The World Cup of Rum

Here it is.  My very own World Cup of Rum (World Copita maybe?).

Thirty-two rums from around the world about to face off against one another for the ultimate recognition from my palate.

All the groups are set and over the next few weeks I will be tasting each group separately and choosing the two best ones from each group to move to the next round, which will be a single elimination bracket.

So stay tuned to see how your favorites fare… or to find new favorites to try.  Regardless of which rums make it through, I think we all know who the winner is… me.

Let the tastings begin!!

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Battle Schedule

I put together a tentative schedule so everyone can see roughly when each rum battle will take place. I say roughly because I don’t really have a set routine for when I do the battles, I just do them as often as I can (hopefully two or three every week), unfortunately life tends to get in the way of rum and I end up not doing any battles for days on end at times. But at least you can see the order in which they will happen, so if there is a particular match-up you want to see, you can get an idea of when it might happen.

Feel free to comment on any of the battles and let me know whether your experience agrees with mine or not. Or if you have any thoughts on the organization, format, or any aspect of the competition, please let me know. All comments, advice, and discussions are more than welcome.

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Group D Battle: Flor de Caña Centenario Gold vs. Viejo do Caldas

Nicaragua vs. Colombia! Both are countries I have very fond memories of (from the days before I could drink rum), but let’s leave all that sentimentality aside and get to tasting some rum!!  It’s been almost a week since my last tasting, which is putting me behind schedule, but oh well, such is life, right?  The important thing is I got to do one today, and here it is.  The glasses were labelled in their usual hidden spots, the rums poured, and the blind tasting was ready:

The first glass opened up with slightly fruity, but not too sweet, aroma.  Something like warm nectarines, if that makes any sense.  It also had hints of vanilla and maybe a bit of apple popping up here and there.  This actually led to a hotter than expected opening taste with smoke and peppers, but still that same warm sweetness in there.  It then settled to a smokey, woody middle, where it lost what I found to be a very pleasant complexity it had at the beginning.  The heat faded a bit and then ramped up some in the end, where the rum closed with a rather quick dry oaky finish that kinda left me wanting more.  I took a second sip quickly and picked up even more of that fruity opening, but still that middle seemed lacking, such a shame too, because with its nose and opening taste had been excellent.

The second glass started with a very clear caramel smell on wood, like when you were little and tried to make rock candy, but you ended up burning it and then you tried to stir it with a wooden spoon.  No? Just me? OK. The alcohol sting was barely noticeable in the smell.  This was actually true of both rums, which allowed me to keep my untrained nose near the spirit for longer trying to pick out more smells. Bananas, and mangoes came to mind.  The taste started with just enough of a bite to wake up your tastebuds and then coated your mouth with caramel goodness laced with fruit and some spice, until it closed with a warm and lingering finish.  This wasn’t a bold rum, instead, it tasted like a very refined and well-crafted spirit.

The choice was pretty obvious to me, the second glass had delivered a whole package, whereas the first had its moments, but failed to give me a complete experience.  I turned the glasses over to reveal that Flor de Caña was the second glass (no surprise there really). As I always do, I poured another small serving of each and tasted them openly to confirm my results.  There was no change in the outcome, but I had to give Viejo de Caldas more points for it strong opening, which I am learning is something I really like in a rum.  The winner was Flor de Caña Centenario Gold.

Next Up: Group D Battle – Westerhall Plantation vs. Clement VSOP

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Group C Battle: Pyrat XO Reserve vs. Old Port Deluxe

I was in sort of uncharted territory here today. Uncharted by me, that is.  And I say sort of because although I had never tasted the Old Port, I did try the precursor to the Pyrat, the Planter’s Gold, a long time ago… and I remembered liking it.  However, a lot of people kept saying this one was not nearly as good as that one and that it is way too sweet and orange-flavored.  I guess I would find out for myself today.

The Old Port was quite intriguing to me too.  I never had any Indian rum, and I had been debating whether to include the Old Port or the much more widely available Old Monk in the World Cup. In the end I went with the advice of an Indian friend of mine who claimed to like the Old Port better.  Now our friendship hung in the balance.

