To the dark side with rum, bourbon, and whisky

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Rum from Colombia, bourbon from (where else?) Kentucky, natch, and single-malt whisky from…Pemberton! That’s where we’re venturing this time, new barrel-aged spirits that represent the dark side. (Light ones, including organic gin, coming in a few weeks.)

As far as I can determine there is no Colombian rum listed by the B.C. LDB at the moment. Canada, Bermuda, Guyana, India, Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad, the U.S., Barbados, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, St. Croix, Venezuela, and a whole slew of “Others” are all shown in the monthly product guide.

So when an email arrived, from a new-to-me spirits agency with a local phone number, inviting me to sample four rums from Colombia, I said “Hit me with your best shot.” Nice surprise: I got not just a single sample, but one of each, because as the agency rep stated in her accompanying note, “I couldn’t pick just one.” And I’m glad, because the four different-aged rums made for a nice tasting on one of those wet and dreary nights a few weeks ago. (The last of that, we’re all hoping.)

The name of the brand is Juan Santos. The rums are bottled in 5-, 9-, 12-, and 21-year-old configurations. The cheapest clocks in at $35 (and up); the costliest starts at $95 and can range to $119, depending on where you find it.

I didn’t find a single one I didn’t like. According to the information that came with the samples, the rums are imported from a family business in Colombia. All are aged for a minimum of the number of years stated on the label, in American oak barrels, and are made with all-natural cane sugar, which apparently makes them “exceptionally smooth”.

Which they surely are. Oro is the five-year-old: light and lively, sharp on the nose and the back palate, soft and subtle and mellow, even at this early age, and meant mostly for mixing (ginger ale or cola, with a big wedge of lime), although it sips quite nicely on its own just over ice. As an everyday bar rum it suits the bill and the budget just fine.

A step up is Reserva Especial, the nine-year old, described in the accompanying literature as “a divine higher-end mixer or a classic sipper” at a competitive price. Our tasters found it rich and quite lovely, mellower than its predecessor, a great everyday-sipping rum. We even followed the suggestion of “rum sour, using key limes with a bit of simple syrup”.

Gran Reserva shows its dozen years’ aging from the first whiff and sip. It starts off with an appealing dry-apricot colour, morphs into soft, very rich, and gently spicy flavours, and finishes like a good cognac, slow-burning with a very long aftertaste. Says the rep (who admits it’s her favourite): notes of toffee, toasted nut, sweet tobacco…best with an ice cube or a few drops of purified water. Notice the rum before and after the addition of the water and its development in the glass.

Finally, Antigua Reserva, the 21-year-old. It shows deep mahogany colour; very velvety in the mouth, it’s the top of the line and easily the best. But who can afford it? It’s for real rum aficionados. The ideal tasting would be as we did it: a bottle of each and an open-ended night. Good friends who love a good spirit, or four. Plus the good glasses.

The importing agency is Liber Group Inc., which tells me that Legacy Liquor Store is among the four around town that carry the complete line. At least 15 other independent stores carry some of the rums.

Jim Beam claims it is “the world’s best-selling bourbon”. Certainly, the familiar white-labelled bottle is well known in bars, public and private, everywhere. Here, in the LDB, the four-year-old sells for $23.95 and many, if not most, liquor stores stock it. It’s the one for mixing all your favourite cocktails, with a nice bit of bite on the palate if you sip it solo.

There’s also Jim Beam Black, aged six years in charred white oak. It sells for $28 to $30 where you can buy it, which doesn’t include B.C. for reasons nobody seems to be able to explain to me. It’s a hearty, warming spirit with well-integrated caramel and toffee flavours, quite a few steps up from the white label—less for mixing and more for sipping.

But the intriguing newcomer is called Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, coming soon to all parts of the country (if it isn’t there already) at prices from $32 to $35. Here’s the distillery’s rationale: as bourbon ages, a portion of the liquid is lost from the barrel due to evaporation—that’s the “angels’ share”. After aging, when the bourbon is drained out of the barrel, a certain amount of whisky is left trapped within the wood of the barrel itself. Jim Beam calls the extracted rich whisky the “devil’s cut”, which is then blended with the six-year-old.

Lots of oak, big vanilla, smooth and long with a hint of sweet—still showing the distinctive Jim Beam bite at the front of the palate. A clever concept and a lovely tipple. Time to try it soon (like when it shows up in your neighbourhood store).

Finally, Pemberton Distillery’s work-in-progress single-malt whisky. My sample came in a tiny apothecary’s bottle, “just to taste how it’s coming”, according to master distiller Tyler Schramm. Another year or so and it will go into 750-millilitre bottles and be priced around $100 to $120 per bottle. That’s the time we’ll be able to comparison-taste it with Okanagan Spirits’ malt; everyone is hoping for some changes to the current LDB distribution arrangements with craft distilleries in B.C. Save your change.

First impressions? It’s going to be a powerhouse—totally different from any malt whisky you’ve tasted. Not necessarily better, but certainly different. Can’t wait.

That’s the dark side; next time, new white spirits from the ’hood and elsewhere in the spirits world.

Comments (2) Add New Comment
Charlie Sanderson
I hadn't heard of this rum before, but bought a Reserva last week as I like the label and wanted something different. It was one of the finest rums I have ever let pass by my lips. I'm willing to give the 21 a try as soon as this bottle is through.
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Bill Phillips
The comparison of fine rums to good cognacs is one I endorse. They seem to get steadily better as we go up the scale from the transparent "licores de cana" to the $150+ aniejo masterpieces.
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Rating: -3
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