Wooden Stills, Highlander-esque renown and history dating back centuries. Diamond distillery shines as the final beacon of Guyanese rum.
When I buy spirits, where possible, I look for something unique to take me on a journey and allow me to embrace something new. Admittedly I have taken a punt on some less than sparkling drams in my time. As a long-time-reader, first-time-writer of Malt, I wanted to pick a dram that intrigued me and piqued my curiosity. This dram has curiosity by the bucket load.
Diamond Distillery sits on the banks of the Demerara River in Guyana. An area that once hosted some 200+ plantations, many of which housed distilleries producing their own marque (recipe) of rum. Rum from this region was and still is held in high regard, the molasses produced here holding the same reputation. Diamond now stands as the last vestige of a once booming local industry. Closures and buy-outs through the centuries culminating in the consolidation of the remaining distilleries. What’s interesting is that the distilleries that were bought-out did not simply cease to exist; whilst disappearing as an entity, many distilleries lived on through their marques and stills that continued to be utilised. Most recently this happened when Uitvlugt, Enmore and Diamond amalgamated into Demerara Distillers Limited in 1983. Parallels to Campbeltown’s history and the film Highlander seem fitting (the Connor MacLeod of the Guyanese rum scene, minus the decapitations, as far as I’m aware). Diamond took possession of the Uitvlugt and Enmore marques and stills, and with the final amalgamation hundreds of years of knowledge from countless distilleries was compressed into one shining gem. Stills from long-lost distilleries continued to thrum, marques continued to be crafted. The ‘KFM’ marque, attributed to Lusignan plantation and its Scottish owner at the time Kenneth Francis Mackenzie, is a recipe handed down through generations that is still being produced to this day. This dram is a product of that long lineage, and with it we are offered the chance to taste its unique history.
The final amalgamation of distilleries saw the Versailles still brought over to Diamond from Uitvlugt after a term at Enmore – the name Versailles comes from the distillery it originally resided at – to its final home taking its place as one of only three remaining wooden stills in the world, all of which are at Diamond. Wooden stills, just let that sink in for a second. The idea seems as fit for purpose as a rubber screwdriver. The Versailles still is in effect a pot still, consider for a moment that Diamond also possess a wooden Coffey still and the Versailles seems almost unremarkable in comparison. The main body of the 250-year-old still is constructed of local Greenheart wood – used for its ability to remain constantly wet without rotting as well as its addition to flavour – bound together by metal hoops, essentially a large cask. That’s 250 years of flavour built up in the wood from every batch of wash it has been charged with. Sure, repairs would take place and whole staves would be replaced over time, but it makes for a distillate that is inimitable.
The neck and lyne arm remain copper, working alongside the retort and rectifier to clean up and lift the strength of the distillate. I’ve read that spirit from this still is heavy and robust, this is curious to me as the use of a rectifier would suggest a lighter spirit. Logic also dictates that although now steam-heated, there would have been a point where this still was direct fired. Well if you’re going to build a wooden still, why not heat it with fire? Makes loads of sense.
As a distiller, I have an unhealthy obsession with yeast and fermentation and as such, flavour. A profit-forward wort ferment in Scotch-land would last 3 days: max alcohol yield and max efficiency, minimal love and flavour. Diamond conduct a 24-36 hour molasses ferment for a 6-7% ABV yield. I’m ready to call bull on how such a ferment time could be seen as a good choice. [Disclaimer: I come from the world of single malt and my knowledge of rum is by no means exhaustive. If the following is commonplace, please comment below, I’m always keen to learn more]. Back to it. What flavour could possibly be produced by such a short ferment? Some Jamaican rum production, by comparison, utilises 10-14 day wild-yeast ferments. It turns out there is more to the story: Diamond propagate their own yeast strain with the process involving the introduction of yeast to a molasses environment early, allowing them to become acquainted and essentially turbo-charging the yeasts for the fermentation. The fired-up yeasts will munch down sugar and excrete alcohol and acids much quicker than normal, thus beginning ester formation earlier.
In fermentation, there is a lag phase when the yeast is first inoculated. It is during this phase that the yeast adapts to its new environment before growth and eventual sugar conversion. At Diamond, the yeast that is pitched into the ferment has already progressed through this phase so I can see how such a short ferment could achieve good, although I imagine not amazing, results. Diamond also utilise five open-top fermentation tanks that sit outside the facility, exposed to the local environment – insects, birds, bats – and all the wild yeast and potential flavour that come with it.
The maturation regime of this dram is where it hits a bump in the road for me. I reached out to TBRC to obtain the specific details but unfortunately, I have not heard back. All I have to go on is the method set out for Batch 1, so the next few sentences are at best educated guess work, at worst pure assumption: Distilled at Diamond, the unaged spirit is then shipped to the UK (a surprise to me when I came across this information*, I thought I had an example of Guyanese rum yet if this release replicates batch 1 then it has not been matured in the Guyanese environment). The spirit is then placed into and matured in recycled rum casks. I’m assuming that recycled means re-used, with no indication of how many times these casks have been ‘recycled’. For a 16-year-old this spirit does lack depth of colour which makes me think it may have been matured in some tired, old casks. For me, the practice of international shipment for maturation has stripped this rum of any semblance of provenance it might have garnered in a sector of the spirits industry that has little to begin with.
*I bought a sample not a bottle. Perhaps the bottle marketing is clearer on this point.