I poured the rums into their respective glasses and had them do the usual shuffle to create my super fool-proof blind tasting, the room literally filled up with smells of candy… this was definitely going to be one sweet battle.  I moved them around while watching youtube videos for a bit until I was sure I couldn’t tell which glass was which (don’t worry, I had marked it on the bottom, where I couldn’t see it while I tasted them).  I put the bottles away and now I was ready to begin.

The first glass had a very distinct smell of something like a Creamsicle… oranges and vanilla.  Which was pretty much what a lot of people had complained about the new Pyrat, so I guessed that’s what I was drinking.  It wasn’t really an unpleasant smell at all, though, and it did have a nice caramel base to it.  As I took a sip, I was actually a little surprised by the initial wave of warmth that hit my tongue.  It wasn’t overwhelming in any way, but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting from that initial smell.  Then came the Creamsicle.  Ha, actually the taste wasn’t as one dimensional as that, there were definitely hints of other flavors at play.  Cinnamon and caramel for sure, others I couldn’t quite place.  It wasn’t bad… just not sure it would be what I would want when i felt I wanted a glass of rum.  It was more of a dessert drink.  It would probably go really well on top of some pancakes.

The second glass had a smell no less reminiscent of my childhood, it smelled like bubble gum,  Like that pink square one with the juicy center.  Freshen Up? Bubblicious? It also had some strong hints of cinnamon and licorice.  The taste in this one was also a bit more subdued than the smell would have me believe, but there was still plenty of that fake cherry bubble gum flavor to it.  I really wasn’t a fan, but I figured it might be an acquired taste so I took another sip… and then I gave up.  I would have to try to acquire it some other day.  Probably in a cocktail of some sort. A tiki one. Right then I was thinking maybe I should have picked up the Old Monk instead.  I will have to have words with my friend.

The first glass had this win.  Although both “rums” were a bit too sweet and almost artificial-tasting to fit what I think of as a rum flavor profile, the first one at least had a flavor that I could see myself enjoying by itself in certain occasions.  It had a feel and taste of a well-made rum, just one that catered to a different palate. Creamsicle beats cherry bubble gum.  The winner is Pyrat XO Reserve.

Next up: Group D Battle – Flor de Caña Centenario Gold 18 vs. Viejo de Caldas 8 Year Old

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Group C Battle: Matusalem Gran Reserva 15 vs. Millonario Reserva Especial

OK, so now we have two rums facing each other that are both aged in the same method (solera) and both claim the same age of 15 (but with the solera method I feel actual age statements mean very little since they are at best an average of the age of the blended rums, and at worst… well, pretty much just a total overstatement), so I am thinking this might be a close battle.  Never had the Millonario before, so I am pretty excited to try it.

The first thing I noticed was the Millonario’s bottle, well, actually it was the bottle’s packaging. It was wrapped in toquilla straw, hand woven by artisans to cover the entire bottle.  It seemed to be one of the bottle’s greatest draws, but I found it kind of cheap-looking, especially with the bright gold accents of the label that was slapped on there.  It almost looked, to me, like a cheap imitation of some real indigenous crafts… but what do I know? According to their website it’s legit. In any case, I much preferred the classic look of the tinted Matusalem bottle with its vintage looking label and cork stopper.

I quickly set up my blind tastings.  I placed the tasting glasses directly on my dark wood table so that any differences in the color of the rums would be less noticeable as I poured. Then I mixed the glasses up until I was thoroughly confused as to which was which, and I began that comparison.

The first glass had in it a rum with a deep brownish red color, almost maroon.  Although the bottles gave no hint as to the color inside, I remembered that the Matusalem was more of an amber rum, I tried to  push those thoughts out of my head, but the smell pretty much confirmed it.  The aroma coming from this rum was sweet, quite so, actually.  It reminded me of figs in syrup (brevas en almibar), with a little bit of spice.  The initial taste was not quite as sweet as the smell, which was good.  It had some hints of nut and a smoky base to it, but it quickly gave way to a kind of syrupy sweetness.  The syrup part of it was more texture than taste, but it certainly added to the almost too sweet feel of the rum.  There was little doubt in my mind this was the Millonario.

