I turn up well before 11am for early bird entry to Rumfest 2019. This year. for some reason, we are asked to queue east to west. Some of us are unsure whether it’s the early bird queue of not. It is! With larger numbers than expected, the queue spread across the slip road to the hotel carpark in no time.
At the venue’s entrance, organisers experience problems with their ticket scanners. Once inside we find no one’s ready. Exhibitors are still assembling their stalls, bottles haven’t arrived, engineers are still sound checking,.. It’s as if no one knew about the early bird hour. Despite all this, the vibe is relaxed. Its rum right?!
La Maison & Velier have stepped up again. This year they have shelves and lighting. There’s even a cocktail bar with a menu though they are waiting on ice.
There’s also more floor space this year, due in part to the sad absence of Douglas Laing [Kill Devil], Mhoba and BBR for example,… and what of agricole? In fact, lots of the big brands aren’t here either. There’s no Havana Club for example. Instead, we’ve Coca Cola. I won’t knock their presence too much as their sponsorship may be crucial for the survival of the festival, but there’s a definite ‘one step forward, two steps back’ feeling to this year’s show. Even Ralfy failed to appear after two subsequent visits in 2017 & 2018.
Despite the demand every year, once again, the food effort is minimal. At least they’ve tucked the catering into the corner of the exhibition hall, which certainly helped the nosing of rums enormously. On Sunday, there were no queues and we try one of the vegan offerings. It’s pricey but boy is it tasty, and salty.
Whilst the main hall is largely empty and quiet, a small airless & windowless room [see pic above] adjacent to the hall is heaving with early birds. This room, appropriately named the ‘Craft Rum Area’, contains Foursquare, Plantation, Mount Gay and Worthy Park amongst others. It’s not long before there’s a ‘one in, one out’ policy. I fail to make it in on day one. With an hour to kill before my one & only masterclass of the festival, I decide to enter the world of cachaca: WLP
After that fabulous introduction to cachaca, it’s time for Ian Burrell’s £1500 Rum Tasting.
“Rumfest, the first and the longest”, says the man who founded the festival in 2007.
As a way of introduction, Ian takes a pop at vodka, jibing that one could make it from floor dust. Gin he says [with a few exceptions], is flavoured vodka – I hear music! He talks highly of rum agricole & cachaca, both made from pure sugar cane and distilled in pots. By contrast, he talks of the rest – syrups and molasses-based rums. His message is similar to that of Luca Gargano & Richard Seale [WLP]. Simply, craft vs the rest.
Of tropical vs continental ageing, Ian tells us the ‘duppies share’ is 6-8%pa. That’s 3-4x faster than Scotch that sits at around 1-2%pa. The results can be just as extreme.
Fine Old Jamaica Rum [1950s] Milestone Co. Ltd Carling [Carlingford] 70 proof
First up is a 100% pot still rum from the 1950s. We know this says Ian, because “column stills came to Jamaica in 1959”. This rum was produced in Jamaica then exported by Carling [or Carlingford], to Ireland. This bottle was bought at auction for £100 and now fetches around £150.
Its colour is treacle-black, so plenty of E150 then. Our host surmises it to be E150c, possibly E150b. Age-wise, Ian estimates it to be around 5-6 year old.
- N: Black Tot 40yo vibes [WLP], muddy demerara & molasses, a slight butyric rootsy fruitiness and hints of stout.
- T: Soft salty arrival with a thin mouthfeel, the taste is similar to the nose. Little movement from then on towards mild bitter salted caramel. It’s nothing less than pleasant, but how to spoil your palate with rum #1!
- F: Fades quick but my palate is caked.
- C: There are a number of miniatures available at auction that possess this style. It’s one way to gain a similar experience to this, or indeed the Black Tot 40yo, at a fraction of the cost.
Scores 76 points
The cork on the next bottle has broken.
Lamb’s Navy Rum (1980s) Ob. ‘HMS Warrior’ ceramic decanter 40% [750ml]
From the late 1980s, this is a blend of rums from Barbados, Jamaica & Trinidad.
