As a youngster, I was always slightly amused with my mother’s habit of saying “it’s a small world” in response to almost every chance revelation or coincidence. As a kid, the world seemed endlessly huge, but as an adult now with children of my own, it’s incredible how often that occurs. On this note, this article would seem to be the centre of a traditional Venn Diagram of small worlds.
Having scrapped alongside Jim¹ on a rugby pitch a few years ago, and when we crossed paths again in the same industry, we discovered over lunch that we also shared an interest in distilled spirits. What I went on to discover is that Jim has taken his passion to another level and begun an interesting endeavour with rum. I think these fortunate coincidences resonate more in 2020 when the smallest of social interactions require careful planning to remain legally and morally acceptable.
Since meeting Jim, I have kept abreast of the development of Outlaw rum with some interest and asked him a few questions for this article.
Graham: How did the concept of Outlaw Rum come about, and how did you end up selecting the rum distillery?
Jim: It’s was a daft idea of mine and bounced it around with a good friend of mine who is now my business partner.
There’s plenty of good rum in the Caribbean and South America, but here in the UK, it was mostly spiced rum that people needed to drown in a mixer to make it palatable. Where was the good rum, which we knew could be as good as a single malt bourbon cask-aged, layered in taste and complexity? If we could get the rum style we liked, I could supply the warehouse and the legwork to set up a business. Easier said than done, but completed.
Initially, we needed an “in” with a solid rum distillery that could mix a style of rum we could be proud of without adding any finish. My business partner asked me to give him two weeks, and conversations began with one of the most widely-recognised and well-thought-of distilleries in the Caribbean—Angostura. I felt we could take on some of the whisky old guard in their back yard, as it were, and give the whisky establishment a solid run for their money based on spirit quality and complexity of taste; so, Outlaw Rum was born.
Graham: Did you develop local partnerships in Scotland for bonded warehouses, whisky casks etc?
Jim: Very much so. The warehouse is leased from an open-minded and entrepreneurial-style estate close by in our area, the metropolis of Huntly. The area also boasts cask and wood management specialists with a history of excellence, Speyside Cooperage. You need a couple of breaks … to get up and running, so it’s picking your partnerships and making it easy for them to work with you [that brings success].
Graham: How did the industry take to a new business bringing rum and whisky together?
Jim: Much as you’d expect, quite a few with their noses turned up, and a select few more open-minded folk and businesses interested and willing to talk and collaborate. Largely the whisky establishment are not interested; unless you have a name in which you have been trading from before you were born with a large international market, you’re just an annoyance and a potential market share loss. here’s also a secretive, almost suspicious nature where it’s perceived that you’re there to steal their achievements and customers. Not the case, but just something to manage.
Graham: You’ve got the core flagship rum from a mixture of whisky casks and some single cask releases planned. It’s an unusual route to market (direct to auction) for the single casks. How did you get to where you are with this?
Jim: Why do what everyone else is doing? We’re doing what feels right and when we think our expressions are at their best. The Islay finish was an experimental idea of mine, and a few of the “Outlaws” were concerned that the Islay might be too big of a nose and taste for the rum; I thought differently. What we have is a standalone finish that brings out the best of both smoky and peaty characteristics without crushing the vanilla, creaminess or texture of the rum. [It’s] a great combination; more Islay variants [are] maturing as we speak and email.
Pricewise, I understand his [Ed: The Whisky Sleuth’s, see the end of the article] point on the perception of age and cost; yet this is rum matured on the Equator in casks, to begin with, and as such a few years there is 3-5 times the time in cask environmentally [Ed: due to the climate]. We also have a different volume and clientele base—we’re low-volume and specific to high-quality bespoke bottlings. As an enthusiast, I understand Whisky Sleuth’s whisky market-based opinion, but that does not necessarily follow for the international rum market. So I considered it, but the prices will stay as originally considered – we’re not gin, the gin market or bigger volume cheaper spirit market. If Ron Zacapa XO is 85GBP/bottle—i.e., if the taste is there—why not stick to your guns and be cheaper but better in terms of spirit quality and bottle design?