Rum is produced in every corner of the world with each country seemingly having its own set of regulations. Unlike whisky and the designation of Single Malt, rum struggles to have a coherent classification system across all countries. At times, this can make it hard for the consumer to know the journey the spirit has been on and exactly what’s in their glass. Dosing, the practice of sweetening the final rum with sugar, plagues the rum industry. El Dorado, Diamond distillery’s flagship brand, is culpable of this practice. But why do something that seems so sacrilegious when the spirits industry as a whole cherishes authenticity? It appears that profit, and the brand’s need to stand out in a crowded marketplace, sometimes trumps quality and craft. Releasing age-statement rums is a sure-fire way to stand out, generally being perceived by Joe Public as more desirable. There are however issues that can arise with lengthy maturations of rum. Tropical environments are prone to aggressive maturation and potentially overcooked spirit that could become somewhat undrinkable if left to age for 15 or 20 years. To combat this there appears to be two workarounds that rum distilleries utilise:
1) false age statements, i.e. marketing a rum with its average age or the age of its oldest constituents – as opposed to Scotch stating its youngest – or
2) dosing genuinely age-stated rums but with the addition of sugar to offset any undesirable qualities that have developed through an overly long maturation.
Both of these sins lead to products that lose their integrity. This is by no means universal. There are champions of the industry who are hell-bent on pushing the category as a whole towards stricter regulations. Palates and attitudes are changing, drinkers are looking for something genuine and practices like dosing will hopefully cease, leaving us with unadulterated rums presented to us at peak quality not maximum profit.
Thankfully, there is no issue of dosing with this dram. TBRC’s website states their rums are ‘unleashed to the world with no added flavourings, no added sugars and no added nonsense’. I’ll leave my crusade against nonsense addition for another day.
Preparing to taste this dram I’m thinking about how I have never tried Guyanese rum before, or any spirit distilled on a wooden still. Thanks to Diamond, I get the opportunity to knock down two birds with one stone and it is a genuinely thrilling prospect. There is so much I’m excited for in this dram minus a couple of detractive elements. This bottling was released in July 2019 with an outturn of 578 50cl bottles at 54.3%. It is still available on Master of Malt for £59.95 at time of writing.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, well done, as a reward you have received 100 Malties#. If you’re a millennial go ahead and take 50 bonus Malties. Our generation is not renowned for our great attention span so the extra points are well earned.
#As far as I am aware Malt does not have a points reward scheme. Malties are purely fictional like value for money Macallan.
That Boutique-y Rum Company Diamond Distillery (Versailles Still) 16 year old Batch 2 (KFM Marque) – review
Colour: Peanut oil.
On the nose: Opens with fruity top notes of grilled pineapple, Ribena, ripe banana, stewed apple and fruits in syrup. A phenolic note adds an interesting edge with something salty hiding in the background. Then the patisserie of crème brulée, milk chocolate, caramelised sugar, cardamom and allspice. Coconut macaron (the Scottish type), orchard fruits and a hint of struck match come after time in the glass. Engine oil plays along with zesty notes and green jelly snakes. A slight sulphur note fleetingly rearing its head. There’s plenty to discover here but it isn’t exactly jumping out of the glass, it is holding back. Although it does show maturity and an almost Japanese whisky-esque character of restrained elegance.
In the mouth: Hits the front of the palate with a tingle of spice before gracefully moving across the palate coating the tongue with a maple-y syrup layer. Despite the generous ABV there is a calmness to it all. It truly follows on nicely from the nose. Fresh ginger spice along with the grilled fruits and stewed apples picked up on the nose. The introduction of sherbet, chewy lollies (Barratt Fruit Salad) and oak is welcome and generally the dram has good viscosity, spread and depth, grasping to the side of the mouth. Tobacco and hints of salt add intrigue. It finishes with rich dark molasses, fruits in syrup and jelly lollies with a controlled amount of oak offering a slightly drying, verging on chalky, finish.
This is a very enjoyable and playful dram, fundamentally there is nothing wrong with it, but it struggles to ascend far from where it begins. There is certainly plenty in the glass to discover but it can at times feel unforthcoming and out of balance, tending towards the sweeter notes. The underpinnings of the spirit are good, the casks having allowed its character to show without the oak taking over. However, I feel like a longer fermentation, one to really put the yeasts under stress, would have lifted this dram immensely by building in more complexity. Diamond is a large distillery; economic pressure inevitably plays its part.
The Versailles still has produced a more heavily-bodied spirit than I believed it would, viscous and oily. What I’m at a loss to find is the unique character I had expected the still to impart. I can’t say exactly what character I expected it to add but I hoped there would be something identifiably different that I could pinpoint as being a peculiarity only found here in this dram. Sadly, it just wasn’t there. Considering the 250-year history of the still, I’m left questioning how much inherited character in the wood is passed onto the spirit it produces.
This release comes in a 50cl bottle for £60, adjusting to the traditional 70cl makes this a £84 bottle for fair comparison. For that I believe there are more interesting rums/whiskies out there that would offer more bang. With a little polish this really could have been a gem, whether production technique or different casks would get it there is hard to say and I would sorely love to try it again alongside the same spirit matured for 16 years in Guyana as a reference point. With that in mind, this dram has done enough to prompt further exploration into Diamonds offerings. One question remains, would I buy a bottle? In short, no, a sentiment that is reflected in the score.
Note: Batch 3 has recently been released at £52.95 making it slightly cheaper than Batch 2. What surprised me is the outturn of a whopping 2207 bottles. Something seems off. But until I get to try it, I will reserve judgement.
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement. Lead image kindly provided from That Boutique-y Rum company. Versailles wooden vat still photograph from a excellent article at Cocktailwonk.