After a few Sundays of Cognac, I finally go back to reviewing rum.
With the popular brown spirits having historically come from the western countries, it’s not surprising that most of the independent bottlers (IBs) are from there. But as these spirits such as whisk(e)y and rum start to take over more hearts in Asia, it’s assuring, encouraging, and inspiring to see various IBs start in Asia. I’ve even heard of cases wherein certain single casks bottled by Asian IBs are sought after in the more mature EU markets.
One of the newcomers to the scene is Malt Grain & Cane (MGC). MGC is owned by Marcus (Instagram: @HampdenPirate), who is from Singapore.
Luckily, the Singapore booze scene is a pretty tight knit community. Everyone seems to know each other. My being somewhat familiar with the scene, plus the growing number of rum enthusiasts there, made us acquaintances before he started MGC. As a result, it was easy for me to reach out to him.
Malt: Can you share the story of how MGC came to be?
Marcus: I’ve been drinking and adventuring around Japan’s whisky and rum bars for some years now. During 2020, after months of lockdown and boredom, since I was drinking so much during the early days of the COVID situation, this sudden epiphany hit me: “Why don’t I start bottling my own casks of whisky and rum?”
I immediately opened up my Gmail account and started sending emails to cask brokers asking for samples. The first few months were rough; no one wants to entertain someone with a Gmail account. After settling down with my corporate mail account, there were issues of convincing brokers to send samples to us. Lucky for us, we managed to find a few trustworthy suppliers, such as LMDW Singapore and Single Cask Singapore. We’re also very lucky to be partnering with Precious Liquors for our New Yarmouth 1994 bottling.
Things started to pick up pace as we slowly built up our portfolio, and here we are 1.5 years later! It hasn’t gotten any easier, with COVID and the gradual emergence of a number of IB companies across the world (UK/EU/Taiwan/HKG/China) in the past few years. Consumers are spoiled for choice!
Malt: Cocktails, whisk(e)y and gin are the more popular spirits in Singapore. Do you remember what bottle/s of rum got you interested in the category? How long ago was this?
Marcus: If memory serves me correctly, my first rum after years of (Bacardi) Rum and Coke [laughs] was probably 2015? Some friends got together and we got a bottle of Diplomatico Rum at Jigger and Pony, a longstanding cocktail lounge in Singapore.
However, the real pivoting point, or to define it as Day Zero of the “HampdenPirate,” was early 2018 with Velier’s 17 Years Old Caroni rum (orange label), which was recommended to me by the owners of Swan Song. That was the pivotal point for me; never stopped ever since. Often I joke with Arun and Kevin (the owners), that the HampdenPirate was born in Swan Song.
Malt: I know some bars, like The Single Cask, Auld Alliance and The Swan Song, have ventured into their own bottlings. Am I correct in saying that you’re the first Singaporean-owed IB with no legal bar ties
Marcus: I would disagree. There’s M&E Drinks (Mitch) who is a couple years earlier than me! There are also a few other private bottlers that started this journey earlier than me such as Nanyang Whisky, which started a couple months earlier than me, in 2020. Nevertheless, the Singaporean IB scene is still young and growing!
Malt: What are the challenges of being a new independent bottler? Singapore’s spirits scene is known as one of the world’s best scenes. Is being based in Singapore easier? Or does that make the competition tougher?
Marcus: Firstly, as a general/broad opinion, it’s an uphill battle to convince consumers to try independent bottlings. I think everyone’s too familiar with OBs, and not IBs. We need to start educating the greater community and public about independent bottlings and what we offer to the market. Also, our prices are definitely much higher than OBs, due to the single cask and undiluted spirit. Due to limited bottlings, bottling costings are spread across lesser number of bottles.
Being in Singapore, the local community is definitely spoiled for choices. It’s exciting and challenging to be an IB based in Singapore; So many IB bottles (European/Asian IBs) go through our country’s bars… Definitely tougher competition, but it forces you to serve the community better and be more competitive in our offerings.