The second glass carried the more familiar, amber color of the Matusalem.  The nose (ha, that’s reviewer lingo I picked up from reading up on some other people’s websites) also had the more familiar caramel and vanilla aromas, but I also picked up some other more aromatic accents, which I can’t really place a name too.  The caramel and vanilla was easy to pick up in the taste as well, but it was definitely a more subtle sweetness that mingled nicely with smoky oak and spices. The rum felt a bit dryer than I remember it being… but that could be due to comparing it to the heavy fullness of the first glass.  The one thing this rum may have been lacking was a bit of a bite.  It just seemed to be too well-balanced and mellow… almost to a fault.  But I guess that’s what a classic rum does, it sets the standard and defines the genre.

The battle definitely went to the second glass, which, to no one’s surprise, turned out to be the Matusalem.  I had always considered myself a fan, to a certain extent, of the sweeter rums that seem to be the newer trend.  I have certainly spoken highly of the Zacapa and Zaya rums, which I have enjoyed in many occasions.  From what I had heard about the Millonario, I expected it to rank up there with those two, but that wasn’t the case at all.  I wondered if this was due to the Millonario actually being much sweeter than them, or if perhaps my tastes were changing as a result of this project.  I realize I am still almost at the beginning of it, but I have sampled approximately 18 rums in the past month, and have actually sat down and tried to analyze each tasting… maybe it is really having an effect on the way I think about, and appreciate, rum.  In any case, whatever the deeper reason might be, the winner was the Matusalem Gran Reserva 15.

Next up:  Group C Battle: Pyrat XO Reserve vs. Old Port Deluxe

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Group B Battle: R.L. Seale vs Khukri

I have to admit I was a little scared coming up to this battle.  I had been looking everywhere for the Khukri XXX Coronation Rum, which comes in a cool looking dagger-shaped bottle, and which has received pretty decent reviews. Alas, it was no where to be found in Southern California, or anywhere in the US, for that matter.  What I did find, however, was a single bottle of plain old Khukri Rum stashed away and gathering dust in an almost forgotten corner of a local beverage warehouse. The clerk was not even able to tell me when they had acquired this bottle… which, from the looks of it, had lived a rather rough life.  No matter, I thought, this is supposed to be an adventure anyway.  Then I started reading some rumors that Khukri was recalled from the States because some people had died after drinking it!! Yikes!  All unsubstantiated, I hope…  Not to mention that the last time I had Nepalese rum, one of my friends ended up having a terrible reaction and we were stuck in the middle of the Annapurna Circuit for a couple of days hoping she would recover and be able to hike out.  But still, it was, ready for battle.  Its opponent today was R.L. Seale’s 10 Year Old, a name that should be familiar to any lover of rum.  The Seale came in a very nice black bottle shaped like the old leather bottles used by sailors in the old days.  Points to Seale.

I set up the blind tasting as usual, but the difference in color between the two rums gave them away.  The Seale has a clear golden hue, while Khukri leans heavily toward the red end of the spectrum. With anonymity lost, I started my tastings.

The Seale had a nice aroma of oak and something like toasted almonds (I ate some earlier on a salad, so that may have influenced my choice of words there), there was caramel there too, but not overwhelmingly sweet.  The taste had a nice smoky quality to it, with a tempered sweetness that was more of a background than an accent.  It grew hot in the mouth, but without heavy spice.  It had a very nice presence in the mouth, and finished with a lingering buttery aftertaste. An excellent rum.

The Khukri opened with very heavy pepper over a maple syrup kind of smell. And the flavors that followed matched that closely.  There were other tastes trying to build up in there, but I feel the syrup and pepper kind of overwhelmed everything else.  It wasn’t unpalatable; on the contrary, it was pretty drinkable, I have definitely had worse rums… but it just lacked depth and well… some other flavors would have been nice.

There was no contest here.  The Seale dominated this battle with strong crisp flavors that really tasted like they were meant to be there.  With the Khukri I couldn’t help but think that the syrup and pepper flavor were added to a kind of generic alcohol base.  I am by no means a purist when it comes rum and I am not wholly against the addition of flavors, as long as they add to the rum experience and not simply seek to fake it… which I got the feeling was what Khukri was trying to do.  The winner was R.L. Seale’s 10 Year Old. 