Graham: Given that you are selling the limited editions at auction, do you expect them to be collected or drunk?
Jim: Hopefully drunk and enjoyed. Some will go into somebody’s collection, obviously, but it’s meant to be enjoyed. I think it’s worth that saying we are not looking to simply profit from selling at auction, but we are looking to be entrepreneurial about routes to market. In the UK, the large distributor model leaves some businesses stuck in slow growth cycles, endlessly plugging farmers’ markets and events. So the auction route, along with developing international relationships, is part of a strategy to avoid becoming victims of the traditional model.
Graham: Do you see yourselves as joining the rise of rum drinking in the UK or attracting more whisky drinkers priced out of that market?
Jim: I see us opening the eyes/taste buds of single malt drinkers to fine rum and leading the charge on proper premium rum in the UK and various selective international markets.
Graham: Going forward, and given what you have learned about the maturation of rum in the various barrels, what can we expect from future batches and limited editions?
Jim: More Islay variants (most likely four Islay versions) and some specific Spey or Highland variants when they’re ready and are really special. Our Outlaw Rum will be the main volume unless we find certain special releases are doing really well and then the balance of stock may change depending on those preferences.
On to the reviews… First up is the control sample of base rum, which is filled into the casks at 69.7%:
Outlaw Rum Base Rum – Graham’s Review
Colour: Golden syrup.
On the nose: Molasses, almost treacle, a little funky, overripe melon, spiced banana bread, flamed orange peel.
In the mouth: Ground ginger, nutmeg, black pepper, generic fruitiness, dilute satsuma juice, ripe banana, slightly sharp drying finish.
Not quite a sipper, but a nice mixing rum. Good to see a decent base has been selected from the off.
Outlaw Rum Base Rum – Sleuth’s review
On the nose: Happy memories. Sweet and sour sauce. Underripe banana. Soft brown sugar. Nail polish remover. Dark chocolate. Oak spice and just a touch of industrial funk. Grapefruit bitters. Water is an unnecessary distraction.
In the mouth: Dangerously easy to drink. Sour plums. Grapefruit peel. Chalky underripe banana. Sweet now with piña colada. Grapefruit sprinkled with brown sugar. Fresh pineapple. Clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. Bitter dark chocolate in the finish. It is a little more sour with water, I prefer without.
It is a pleasure to taste unadulterated Angostura. I am not a fan of what they release officially, as it feels neutered somewhere between the cask and the bottle. I enjoyed visiting the distillery this last December, and the smell in the warehouse is enough to tell you that the rum has the potential to be fantastic. I will have to find some more independent examples to try, as this is a solid drinker even though it is young. A little more mouthfeel and texture would have bumped this higher, but I can imagine this disappearing very quickly on a hot summer’s day.
Outlaw Rum Flagship Release 1 – Graham’s review
A 7-month barrel maturation, Highland malt, Speyside malt and bourbon casks) bottled at 40% strength.
Colour: One-half shade darker than the control.
On the nose: Gentler (not just down to ABV), distant vanilla, softly fruity, less funky, orange leaves.
In the mouth: creamier, dusty vanilla, fruity, strawberry, slightly nutty, gentle wood spice and vanilla for a smoother finish.
The time in the whisky casks appears to have tamed the brashness of the base rum and moved it into the sipping category. The cask is mostly evident, to me, on the finish, which has some lovely whisky characteristic to it. If this is any Outlaw at all, I would say it’s certainly more Bonnie Prince Charlie than Rob Roy McGregor.
Outlaw Rum Flagship Release 1 – Sleuth’s review
Colour: More rum.
On the nose: Completely unrecognisable to the base rum, which is surprising! I think the bourbon casks have been most influential. Vanilla, caramel and cinnamon dominate. Toffee popcorn. With water a hint of cream of coconut. A little tangy pineapple too.
