Everything is relative.
Whenever this is mentioned, a certain high school memory always comes to mind that never fails to get me to chuckle. A high school batchmate once said he’s the tallest of the boys in his generation. He was about 5’5”, give or take a little. One time, his main group of friends went to his house while his relatives were also there. An aunt of his pointed out that he was the shortest of the bunch. Amongst that group are a few who ranged from 5’8” to 6’1” in height.
Someone from the group recanted the story to us. It led to lots of laughs, and I can recall my 5’5” friend jokingly telling us he felt his masculinity left him the moment he heard what his aunt said. One of the other boys commented “You being the tallest amongst your relatives makes it sound like y’all are impoverished!” This led to more laughs. (We attended a private school. They weren’t impoverished.)
It’s no secret that for a product to attract attention and sell well, it has to have a description. For some added flair, marketing terms get added. Despite being necessary, I think a problem is that these adjectives lack regulations or a universally understood scale. After all, people come from different backgrounds, so they’re bound to have their own unique expectations and standards.
For example: some people already find Tabasco hot and spicy. But as someone who grew up in a strong Chinese culture, Tabasco’s hotness is more like a tickle to me. What I consider really hot and spicy are certain Szechaun dishes and unapologetic Thai food.
This form of miscommunication is present in spirits as well. In single malts, the term “heavily peated” has caused some confusion. Peated can mean many things. In most cases, peat was used to dry and stop the malting of the barley. In other cases, peated whisky is blended with non-peated whisky, or a whisky becomes “peated” by being aged in a cask that used to hold peated whisky. With Octomore bearing the banner for this term and profile, majority of less experienced consumers may expect any whisky marketed as heavily peated to be close to Octomore’s peatiness.
For American whisky, terms like “high rye” and “low rye” mash bills are thrown around, but it’s not like all high rye are at least 60% corn and 30% rye… and it’s not like all low rye bourbons are 85% corn and 10% rye. These terms are dependent on the distillery they come from. Some distilleries will have at least two bourbon mash bills; their own “high rye” mash bill may just have 5% more rye than their low rye mash bill.
The most memorable example I can give was when I was new to whisky and tried one of Yamazaki’s Heavily Peated expressions. Upon trying it, the peat and smoke were very weak; I think it was more peaty than smoky. I don’t know what the ppm on it was but in terms of peatiness: it was slightly less peaty than Johnnie Walker Black Label, more mellow than sharp. It was then I realized that this Yamazaki Heavily Peated isn’t heavily peated in a universal sense; it’s just heavily peated compared to the standard unpeated Yamazaki profile.
These examples lead me to the popular new kid on the block: rum. With peat not being used in rum production, rum’s equivalent of having “the other end of the spectrum flavor” is funk. Because of rum’s diversity, funk is not as easily understood.
With molasses-based rum, funk is more often associated with long fermented and/or pot-distilled rum from places like Jamaica, St. Lucia, Guyana, and Fiji. The grassiness of cane juice rum from French Caribbean islands like Martinique are also associated with funk.
To understand funk more, terms like esters and congeners were introduced. These are produced during fermentation. Usually, longer fermentation produces more esters and congeners; read this article for more details.
As a result, terms like “ester count,” “high esters,” and “high congeners” have become more popular. On the less popular side, terms such as “heavy” versus “light” rum can give an impression of purely pot distilled Jamaican rum versus a multi-column distilled Puerto Rican rum. So, when less experienced but excited consumers encounter this term, they’re likely to expect the rum to be similar to Jamaican rum, when it’s really not going to be.
English Harbour is a good example. In my review of Antigua’s English Harbour 5 year, I mentioned that it has a fairly medium body. This is a result of undergoing a 36-hour fermentation and being distilled in a column still. However, when Velier came out with this Antigua Distillery Heavy Traditional Rum from English Harbour a few years ago, it caused a fuss among the more experienced rum aficionados.
English Harbour, which is not too popular in rum circles, isn’t known to produce heavy rum. Also, the label says “high congener.” Some were wondering or expecting this “heavy” English Harbour rum to be comparable to Jamaican rum, but the reviews said otherwise.
Keep in mind that Antigua Distillery Limited has only one (column) still. So, when it undergoes maintenance and repairs, they can’t distill. As a result, they end up with batches of molasses that end up fermenting for longer than usual. For how long? I don’t exactly know. But because the longer fermentation creates more congeners, this up being a high congener rum by English Harbour’s standards.
The label of this English Harbour High Congener can be confusing. Below the high congener words are “a transatlantic single cask selection,” but the left of the label says “small batch.” I can confirm that it’s a small batch, since around 1,200 bottles became available in the EU upon release. This was distilled in 2014, aged in ex-bourbon casks, then bottled in 2020, which should put it around five or six years old.
English Harbour High Congener Series – Review
63.8% ABV. €65 on Zeewijck.
On the nose: I’m greeted by sharp ethanol. After this come bold and long aromas of honey, vanilla, cinnamon syrup, and caramel. Underneath and between it are subtle scents of almonds, toffee, and marzipan. While being suffocated by the sharp ethanol, I get light citrus aromas. Bits of cascara tea, jackfruit, dehydrated lemon peel, kumquat, and tangerine oranges come out.
In the mouth: A confectionery festival. The ethanol here isn’t as sharp as on the nose, so I’m able to taste more nuances. I get medium notes of honey, muscovado sugar, vanilla, caramel, toffee, butterscotch, almonds, marzipan, and cinnamon syrup. Oddly, a sharp ethanol bite comes out after. At the end is a tannic taste accompanied by orange zest.
As you can see, there’s no mention of funk. It’s a lot of ex-bourbon and confectionery from a medium-bodied, molasses-based rum. In a blind tasting, I’d think this was a vintage Foursquare ECS minus the strong orange notes, which is never a bad thing.
This is a cask strength bottling for a German company called HAROMEX Development GmbH. If there is added coloring, Germany requires the label to say so, but I don’t see any on this label. I wonder if some funky notes would be more noticeable if the ABV were lower, or if they were aged in more used barrels? The logic being that, up to a point, a lower ABV can allow the detection of other flavors. More used up barrels will also mean the wood will impart less flavor to the spirit, so there’s a higher chance to get the distillate’s flavors.
I like this, but I think it’s a bit too hot. Mind you, I can drink other 60% ABV spirits and find that strength just right. If Haromex dictated the price on this, I think they’re taking the piss. I find this to be overpriced by a bit, but I think the price is indicative of a market that is taking advantage of the rising rum trend, plus it being a limited edition. If this were €10 cheaper, I’d give this a 7.