Every camera in the room is trained on a lone man struggling to open a rather plain brown glass bottle, unlabeled except for a paper tag around its neck. The red wax sealing the neck is not giving way easily to his run of the mill corkscrew. Sukhinder Singh, co-owner of The Whiskey Exchange, has opened countless rare and historic bottles in his time, but this bottle of obviously very old bottle is vexing him.
When he started the task several minutes earlier, a few of the thirty-odd people watching snapped a few shots and sat back to watch. But by the point that Singh had begun rapping on the bottle’s neck with the corkscrews, every available lens was aimed his way, hoping that nothing catastrophic happened–but fully prepared to capture it if so. You see, this stubborn bottle holds rum believed to have been distilled in Barbados in 1780. It’s a 238 year old rum, and the people photographing its opening are anxiously awaiting their taste of it.
In 2011, several dozen unmarked rum bottles were found in a forgotten corner of a cellar at The Harewood House, a country estate to the north of Leeds in the United Kingdom. A detailed assessment of the cellar records indicated that the bottles dated to 1780 and contained rum, distilled on a Barbados estate owned by the Harewood owners. The bottles were, as you’d expect, blanketed with centuries of dirt, fungus, and cobwebs.
A very careful assessment of each individual bottle yielded twenty-eight bottles deemed worthy for sale. The rum in each bottle was individually emptied and assessed, and only the rum deemed worthwhile was kept. The rums were then divided into two lots – light and dark. All of the light rums were blended together and placed back into original bottles; the same process occurred for the dark rums. At subsequent auctions at Christie’s in London in 2013 and 2014, each bottle sold for between £4000 and £8000 ($5,234 and $10, 467 USD).
As astounding as that sounds, this particular offering isn’t the only eye-popping bottle in the room. On a nearby table stands a tall, rectangular bottle of Rhum Saint-James, distilled in 1885. It currently fetches in the vicinity of $10,000. Sidled up next to it is a J. Bally 1924, which you can purchase for around $2800 (so says the internet). Despite its youthful appearance relative to the other bottles, you’d be mistaken to overlook the 1978 Skeldon– a 27-year aged Guyanese rum from Demerara Distillers Limited. Online auction sites says the Skeldon commands a price in the neighborhood of the 1885 Saint-James. For high-rolling rum aficionados, it’s clear that vintage rums are rapidly approaching the price of collectible bourbons and single malts.
In my everyday life, evenings typically consist of hours at a laptop on the kitchen island counter, pecking out the next story with a nearby Glencairn glass of (affordable) rum to keep the thoughts flowing. However, on this mid-September evening as the sun sets over the Thames river, I’m in the penthouse suite at the top of London’s Four Seasons, Ten Trinity Square. The occasion: The La Maison & Velier (LM&V) launch of Hampden Estate Jamaica rums. (LM&V is the global importer for Hampden Estate.)
As product launches go, this evening is more than a typical cocktail party in a stuffy hotel ballroom or an evening at a craft cocktail bar pouring drink specials. Velier, an Italian liquor distribution company helmed by Luca Gargano, and France’s La Maison du Whisky went for the shock-and-awe approach, pulling together a very carefully selected group of journalists and spirits distributors for a six hour event dubbed “The Rum Tasting of the Century.” Keeping me company at my end of the table are a cadre of rum writers and collectors: Lance Surujbally, Gregers Grue Nielsen, Wes Burgin, Steven James, Peter Holland, and John Gibbons. Someone joked about being at the “kiddie table,” but truth is that everybody present earned their spot through their committed work.
As the sun sank lower and lower, each bottle was opened, tasting samples poured into gigantic crystal wine glasses, and distributed to the room while the ever-passionate Gargano elucidated on its history. Each sample glass had a paper disk on the base, numbered “1” for the Harewood, “2” for the Saint-James, and so forth. (This came in handy later in the evening: A few remaining drams left behind in glasses were quickly snatched up by the rum writer crew before being cleared away. No Harewood left behind!)
The formal tasting ended with the two Hampden Estate rums. Joining us in the celebration were Andrew Hussey, CEO of Everglade Farms, which owns Hampden, as well as Christelle Harris, director of marketing at Hampden. The two expressions were a particularly fitting cap on four centuries of rum — from the 1700s to the 2000s. With a rum history going back to 1753, the powerfully flavored Hampdens deserve to be a part of the evening’s dream team.
The obvious thing you’re no doubt impatiently waiting for is, “How were the rums?” Before answering that, an observation: Other than the sheer novelty, why the great desire to drink a very old spirit costing a hundred times more than today’s most exceptional pours?
There are, of course, collectors for whom money is no object. But I can’t help but think that only a few of them may truly grasp the nuances of what the spirit is able to convey. For them, each hyper-expensive rum/bourbon/Cognac/single malt may be just another conspicuous consumption checkbox to tick off.
Then there are the hyper-enthusiasts, such as my rum writing compatriots at the table with me. We’ve spent countless hours researching the history and production of rum — seeking to wrap our heads around the many forks in the historical roads that have created the huge diversity in rum styles. Tasting a 1780 Harewood or a 1924 J. Bally is a priceless opportunity to poke around in a time capsule for a few fleeting minutes. We frantically take notes and consult flavor wheels while the rum lingers in the glass and fades on the palate. Everything we’ve learned about rum flashes through our minds as we work to make sense of often unexpected aromas and flavors.
It’s a sensory experience that food gourmands can’t touch. Foodies will never consume fruit picked during the French revolution or cheese made during the Napoleonic wars.
