On Tuesday night I got the chance to attend a tasting organized by Appleton Estate, the famous Jamaican rum producer. The tasting was led by Joy Spence, master blender at Wray & Nephew (producers of Appleton Estate). Joy was an interesting character. She had a fun and not-too-serious approach to rum, but the look of concern on her face when she described how the Hilton was using her 21 year old rum to mix cocktails indicated that her easygoing demeanor only extended so far. There was no doubt she was serious about her work. Tickets were fully booked by the time I realized this tasting was happening, but Jak Jakicevich of Glengarry Wines kindly managed to squeeze me in after a last minute cancellation. The tasting was more action-packed than any other I have been to, adding up to a very entertaining evening. I was glad to be able to make it.
Joy started by giving some general background on rum classifications. Samples of generic white, gold and dark rums helped clarify the basic classifications. The white was not identified by name, but I assume it was Appleton White (in New Zealand sold only as a well rum). It did not have a lot of character. The gold and dark were the respective versions of Coruba. The Coruba Original (the dark) impressed me. I had not drunk this stuff in years, overlooking it as a generic mass market product. It is good though – rich, aromatic and with a bit of personality – definitely a handy mixing rum for times when you need a full flavor.
Production of Appleton Estate
The session then moved on to cover rum production, and particularly that at Appleton Estate. Appleton Estate has a unique geography and micro-climate. It is situated in Jamaica’s Cockpit Country, an elevated valley of karst limestone formations ringed by mountains. The combination of elevation and surrounding mountains create a micro-climate of sunny mornings and wet afternoons which favors sugar cane growth. Furthermore, the heavy rainfall interacts with the limestone to create an especially rich soil. According to Joy there are only three karst limestone regions in the world (in Jamaica, Yugoslavia and China), and Cockpit Country is the only one with a climate suited to growing sugar cane. Joy is actually wrong about this. The Chinese karst limestone region is the largest in the world, occupying a sizeable part of Guangxi (and maybe also some neighboring provinces), and is also a major area of sugar cane cultivation. Logically you would expect the Chinese to also have a tradition of rum production. I have never heard anything about it though. Anyway, that Appleton Estate is set in an ideal region for sugar cane cultivation is indisputable.
All of the Appleton rums are distilled from molasses, with a house yeast and soft spring water being added to produce a ‘molasses wine’ with approximately 7% alcohol by volume. This is then distilled in either column or pot stills. To get a handle on the influence of still type we tried samples of column and pot distilled rum, two radically different products. The column still rum is concentrated to around 96% alcohol by volume, and has low esters and a sharp character. The pot distilled rum has only around 86% alcohol by volume, and the lower purity of alcohol results in high esters and hence huge aroma and complexity. Although the samples we tried had been diluted with water to somewhere around 40% the difference was still night and day. The pot still product strongly reminded me of a French Rhum Agricole, making me confused as to how much of the differences between ‘agricole’ and ‘non-agricole’ rums relate to pot versus column distilling, and how much relate to fermentation from sugar cane juice versus molasses. Joy mentioned that Jamaica has the greatest variety of high-ester pot still rums in the world. I have heard this before, and I guess it means there are some really interesting and eccentric Jamaican rums out there. Sadly Appleton Estate does not produce a 100% pot still rum, with all of their products being blends of pot still and column. This is a shame because I think a fully pot distilled product would be really interesting. On the other hand, taking the glass-half-full perspective you can say that at least none of their products are 100% column still.
Next we got on to the matter of aging, which Appleton Estate does in used bourbon barrels from Jack Daniels. As with any spirit, the barrel aging process contributes cellulose (for sweetness), tannins (for woody flavors and color), and flavonoids (vanilla, coffee, cocoa and other smooth flavors). The fact that the barrels are pre-used prevents the tannins becoming overwhelming. On the other hand, barrels must be reasonably new to make a meaningful contribution, and so Appleton Estate retires barrels from reuse after a fixed time. Jamaican rums are aged at around 80% alcohol, higher than in most rum producing countries. At this point, another couple of samples of rum demonstrated the effects of aging. Again we tried a column still rum against a pot still rum. Aging transformed the column still rum, which picked up some interesting buttery characteristics. I was starting to see the contribution column still rum can make, without it the Appleton Estate rums would lose their smooth house taste. The pot still rum was also smoother and richer after aging, though the rough-around-the-edges unaged version was good too.
Age statements on rum bottles are a mine field, with labeling laws varying by country. As a general rule of thumb it seems that the Spanish speaking territories have flexible labeling regulations that allow rum labeling to be based on the ‘average age’ in the blend (open to manipulation depending on the formula used to calculate the ‘average’), while the English and French speaking territories require age statements to refer to the minimum age of the blend. Many territories also allow additions of fruits, peels, honey, spices and so on, all of which are forbidden in Jamaica. Since Jamaica produces spiced rums as well, I guess that adulterating rum with flavorings is permitted in Jamaica if the label states that the contents are not pure rum.
The Appleton Estate Range
By this stage we were all more or less rum experts and it was time to assume very serious expressions and taste the Appleton Estate range of rums. Ambitiously, Joy started us on the Appleton 21 YO.