Malt: Can you talk about your process on choosing which distillery and cask/s you choose from? How different is it to source casks of whisky from rum? Which is easier?
Marcus: For the first year, it was more strategic in our selections. We had to choose stuff that had wider market appeal. Nothing too peaty (whisky), nothing too funky (rum). I was playing it safe and conservative for Year One.
For Year Two and onwards, we’ll be pushing further with more variations, such as sherried whisky, heavier peated whiskies… and rums with a (Jamaican) Funk!
For the selection process, we will start with calling our brokers for samples andm from there, start the selection process as we clear the samples at a regular pace. What we’re looking for are generally two things: balance in flavor profile and cost/performance ratio.
Balance in flavor profile: we’ll most likely shy away from heavily sherried or peated whiskies, or spirits with extreme taste profiles. As much as I love Jamaican Rums, I think it would be a commercial disaster for us, if we bottled an extremely funky rum. Perhaps in the future, but not right now, when we’re still building our brand name.
Cost/Performance Ratio: being Asians, most of us are always looking for a good deal. We will always strive to achieve competitive retail pricing for our bottles. Even more so, being in Singapore, with high accessibility to IBs all over the world, we have to be price competitive!
Lastly, I feel that whiskies are easier than Rum. There are more whisky sources/brokers than rum brokers. I wish there were more rum cask brokers.
Also, with the fragmented and diverse geographical selections of rum distilleries, it can be more challenging operationally, in getting the casks to Scotland or a centralized location for bottling. Almost all rum distilleries would not entertain a small IB company with customized labels and glass bottles.
Nevertheless, finding good casks, be it whisky or rum, still remains a challenge.
Malt: Speaking of Jamaican rum and funk, when can we expect Hampden being bottled by you? Your alter-ego is Hampden Pirate after all.
Marcus: That would be a… SECRET. Not right now, maybe in a year or so?
Malt: Are there frustrations or misconceptions about being an independent bottler that you’d like to share
Marcus: Not enough education/awareness of our IB products in general. In my opinion, people still are comfortable with their Macallans and Glenfiddichs, but not ready to try other distilleries in Scotland. My wish is that the public would visit their local whisky/rum bar, and give independent bottlers a try!
Malt: I’m going to be cheeky here. Does the company name mean you don’t plan on venturing into brandy
Marcus: Definitely not brandy/Cognac at this moment. I would really like to do bourbon next, if we get a barrel of good bourbon!
Malt: In your launch, you revealed that you worked with the owners of Bar Lamp and Rum and Whisky Kyoto to bottle a cask of New Yarmouth 1994. Any dream distillates that you’d like to bottle? Or any dream collaborations in mind?
Marcus: Dream Distillates… for rum: Rockley Still 1989 Cask Strength. Rum and Whisky Kyoto had a bottling in 2017 called “The Sloth III;” that was AMAZING ! I don’t think there’s any left.
For whisky, too many… Glendronach 1972 , any Springbank distillate (it’s so hard to find barrels now!) ; and a Laphroaig barrel would be nice (equally hard to find as well!)
Dream Collaborations: a joint bottling with Chichibu Distillery! I’m a big fan of Akuto Ichiro-san! Also, I would like to integrate pop culture and local artists into our bottlings. Stay tuned for MGC’s Year 2 releases! [hint hint]
Also, there’s many Japanese whisky bars that I would love to collaborate with, like Mash Tun Tokyo and Bar Kitchen in Fukuoka!
Malt: Can you talk about this Foursquare bottling? With the Barbados GI in the works, Richard Seale has been adamant about the proper labeling of independently bottled Foursquare rum, and ultimately Barbadian rum. Did you consult with him on how to properly label this rum?
Marcus: Yep, we’re in agreement with Foursquare’s push for a proper Barbados GI framework. Once it kicks in, we will have to be more careful with how we label our Foursquare rums.
