We’re in one of those tucked-away storage unit sheds; the sort that every third alleyway in London seems to have converted into a quirky space for events. This crowd feels right at home. Beards are ubiquitous; sculpted and secateured with atomic precision. The average age probably isn’t far north of me. You get the sense that there are folk in the room who boo when Bond orders “shaken, not stirred”. It’s that sort of gathering. Oh, and it’s diverse. In every sense. This feels a far cry from a whisky tasting. And that’s because it isn’t one.
Welcome to the launch of That Boutique-y Rum Company. The inevitable. The irresistible. If you didn’t see this coming you probably don’t follow spirits, and if anyone’s opening a book I’ll stick a quid on That Boutique-y Mezcal/Tequila Company being next up. The only real surprise is that it’s been so long coming.
Because, somehow, rum seems like the most natural spirit fit for That Boutique-y Drinks Company. Their whiskies are (frequently) excellent, and I do love the labels, but it’s hard to deny that the brand clashes with the whisky mainstream. (Which, in fairness, is probably the point.) Behind such chirrupy labels, their more august malts feel like po-faced business types wearing tie-dye t-shirts. And juniper juice has crawled so far up itself these days that even That Boutique-y Gin Company feels more frivolous and frolicksome than the ersatz-Victorian gin palace norm. But rum? Laid-back, free’n’easy, stripey-deckchair-by-the-seafood-shack-to-the-strains-of-reggae rum? Yes, I can see that. That seems, in brand parlance, the most boutique-y-ful partnership yet for Boutique-y’s whimsical stylings (drawn, this time, by Jim’ll Paint It).
Boutique-y are hardly the first independent bottler to segue into sugar cane, but you’d reasonably expect them to make substantial waves. Unlike the whisky indies for whom rum is a curio sideline, Boutique-y have the heft of Atom Brands behind them, and Atom Brands have thumping form with rum. So perhaps it isn’t a surprise that the launch comes with proper statement of intent. The inaugural outturn features a healthy nine bottlings, including a closed distillery and a distillery whose rum has not been sipped in the UK before.
But first, the elephant in the room. Transparency. Rum is the spirit world’s wild west. And its long-spun front of casual, carefree quirkiness has allowed the industry to gird its loins with laissez-faire. Want to know more detail about the rum? “Oh, you’re missing the point.” Want to call out a producer for additives? “Why are you taking this all so seriously?” Questioning whether your purchase was matured in the Caribbean, or in some wintery Bristol shed? “Just chill out and have a drink.”
All very well if you pitch yourself as a bottom-shelf bottle of cheapo grog for pirates and pre-lashing students. But rum has pretensions to grandeur these days. Rum wants to sit next to scotch and cognac; to peer out over lesser spirits from swanky decanters and dark wood cabinets. And so, if it doesn’t want to seem risibly Pooterish, rum needs to scrub up and dress at least smart-casual.
Which is why I think Boutique-y have been smart to bring in The Floating Rum Shack’s Pete Holland as brand consigliere. Pete’s a blogger (though I’m not sure he likes that term) who is also a presenter, advocate and consultant to the better angels of the rum industry. Not a chap to suffer colouring and additives lightly – nor to associate with brands who do. Pete was to take us through the Boutique-y range tonight, but job number one was to establish transparency credentials.
So, first off: there’s no tipping in of sugar, or of other sundry unpleasantnesses. And there’s no caramel. They’re not categorising their rums by colour, but by how and where they were made. By age, but also by where they were matured. By pots or column stills. These first offerings are single distillery rums, and in eight out of nine instances the distillery is named on the label.
As to the ninth, Pete explained that he wanted to name it, but that the distillery are putting out their own named range, and didn’t fancy competition. I’ve a notion he was on the cusp of telling us anyway, off the record, until a chap at the back of the room “ahemmed” and introduced himself as that distillery’s brand ambassador. (He didn’t tell us who his employers were, but the upshot was that Pete kept schtum.) All we know is it’s a pot still rum from a Jamaican distillery. I have pretty strong suspicions, and if you ask me quietly I’ll whisper them to you.
Anyhow, I’ve blethered away for a bit now, and there’s more transparency info on their new website, should you be interested – let’s get into the rums themselves. With nine to try, I obviously wasn’t making detailed notes; these are five-minute first impressions made as I chatted away next to the ever-excellent Andrew of Andrew’s Share. (A self-professed rum neophyte, but something of a genius at putting names to flavours.) So, in brief, and sans scores for obvious reasons, here’s what we tried.
First up was a 13 year old Monymusk. A Jamaican pot still rum, matured this side of the Atlantic. Barely any wood influence; a feisty, funky, fiery start, full of greenery and underripe bananas. I liked it, without especially loving it.