- Appleton 21 YO is the top rum in the regular Appleton Estate range – though it has recently been outdone by a limited release 30 YO. It is a premium gold rum, with long aging producing a dark color. The remainder of the Appleton Estate range also appear to fall into this category. Joy told us to look for a shadowy olive-colored ring on the meniscus of the rum as an indicator of aging. This visual phenomenon supposedly indicates the presence of tannins, and should be more intense in older rums. I found that all of the Appleton Estate rums displayed this effect to some degree, making it a matter of differentiating the subtle color differences. You probably need to practice this on a lot of rums before it becomes informative. Without practice it is still a great way to make yourself look knowledgeable. Joy also suggested using the legs of the rum to indicate body, by tilting the glass and observing the flow of the droplets – much as you would for wine. On tasting the rum was extremely smooth, with lots of vanilla, quite a bit of tannin, and some honey. The finish was long, and just a little bitter. It was a very pleasant sipper, but not a flavor explosion in the way that many single malts are. I would say it was well suited for either sipping straight or mixing in simple cocktails that showcase the base spirit – e.g. a rum Old Fashioned.
- Appleton VX is a blend of 15 rums and the introductory level rum in the Appleton Estate range. It was fresh and lively compared to the 21 YO, and the emphasis was on dried fruit, with prominent apricot and orange aromas. There was not much of a finish to it, but it was pleasant. I could not call this rum inferior to the others in the range. While it lacked the depth of flavor of the others, it had a unique fruity profile that they lacked. I can imagine it would work nicely in a Planters Punch and other cocktails containing juices.
- Appleton Reserve 8 YO was spicy. The orange notes from the Appleton VX were still there, but this time sprinkled with nutmeg. There was also some buttery richness to fill out the palate. This would be fine straight or as a mixer. It would not be a crime to mix it in a juice heavy drink or cut it with cola, but it also has enough backbone to work in more spirit heavy recipes.
- Appleton Extra 12 YO was fuller bodied than the 8 YO and had a much longer finish. There was a chocolate taste that the 8 YO did not have, plus a suggestion of honeycomb. Rounding things off there was a pleasant burned butter taste – rich with a hint of bitterness. Definitely one to sip on by itself, or use in cocktails that show off the base spirit.
- Master Blenders Legacy was less spicy than the previous two rums, instead running towards being sweet, fruity and fully bodied. The fruit flavors were intense, and sometimes it seemed almost like a chocolate laced pear eau de vie. It was rich and buttery with a long finish. This rum would surely go well with desert. It might also be nice in cocktails that include delicate aromatized wines like Dubonnet or Lillet. The rum has no age statement but is a blend based around 30 year old rum. In terms of price it falls about midway between the 12 YO and the 21 YO.
All the Appleton Estate rums share a house flavor, but tasting them alongside one another reveals big differences in character. Which one you reach for really comes down to personal preference and what type of drink you have in mind.
An Unsuccessful Foray into Rum Blending
The next part of the session saw us split into teams attempt to blend our own award winning rum. We were given four blending rums to work with, and our mission was to create a rum suitable for mixing in juice based cocktails. The idea seemed to be to produce something similar to the Appleton VX. The task was harder than you would expect. We came up with a pleasant blend, but it had the characteristics of a sipping rum more than a mixer, with respectable aroma and finish, but without the body a true sipping rum demands.
The winning team was one table over from us and their approach had been interesting. A full 40% of their blend was probably the most aromatic of the four rums, with a note running through its aroma that was intense to the point of being a bit unpleasant. We had used this rum very sparingly. Somehow though, when they combined 40% of this rum with around 40% of something else, they ended up with a rich and flavorful base, which they finished off by adding about 20% of the last two rums. It was an interesting demonstration of how complex blending is. A mixture that seemed counterintuitive to me actually worked very well.
A Couple of Questions
I asked Joy about the Wray & Nephew Pimento Dram. It does not seem like this is going to be imported into New Zealand anytime soon – or ever really. The local Appleton Estate brand representative cited lack of demand and poor labeling. The new label and name (Berry Hill) are a little cheesy I guess, but they obviously work in Jamaica. The lack of interest is a pity because this is a high quality and very interesting product. At least it is not too hard to make yourself though. You can check out my own efforts at producing Pimento Dram here.
I also asked for the low down on the notorious Wray & Nephew Old Tom gin. Old Tom was a lightly sweetened style of gin popular in England during the 18th and 19th centuries and no longer produced commercially – except by one of two companies that have recently flirted with resurrecting it. Old Tom is widely called for in older cocktail manuals, and while London Dry and Plymouth were the mainstream gin styles by the early 20th century, Old Tom continued to occasionally appear in cocktail recipes at least into the 1930s. Wray & Nephew produces a gin for the Jamaican market under the brand name Old Tom. Despite the name, this product is not an authentic example of the Old Tom style that somehow survived in far flung Jamaica. Joy Spence dismissed the Wray & Nephew Old Tom as a cheap and nasty product manufactured using essences for undiscriminating local drinkers. I guess at some point somebody decided they liked the name Old Tom and built a brand out of it. I forgot to ask how far back the Wray and Nephew Old Tom dates, and where the name came from. It would be interesting to know.
Don’t Underestimate that Coruba
Finally, while not meaning to lower the tone at the end, I was surprised by the Coruba Original. I had more or less forgotten about this stuff, but it is actually interesting, being an old-fashioned dark style of rum with higher than average pot still character and a reasonable price to boot. The Appleton Estate range contains plenty of variety, but they are all gold rums and will not work in every recipe calling for Jamaican rum. Sometimes you just need an indelicate aromatic punch, something Coruba can supply. It is probably a bit sweet for rum and cokes, but I can imagine using it in a Planter’s Punch, or as a rum float on tropical drinks.
There also appear to be some more premium aged versions of Coruba that I bet would be quite good. I have never come across these in a shop though.