” for her tastes.
Next up is the Reposado. It also has a wonderful nose, although quite different from the Blanco. I get lovely spice notes, bringing to mind a great-smelling men’s aftershave. Tasting it, I found none of the creaminess that I get from the Blanco. Alongside the obvious agave notes is a hint of orange, bringing to mind a nice curacao. There’s very little burn, making it an excellent sipper.
Placing the Partida Reposado side by side with Patrón Reposado, I found the Patrón to me much sweeter and less complex. In this regard, the Partida Reposado was the clear winner. Of the three Partida expressions, Mrs. Wonk and I agreed the Reposado was our favorite. It’s refined, but the interesting characteristics haven’t been smoothed away by the aging process. The Reposado would be outstanding in a tequila-based Old Fashioned (tequila, simply syrup, bitters).
Finally, the Anejo.  Somewhat surprisingly, the nose wasn’t a more intense version of the Reposado, and instead is closer to the Blanco’s nose. Tasting the Anejo, I found it to be very smooth and round, to be expected given the additional amount of aging, and there’s no burn to speak of. Unlike the Reposado, I didn’t taste the curacao note. Make no mistake, the Reposado and Anejo are very different animals.
I also put the Anejo head-to-head with Corzo Anejo, one of my favorite sipping tequilas. The Corzo is more buttery (again, I’m guessing ethyl lactate) and also had cinnamon notes I didn’t perceive in the Partida Anejo. I’d happily enjoy a dram or two of the Partida Anejo neat so as to best enjoy all the flavors within.
Pricewise, the Partida bottlings are within the range of other premium tequilas such as Patrón or Corzo. Checking online at my usual sources, the Blanco can be had for around US $37, the Reposado for around $42, and the Anejo for $49. If you have to choose just one, I’d recommend going with the Reposado as the best mix of bold flavors yet refined enough to enjoy drinking neat.

Suitcase Rum: Coruba “Cigar” 12 year

“Suitcase” posts here on CocktailWonk cover spirits that aren’t readily available in the United States– they’re spirits I’ve discovered while traveling and brought home in my suitcase, warranting an in-depth look.

Within the rum world, the Coruba brand is reasonably well known, but almost entirely for budget priced “mixing” rums such as the Coruba Dark and more recently, a set of flavored rums – spiced, mango, coconut, and pineapple. Being from the United States, these bottlings were my only exposure to the Coruba brand, so I was shocked and possibly a bit too excited to find this 12-year aged Coruba rum at the Vintage House in London, alongside its older 18- and 25-year aged siblings. Being a nut for Jamaican rums, I knew at least one of those bottles would accompany me home. After consulting with Jamie Kimber at Trailer Happiness, I picked the 12-year. My wallet emitted a small sigh of relief, as the 25-year was well in excess of $100.

Piecing together the history of this particular Jamaican rum has been a challenge. The backstory of the Coruba brand is a particularly convoluted series of companies. Trying to make sense of the history and where these high end Coruba editions (the 12, 18, and 25) fit in wasn’t easy, but here are the basics: The Coruba name is a contraction of “Compagnie Rhumière Bale,” a Basel, Switzerland-based company, that in 1929 formed “The Rum Company Ltd.” in Jamaica. In 1965. The Rum Company Ltd. was purchased by the J. Wray & Nephew Group, another Jamaican rum producer. Diehard rummies know that J. Wray & Nephew is the parent company of Appleton rum, so my Coruba 12-year and Appleton 12-year are, in theory, stablemates. This of course begs for a tasting comparison – which we’ll get to after I drop some more twists to the story.

The Coruba brand has a confusing corporate parentage. In 2012, Gruppo Campari bought the parent company of J. Wray & Nephew. Here in the US, Coruba, Appleton, and Wray & Nephew rums are imported by the Campari group and are listed as being a product of Jamaica. The only Coruba bottlings we have in the US are the value-based Coruba Dark and the flavored rums.

On the back of my Coruba 12, there’s no mention of Campari or J. Wray & Nephew, however. Rather, the listed producer is “Haecky Drink and Wine AG.” A little time with Google turns up that Haecky is a Swiss company, based in Basel. Their web site says about Coruba: “Even today it is still blended and filled for the whole of Europe at Haecky in Reinach BL.” In addition, the Haecky web site has a link to rumcoruba.com, a Flash-based monstrosity pushing the sunny island lifestyle and, by extension, Coruba Dark. (The site seriously needs to ditch the music and chatty Jamaican beachbum character.) With enough patience on rumcoruba.com you can find the “Prestige” section that says this (quoting verbatim): “The three exclusive Rum Coruba Cigar 12 years, Rum Coruba 18 years and Rum Coruba 25 years are the noble flagships of the Rum Company Ltd. The tropical climate, the many years maturing in selected oak barrels and the careful processing lend the three noble” (sic)

At this point, I was thoroughly confused and dug in deeper, trying to piece together how both Campari and Haecky produce Coruba branded rum. Eventually I found a PDF file in German that says J. Wray & Nephew sold the majority of the Rum Company Ltd. shares to Haecky in 1993. My speculation is that when J. Wray & Nephew sold to Haecky, it retained distribution rights for the Coruba brand to certain regions, while Haecky does its own blending/bottling for European Coruba. Fun fact I learned along the way: Coruba has been the bestselling brand of rum in New Zealand since the 1970s. While the Campari sourced Coruba focuses on the budget-friendly, fun time beach party Coruba, the Corubas from Haecky straddles the fence, pushing both the fun time sunshine as well as the prestige “aged rum” category.

As best I can identify, all Coruba branded rum originates from a J. Wray & Nephew-owned distillery, of which there are several in Jamaica.  However, the exact distillery (or distilleries) that the 12-year Cigar originates from remains a mystery. The bottle label only says: “Produced in Jamaica by the Rum Company Ltd., Kingston.” I’ve seen reference in some pages translated from German that it’s a blend of a dozen or so different rums. It’s unclear if all of the aging occurs in Jamaica, or if additional aging is done in Switzerland by Haecky.

The Coruba 12 bottle is old-school handsome, topped by a wood-capped stopper. It’s bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume and the color is a medium gold, and noticeably lighter than Appleton 12. The Coruba’s nose is less fruity and more subtle than the Appleton. The initial entry of the Coruba has a slight bit more burn than I’d expect for a rum of this age and cost. The usual Jamaican funky esters are dialed way back, even next to the Appleton 12, which I don’t consider particularly funky relative to other Jamaicans in my collection. I also get a small taste of wet cardboard on occasion in the finish. To be honest, in a blind test I wouldn’t have identified the Coruba 12-year as Jamaican. It’s certainly not an unpleasant rum for sipping, or presumably for smoking a cigar with, but at a price of US $75 I won’t be rushing to replace the bottle when it’s gone.

For another in-depth discussion of this particular rum, check out the Lone Caner’s review. And if you have additional insights about the Coruba history, drop me a note in the comments.
Appleton 12 (left), Coruba 12 (right)