I really hope to get my hands on some of the Khukri XXX Coronation Rum to see how that one tastes…

Next up: Group C Battle – Matusalem Gran Reserva 15 vs. Millonario Sistema Solera 15

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Group B Battle: Barbancourt vs. Botran

In the presentation department, the Botran takes the prize over the Barbancourt. Its teardrop-shaped bottle and large cork stopper are designed to be displayed prominently in any collector’s shelf, which is almost a shame because its box is quite nicely designed as well, and it makes it tough to decide whether to keep it in the box or not.  The Barbancourt, on the other hand, comes in a classic (i.e. generic) bottle, that is dressed up with gold labels to let you know there’s good stuff inside. Where it does get some extra points is in the fact that they used a dark brown glass bottle, which means they really care about protecting the rum inside from light, a nice touch.  However, they lose most of those points by capping the bottle with an aluminum stopper.  I’m not really all gung-ho about cork stoppers; in fact, I prefer a good solid plastic cap with an airtight seal to an ill-fitting cork, but I do tend to frown upon aluminum closures.  They deform to easily and fail to keep air out all that well.  But, who knows? Maybe Barbancourt figured their rum is SO good that you’ll never even close the bottle again after you start drinking it… Anyways, on to the battle.

I poured the rums and set up the blind tasting in the usual manner: two glasses labeled “A” and “B” on the bottom (where I can’t see it), each rum poured into one of the glasses (noting which rum is in which glass), and the glasses scrambled around the table until I don’t know which is which.  Then it’s time to taste.

The first glass opened with a nice and strong vanilla scent mixed with caramel, which was confirmed with the first taste as well, but I detected a little bit of an almost grassy quality to the flavor along with the taste of oak.  This made me think of Barbancourt right away.  The feel was buttery at first and very smooth, with flavors of orange and some other fruit, maybe apricot, rising. Then the rum began to warm up in the mouth to close with a nice and hot finish that lingered for a while. I took another sip before moving on to the second glass.  This stuff was good.

The second glass had a smooth caramel aroma with a hint of nuts, like walnut or pecan, and a little spice. There wasn’t much of the alcohol smell in there so I could sniff freely without my nose burning.  The first sip opened with a very balanced wave of sweetness. I do tend to like my rums slightly on the sweeter side, but often feel that they go too far.  This one seemed to get it right, with enough oak and spice to tone down the sweetness of the caramel and dried fruit without covering their flavor.  Like the first glass, this one also built up to a hotter finish (though not quite as fiery), but then it kind of smoothed away, lingering as a pleasant aftertaste in the throat for a while.

I had pretty much figured out that Barbancourt was the first glass and Botran the second kind of early in the tasting, but I couldn’t quite choose a clear winner.  My preference for slightly sweeter rums was making me lean toward the Botran, but the finish on the Barbancourt was so good it always left me wanting to have another sip.  I would need another tasting before I could decide.  Without calling the winner I turned the glasses over and confirmed which rum was which, then I poured another tasting of each, and went at it again.

I actually went back and forth a few times, re-tasting each rum over and over again. I ended up picking up more of the sweet flavors of the Barbancourt (oranges and maybe even pineapples), and more of the spice in the Botran (ginger and cloves), which wasn’t making the situation easier, but in the end I chose the Botran.  While the Barbancourt had that great finish, the Botran had an amazing opening that was sweet without being syrupy or overwhelming. I felt that its progression from that tempered sweetness to spicy finish to lingering aftertaste was just better attuned to my palate. The winner was Botran Solera 1893.

Next up: Group B Battle – R.L. Seale’s Finest 10 Year Old vs. Khukri

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Group A Battle: Cruzan vs Gosling’s

I have both the old and new bottlings of the Cruzan Single Barrel. I debated for a while on which one I would use for the World Cup. I had tasted the old a little while back and it was good, but I had not tried the new one. Was this competition really the time to try it? In the end I went with the new bottle. My justification was that the competition should reflect spirits that are currently available… but my real reason was that I hadn’t found any other old bottles anywhere, so I was hesitant to part with my one and only.