- N: Certain OBE, something of my old bottle of 1920s Prunella liqueur [notes coming soon], and layered-yet-light fruit sugars. Overall it’s light and grain-like, column still vibes most certainly.
- T: That first rum has really messed up my palate [terrible order], but I soldier on. Clearly grain-like. “Boring” one guy shouts. Fair.
- F: Like a Canadian Club-styled rum.
- C: Fairly bland and inoffensive.
Scores 77 points
More Cork issues. Ian’s brings out his hunting knife. ‘Call that a knife?’ Actually, it’s an impressive knife to be carrying around at a festival in central London.
Cilc 1992 DL Single Cask Caribbean Reserve single cask 46%
A blend of pot and column still rum from Venezuela.
- N: Alongside raisin-y oils, we’re provided with a pleasing cask-influenced character due to a fungal-sweetness that is surely coming from ex-bourbon casks.
- T: Grain-like again and fruits on oak. Very nice. It’s true that certain aged rums often taste like grain whisky – nicely aged grain that is. Foursquare’s Destino springs to mind [WLP88].
- F: Musty heat with a firm sustain.
- C: Really good. I’d love to put this up against, say a 30yo Port Dundas in a blind spirits tasting.
Scores 87 points
Isla del Tesoro Extra 20yo Ron de Cuba Ceramic jug 40%
This is an old twin-column blend. A guy in front of me tells us all of a bottle of Isla del Tesoro he bought at auction a few years ago, at a bargain price. Sent from Germany, it went missing in the post. In due course, he’s sent a picture of his package, completely sodden with rum and an attached note informing him that a full refund was due. A large groan from the crowd.
- N: I initially detect a [Speyside Distillery-esque] burned note, but from spirit or cask? That’s as far as I got with my note-taking on this one as time was pressing and I was falling behind. Each rum is worth an hour, but in keeping with festival life, we have only five minutes.
- T: Oh that’s great. Agricole style, hints of clairin.
- F: The spirit is true, that is, it carries the essence of sugar cane.
- C: The ominous start that leads to a fine rum. I would want some more time with this one.
[Provisionally scores 88+ points]
Appleton 250th Anniversary  Ob. [6000 bts] 43%
Fetching around £800 at auction, this is a blend of pot & column still rums of various ages.
- N: Very pleasing banana-flavoured grain-like spirit.
- T: Waxy light bananas with a tasty bitter > sweet chew. Very Appleton-like, very pleasing.
- F: Light soft green,… but that first rum is still off-putting.
- C: A yummy one that doesn’t require over-thinking.
Scores 85 points
Another failed cork. In dashes Dawn with her corkscrew to cheers from the crowd. 3/6 failed corks in total. That might be some kind of record.
Alfred Lamb’s 1939 United Rum Merchant’s Special Consignment Stoneware jug [918 bts] 40% [75cl]
Bottled in the late 1980s/early ’90s, this is a rum from either Hampden or Long Pond, aged in puncheons. Currently, you’re looking at £1200 minimum for a bottle on the second-hand market.
- N: Pickled onions, pechuga,…into hot tyres (Ian), lamb & turkey meatballs,……
- T: What an arrival: soft/frail yet still just kicking with mild rolling tobacco, some weak honeyed syrups, old sailing boats (no salt). It doesn’t hang around, every moment so fleeting. Hold in the mouth for a joyous mouthful consisting of a heather-dry, concentrated salty & slightly medicinal profile with a smoky hint.
- F: Almost malty with oak & sugar cane that combine for a full finish, concluding as heathery-dry spirit and dry oak.
- C: Gotta hold it in the mouth for as long as you can. Despite the first rum still troubling my palate, this is a real treat.
Scores 90-92 points
A big thank you to Ian who has bought these bottles himself. I hope he was able to cover his costs for this very generous tasting. 39 people at £25 per head equals only £970! Hmm.