Still, time capsules aren’t always filled with the best of the day. They’re more likely to hold the mainstream at the time they were sealed. To be honest, that’s to our advantage. As someone lucky enough to taste a fair share of exceedingly vintage rums, I’m thankful for the opportunities but I don’t go in expecting what’s in the glass to be ten times better than today’s best rums. Decades or centuries in a bottle doesn’t necessarily make a spirit better. At best, the spirit retains the vibrancy of when it was bottled. At worst, it can be undrinkable.
When I taste a vintage spirit, I look for clues to help prove or disprove my understanding of rum production from that time and place. I don’t expect it to be immensely better than today’s best rums. But I do hope it’s different, as those differences are the seeds of increased understanding.
I don’t place huge importance on extremely specific tasting notes. Everybody experiences spirits differently. However, this is no disrespect to someone like Lance, who’s prolific at it. Still, both of us usually agree on the dominant notes of a rum, e.g. the ripe banana notes of a Jamaican or the oily smokiness of a Caroni. The point is, my notes may be very different than what the other writers put forth.
What follows are my brief notes and impressions of each rum.
1780 Harewood House (Barbados)
This particular bottle was one of the “light” Harewoods. In the glass, it had a pale straw color. The initial nose caught me off guard: The huge wine glass and 69 percent ABV took a huge, fiery swing at my nasal passages. Tiptoeing up to it again for round two, the nose brought to mind the hogo I associate with Jamaican distillates but absent much of the strong banana tones of a Jamaican.
The Harewood gives the impression of a lightly aged rum, perhaps a year or two. Letting it breathe a bit more, I was surprised to pick up cucumber – admittedly a most unusual rum flavor descriptor. With more time, I picked up spice notes, but not much vanilla. All in all, an extremely interesting rum, unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. But if had to choose one rum as my one desert island selection, it wouldn’t be the Harewood, much as I enjoyed it.
1885 Rhum Saint-James (Martinique)
According to Marc Sassier of Saint-James, this expression was bottled somewhere between 1885 and the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée on Martinique, and the bottle had been in Europe for many years. As soon as the glass was in front of me, I noted how intensely dark the liquid was. The nose brought to mind sherry or wine rather than rum. Certainly not the nose of today’s rhum agricoles.
On the palate, it had just a hint of the French oak tannins we associate with aged Martinique rhums. But much stronger was the taste of molasses. If you’d told me that molasses was added post-distillation, I would believe you–it would explain the dark color. However, in chatting with Gargano after the tasting, he noted that Saint-James was using cooked cane juice. Given the right circumstances, I could accept that as an alternative explanation.
1924 Bally (Martinique)
According to Gargano, this bottling was the first ever vintage aged agricole rhum. The color was dark, but less so than the 1885 Saint-James that preceded it. The nose is much lighter and floral than the color suggests, though.
Sipping it yields a delightful flavor, with the notes of fresh cane juice just out of reach. I noticed a slight bit of French oak, but it didn’t appear to have spent many years in wood. I found it quite different than the rhum agricoles of today, and very delightful. I’m not ashamed to say I went looking for seconds afterward.
1978 Skeldon (Guyana)
Despites its (relative) youthfulness, this bottle will give your wallet heart palpitations in today’s market. The Skeldon name on the label is interesting, as Guyana’s Skeldon distillery closed at least a decade before this rum was distilled. The Skeldon name may refer to DDL’s attempt to recreate the Skeldon marque, perhaps using a still salvaged from Skeldon.
In any event, several casks of Skeldon-labeled stocks ended up in DDL’s warehouses in Guyana, and Gargano was allowed to select a few casks of 1973 and 1978 distilled rum for purchase. However, when the 1978 labeled rum arrived at Velier, it was different than he remembered. Going back to DDL repeatedly, they admitted that they’d run low on the 1978 rum, so had blended in some of the older 1973 Skeldon rum. Not that anyone’s complaining much about that now! (If you want more backstory, don’t miss Lance’s write-up.)
The 1978 Skeldon’s nose certainly suggests the classic, heavy DDL rums we’ve come to see from independent bottlers: Cask strength and pungent – leather, roasted coffee, intense spices, and dark cherry. In short, everything you’d expect from a very long tropically aged DDL rum.
Hampden Estate (Jamaica)
Our final (official) tastes were the raison d’être for the evening: unveiling the two Hampden Estate bottlings – one at 46 percent ABV, the other at 60 percent ABV. If my notes from Gargano are correct, it’s a custom blend he created from three Hampden marques – LROK, OWH, and DOK.
As someone with a very healthy share of Hampden rums in their rum locker, these new Hampdens don’t stray very far at all from the other Hampdens of similar age. However, I found them a touch more refined than the independently bottled Hampdens aged at the distillery. There are a few out there, but they’re not particularly easy to find.
Pungent, oily, banana and solvent notes leap from the glass of the overproof version, just as I expected. You might ask why bother with the 46 percent ABV version? It’s much more likely to be used in cocktails, and if you’re planning to imbibe more than a dram or two over an evening, the lower proof version gives the same Hampden goodness without knocking you off your chair.
For a rum fanatic like myself, evenings like this are among the highlights of my work. The opportunity to taste such a rarified collection of historic rums is incalculable. But equally important was experiencing them alongside other hard-core rum aficionados. It’s a story we’ll all tell for many years. We all extend our extreme gratitude to Luca Gargano, Velier, and La Maison du Whisky for this exceptionally enriching experience.