Second was something unique. O Reizinho is a Madeiran pot still rum, totally unaged and made in a riff on the agricole style. (Sugar cane juice, rather than molasses.) There’s an olive on the label, and it’s there for a reason. This was so green, so vegetal. It was boozy olive water, salt and all. As far from whisky as it’s possible for a spirit to get. Undoubtedly a crowd-splitter, but personally I’m a big fan. In my top three for the night, for sure. And I reckon Dave Worthington will henceforth pour it on his cereal.
Number three was weird. A mega-casky 19 year old Bellevue. Column still made, and very sweet. Weirdly (and Andrew agreed) what sprang to mind first was that it smelled something like Brenne whisky. All bubblegum and jäger-bomb. Tasted nothing like it – ran much more to oak and caramel – but the elements seemed to rather clang against itself. Big, brash, bellicose; this rum was a bit of the drunk at the family dinner.
The fourth was fantastic. 10 year old Travellers from Belize. I was sitting amidst a clutch of whisky scrawlers (Matt from the Dramble and Dave Worthington were also huddled around) and the consensus was instant and unanimous: this smells like single grain scotch. In fact, so reminiscent is it of 20-25 year old single grain that we were all certain you could slip it into a blind tasting unnoticed. It’s genuinely uncanny. People often say that some rums smell like whiskies, and it’s almost invariably nonsense, but trust me: this one does.
The Secret Jamaican was next in line. A pot still nine year old, rumbling with dunder. All estery funk. Almost engine oil. Polarising fare, but in my book it was solid, not spectacular.
The 13 year old Versailles Still Diamond was my least favourite. It wasn’t bad, but it was forgettable. Slightly flat. Spirity. Diet esters. Bit green, bit easy-sipping. Left me wanting more, and not in the “another glass please” sense.
Then came the showpieces. First up was a twenty seven year old Enmore. Made in the same still as the Diamond, but back when that still was housed in its original distillery. It was bone dry. Spicy, but not in a chilli-heat way. Rather in a kitchen spice rack way. Garum Marsala and dried herbs. Sandalwood. But here’s the oddity: dry as it was, and casky as it was, it wasn’t in the least tannic. Very unusual … if not quite a showstopper.
Eighth was a 26 year old pot still Uitvlugt. (You can tell from this outturn how much Pete loves the Diamond distillery). Despite its advanced years, the spirit sang just as loudly as the cask; demarara sugar intertwangled with tomato stalks and ripe bananas. A surprisingly crisp, elegant rum, showing more of the oak and caramel flavours on its palate, though the esters continued to buzz.
The 20 year old Caroni was instantly the best. I’m always leery of closed distillery apotheosis; Port Ellen is aggressively over-rated, and Pittyvaich is appalling, but I’m afraid this Caroni was simply breathtaking. Rich, intense, sumptuously balanced and thunderously full-bodied. It luxuriated in rancio truffle, game meat, char and red wine jus. It tasted – and again, Andrew was entirely in agreement here – like old wheated bourbon from the Stitzel-Weller distillery. And if that stuff doesn’t float your boat then there really is no hope for you. If I had time to review it properly, it would definitely be at least a 9, and quite possibly a 10. It is, in a nutshell, one of the best three or four spirits I’ve tried this year. It’s not cheap, obviously, but if you can afford it you should buy it.
So. Nine rums. I loved the Caroni, the Travellers and the O Reizinho, thought the Enmore, Uitvlugt and Secret Distillery were decent, and could have taken or left the other three. I’d happily buy the Travellers (£53), the O Reizinho (£33) and the Secret Distillery (£50) with my own money, and I’m sorely, sorely tempted to go well over my usual limit and stump up the requisite £149 for the Caroni too.
It is, however, worth noting that these nine rums are definitely not cheap. Scaled up to 700ml, two of them would clock in at £280, which by rum standards is eye-watering. The Bellevue, too, comes in at a walloping £100 for 500ml, and that’s an awful lot. Perhaps that’s the way rum’s going – certainly for bottles from distilleries that are no longer operating. As Mark has said umpteen times, we’re looking at the age of really great value spirits on the rear view mirror’s distant horizon these days. Although, as we’ve recently seen, there are a couple of sterling exceptions. Caveat emptor, as usual.
What really impressed me at the tasting (and apologies for impending drinks-writer ponciness) was how natural and honest these rums seemed. They tasted of the distillery and manner of their making. They tasted individual. They tasted of what they had been made of. What’s more they showed a quite extraordinary breadth of styles, and whilst some are undoubtedly better than others, they all had statements to make. I’d only describe the Diamond as having been forgettable.
All in all, a strong start for That Boutique-y Rum Company, and I’ll be watching closely to see what Pete and the team come up with next. One last thing though chaps: I’d love to see some spittoons at any future tastings. Even with 10ml measures, nine samples is some ask. I’ve got to get back home to Reading, for goodness’ sake. And if you’re going to bottle decent rums, I don’t want to have to leave half of each one in the glass. I’m greedy like that.
Thanks to Dave Worthington and That Boutique-y Drinks Company for the press invitation. Images also from Boutique-y.