Rum was my drink of choice in my college and post-college years in India. That’s largely because rum was the only decent spirit available in India in those days. Indian whisky was not worth talking about, unless you managed to get your hands on a bottle of Solan No. 1 (which was hard to get even in the late 1980s)—even as a callow teenager I knew that all those whiskies were largely good for was getting drunk, and even then you’d have to mix them with a lot of soda. There were some decent rums though—Old Monk, for example. Truth be told, we drank Old Monk largely with coke as well but it did not punish you if you drank it neat or with water. (Old Monk is still around and even available in the US as of a few years ago.) And not that I could afford very good taste when I came to the US as a graduate student in the early 1990s, but rums that were widely available then (or even now for that matter) weren’t very much better (either bland white rums or spiced monstrosities). Of late though the situation has begun to change as more esoteric rums from the Caribbean have begun to become available and rum is slowly making the transition from a cocktail ingredient to a sipper in its own right. It’s behind tequila and even mezcal in this regard but it’s getting there.
Now, I don’t want to pretend that I know very much about rum because I do not. I know nothing about regional/national variations or profiles and only a little bit about production methods. I can tell you, since I’ve looked it up, that Hampden, a Jamaican producer, is renowned for making rums that are very high in esters (in other words, extremely aromatic rums). My roughly patched together understanding is that such rums are actually made to be parts of recipes in other blended rums—and, in fact, if you look at Hampden’s website you’ll see that they even say that their rums are in high demand in the perfume and food industries. They don’t even list regular rum releases and it’s not clear to me what fraction of their output is actually mean for sipping and how much of it has ever been available outside Jamaica*. (If you poke around the website you’ll also come across their section on their history and if you know anything about the history of sugar plantations in the Caribbean you’ll feel more than a bit queasy.)
K&L in California have done a lot of good work in recent years in bringing Caribbean rums to the US and they’ve brought more than one Hampden in as well—I have a sample of one of those from Sku that I’ll probably review later this month. This Hampden, however, is bottled by Habitation Velier, an Italian concern that has begun to put out a series of potstill rums from individual distilleries, much in the manner of independently bottled Scottish single malts. These are devoid of additives and are bottled at cask strength (some, as in this case, at ludicrously high strengths). The prices are quite reasonable but they’re only available in Europe.
My friend Pat acquired a bottle and brought it with him to a tasting of peated whiskies in the Twin Cities in early December. Given the focus of the tasting, I didn’t taste it then but he generously poured me a large sample to take home. He did have a little bit poured for all of us to nose and man, it was a powerful nose. I’d been looking forward to tasting it and finally got around to it at the end of the month.
Nose: High esters indeed! Bananas, bananas and more bananas; also, caramelized bananas and banana bread (with candied ginger, just like I make it). You can smell the strength too…There’s some toffee as well and light notes of apricot and marmalade and honey too. Along with the sticky, sweet fruity notes there’s also a mineral note—think very well oiled and maintained machinery. The oiliness and fruitiness increases with time. With water it moves even more in the direction of oiled machinery and there’s a strong note of putty and wax too now.
Palate: Big sticky fruit to start—almost Grand Marnier’ish. Surprisingly drinkable at full strength (very small sips). Quite syrupy on the second sip—in fact, I’d be tempted to drizzle this on buttered pancakes. That oily, minerally note from the nose shows up on the third sip and then starts showing up earlier and earlier. Okay, I should add some water before I get alcohol poisoning. Ah yes, water brings out even more of the oily machinery here as well and it’s less overbearingly, and stickily, fruity (though it’s still sticky and sweet). Some brine too now.
Finish: Long. As the fruit fades out a smokiness begins to arise. With water the sweetness from the palate seems to get pushed back to the finish—bananas again now—but the brine that showed up continues too.
Comments: Well, this is big in every possible way—I’ve never had anything quite like this. But while I really, really enjoyed this—especially the nose—I can’t see reaching for it very often if I had a bottle. While the oily, greased machinery notes are really interesting, the sweet/fruity side on the palate remains too sweet and one-dimensional—it’s almost like a supercharged liqueur, actually, on that front. Hmmm I might have a way to get a bottle, but do I want to do it?
Rating: 89 points. (In the 90s if scoring the nose alone.)
Thanks to Pat for the sample (though not so much for tempting me with a whole new category of spirits)!
*For more detail on the distillery, see here for a comprehensive account of a visit to it by a group of rum-aficionados.