Richard has been very helpful and responsive. We’ve been in talks with him since Day 1 of the creation of our Foursquare labels. He guided us on the proper use of his distillery’s name on the labels. Very grateful for his guidance!
Malt: Do you have anything to say to the readers?
Marcus: First, do give the newly established IBs a try! (not only MGC, but the rest of us in Asia/Singapore who are struggling to build up our IB brand in the midst of COVID)
Second, continue to support and visit your local whisky/rum/spirits bar! Explore more, figure out what suits your taste profile as you continue your exploration journey with your favorite spirits!
Finally, always drink in moderation! There’s always another night for that dram!
Malt: In case a reader wants to order one of your products, do you ship internationally?
Marcus: Yes we do! We are partnered with DHL Express. Our current list of countries that we ship to can be found here: https://www.Maltgraincane.com/Delivery. If your country isn’t on the list, send an email to email@example.com ; and we will do our best to assist!
Thanks for reading the interview. Before you head on to the review, I’d like to commend Malt Grain and Cane for this Foursquare’s back label. Most consumers aren’t aware that the majority of single cask rum distilled in the Caribbean then sourced and bottled in the EU aren’t true single casks. As the back label mentions, this rum was aged for 11 years in Barbados before being shipped in neutral containers to be further aged in Liverpool (Main Rum).
Casks of rum aren’t shipped via container to the EU. Most rum bottled by IBs are sourced from Main Rum. Rum is put into neutral containers called Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBC). I don’t know what sizes distilleries use, but each IBC container needs a few barrels worth of contents to be filled. As a result, the rum from the different barrels get blended with each other. The contents are then re-filled into new barrels once they reach their destination.
However, not all of them mention this part of the process. It’s as if the IBs want to conjure an image wherein they sourced the barrels themselves from the distillery. So, kudos to MGC for adding another layer of transparency.
Malt, Grain & Cane Foursquare 2005 15 Year Old – Review
Cask #25. 60.2% ABV. SGD $229 (USD $180ish) on the MGC site.
On the nose: Expectedly hot with medium and sharp aromas of raspberry mille feuille. The raspberry custard is the boldest and sharpest. It’s enveloped by baked pastry puffs.
As this gets to breathe more, the ethanol heat lessens. From a more custard smell, I pick up a medium intense mix of orgeat, toffee, orange meringue and caramel. It changes into honey, vanilla, coconut sugar syrup, date molasses and cinnamon.
It changes again. This time, the sharp aromas make me think of smelling chocolate-covered cherries and strawberries.
In the mouth: A hot, sharp and tasty mess of orange meringue, custard, freshly baked Croissant, honey, vanilla, coconut sugar syrup and toffee. In between are light bursts of raspberries, date molasses, chocolate-covered strawberries and cherries.
These alternate and last for a while. I can just stare at the ceiling and slowly chew as the air interacts with the remaining flavors on my tongue.
There’s something really amazing about the 2005 Foursquare distillate that separate it from the other vintages. The je ne sais quoi 3this vintage has makes the 2005 ECS my favorite of the vintage release. I’m glad to experience that it also applies to this IB.
The layering on this nose is awesome. Smelling it alone makes me want to rush to a French cafe and order whatever pastries have flavors of notes mentioned above.
I’m a huge Foursquare fan. But most of the “single cask” Foursquare bottled by IBs who mainly sell single malt Scotch has made me weary of it. But this bottling is making me more inclined to look at IB Foursquare again.
Before you scoff at the price, just be informed that alcohol taxes by Singapore are high. To give an example, a bottle of Glenfiddich 12 costs about SGD $87 there. This would be around USD $69. Depending on the ABV and other things to declare, Singapore taxes will add around SGD $30 to $50 to a bottle. Compare that to whatever Glenfiddich 12 costs in your area, which should be between USD $30 and $40, and you’ll get an idea.
Lead image courtesy of Hopshop. Other images author’s own.