In the mouth: Vanilla, caramel and cinnamon. A little creamier in texture than the base, which is a welcome addition. Water brings out a little more of the rum with tangy pineapple and clove.
I am not too sure about this one. I prefer the base rum all told, as there is just so much more of interest going on. I am left feeling as though I am drinking a bourbon, in which case, why not just buy and drink a bourbon? An interesting experiment, and perhaps a vatting of different casks would produce a more balanced effect. If the idea is to create a unique whisky-influenced rum, then I think actual bourbon casks are probably a little heavy-handed, and a mix of highland whisky casks, with perhaps a small quantity of ex- Speyside sherry casks, would make for an interesting combination.
Outlaw Rum Islay Cask – Graham’s review
A 7-month maturation and bottled at 43% strength.
Colour: another half shade darker again.
On the nose: wow, momentarily fruity before an outrageous mugging of peat that tickles the nostril hairs. This redefines sweet-peat. Ripe fruits come through again after the initial shock, with some background TCP.
In the mouth: chilli pepper, dusty warehouse, sweet but vegetal, young Ardmore almost, umami, sooty, BBQ pineapple a real sweet and savoury experience, vegetal on the finish.
Is it balanced? No. Is it fun? Yes! This Outlaw will appeal to the palate of those who enjoy big flavours in their whisky, and the cask influence is undeniable.
Overall, it is fascinating to see how the cask can influence the flavour. I’ve never entirely enjoyed whisky finished in rum, and I would certainly suggest these samples prove it works better the other way around.
Outlaw Rum Islay Cask – Sleuths’s review
Colour: You guessed it!
On the nose: Much more interesting. I am not sure if I am getting any peaty influence, perhaps a very faint whiff in the background. What I am getting is a little beef jerky, which is a surprising and welcome note! A little caraway seed and cracked black pepper. Sweet BBQ sauce. The rum tang comes through with grapefruit and pineapple. With water molasses and milk chocolate.
In the mouth: Okay, there’s the peat! The best mouthfeel of the lot. Chewy caramel. Chinese five-spice. Definitely some beef jerky. Smoky BBQ sauce. Just hints of tropical fruits in the background. A citrus tang. Wood smoke and roasted chestnuts in the finish. Water brings out grilled pineapple and grapefruit peel, but we lose a little meatiness and mouthfeel.
Well, I am not sure if Graham has given up any secrets or not, but I do not think you will have to beg him too hard for any clues as to where this cask comes from. This is what I was hoping for from this experiment, something unusual and surprising that has me guessing and diving back in for more. I love those meaty notes, which I have never come across in rum before. While the flagship pour does not quite manage balance for me, this one has a really good interplay between the base rum and peated whisky cask. As someone on social media once told me, rum and whisky mixed is the best cocktail there is, and this punchy number would definitely prove them correct!
A final word on pricing: I have received information on since writing the above notes and thoughts. It is always difficult when a product is yet to launch, and whilst not set in stone, Outlaw is proposing to retail the flagship around £60, and the special cask picks, like this Islay finish, at around the £85 mark. I would urge them to reconsider, as I just do not feel that these are reasonable prices to expect for a sourced product finished for a few months. For the Flagship, you could maybe argue a case for it being a novelty product, but £85 for the Islay is totally outlandish. At those prices, I would dock a point from the Flagship, and two from the Islay cask. The truth is it would be a simple choice to pick the rum every time, for which there are many great value independent outlets releasing aged, cask-strength and naturally-presented rums from all corners of the world. Prices aside, I have thoroughly enjoyed tasting these rum and whisky marriages, and I wish Outlaw all the best in their endeavours.
¹I know Jim Ashley, Director of the Outlaw Rum Company. As a result, we also have notes from The Whisky Sleuth, a person who doesn’t know Jim, is an impartial voice, and is not afraid to speak his mind.
Images and samples provided by Outlaw Rum.