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.