The Gosling’s Old Rum, on the other hand, was a completely new beast for me. I had seen it in stores, but it was always past that magical $50 mark, so I never picked it up. In fact, I was very close to just using their Black Seal for this competition, since I am very, very familiar with that one (especially when it’s mixed with ginger beer)… and it is dirt cheap. Then I came across a store selling the Gosling’s Old for a mere $40. So here it is… and I am excited about it. Oh, if you want to know exactly where I got it from at that price, I’ll be more than happy to tell you… AFTER I pick up another bottle.

Trying to do a blind tasting with these two rums is absolutely pointless. The Cruzan is almost honey colored, whereas the Gosling’s is a very dark reddish brown. I considered using some opaque glasses, but dismissed the idea as pretty pointless as well. I could trust myself to do an honest comparison without bias… right? So on I went to the battle.

I tried the Cruzan first. The initial scent was a buttery-vanilla whiff, but with a heavy citrus accent, almost sour at times, but not overwhelmingly so. The taste carried these same notes, but without the sourness I had perceived at first. It then built into an oak and leather base, with spiciness building up as I explored it more and more, and ending in a mild but lingering finish. This really tasted like what I imagine rum should taste like. All the flavors were there and they worked well, adding layers rather than just mixing together.

The Gosling’s, on the other hand, lacked all the subtleties of the Cruzan. I sang praises to the Mocambo bottle in the last battle, but the Gosling’s presentation could definitely give it a run for its money. A dark green (almost black) frosted glass champagne bottle, corked and sealed in black wax, placed in a bed of sawdust inside a wooden box with a plexiglass cover. Yeah, they went there. And the spirit inside lived up to the packaging. The scent of plums (or prunes?) was the first thing I noticed, with a heavy base of molasses (as is to be expected from its dark color) and caramel. The flavor was rich and sweet, without being sickly so, and it felt substantial throughout the mouth and throat. It was not the flavor I was used to when tasting “sipping” rums, but it was rum loud and clear.

These were obviously two very different rums, and it really illuminates the point that some have made about the futility of having these types of comparisons where rums of different styles are pitted against each other. There is really no subjective way to compare them, and in the end we simply have to rely on our personal preference… but, to me at least, that is precisely the point, to explore these differences and figure out what we like… and why we like it. In this case, I liked both rums… but I had to give the edge to the Gosling’s. While the Cruzan said to me “I will be everything you want me to be,” the Gosling’s replied “I am what you never even knew you wanted.” So, I’m still learning so much about this spirit, and enjoying every step of the way. The winner is Gosling’s Family Reserve Old Rum.

Ha, I just re-read this before posting it, and I should probably sober up a bit before I write these things… or maybe not.

Next Up: Group B Battle – Barbancourt Estate Reserve vs. Botran Solera 1893

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Group A Battle: Bacardi vs. Mocambo

If this competition were about bottles, I think few would hold a candle to the Mocambo 20. It really is a work of art, and worthy of a place on any collector’s shelf. With its tall, slender shape and its Amate tree-fiber cover, it is bound to catch your eye immediately. By contrast, Bacardi 8 has an understated design that exudes old world class. Much shorter than the other Bacardi bottles out there, the Bacardi 8 seems to want you to part with your expectations of the name from the start. Not a bad move on the part of Bacardi since its product is often seen as more a spring break chugger than a quality sipper. But bottles mean little here, it’s what they hold that we are after. So on with the battle.

The set up, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is simple: I label the underside of two tasting glasses “A” and “B”, then I pour each of the battling rums into one of the glasses, I note which is which on a piece of paper, and then I mix up the glasses until I don’t know which “A” and which is “B”. Ready for battle.

The first glass hit me with a bit of sweet tobacco over the usual caramel smell, with a slight hint of spice. The taste started with a syrupy sweetness and spicy accents that quickly built to a warm feel, but never quite getting hot. I think I could pick up some tobacco and maybe leather, but it was subtle. It felt like more complexities were building but never quite got there. There was hardly any presence in the throat and very little aftertaste, which I found myself waiting for after it’s strong entrance.

The second glass had a much sweeter smell, with some fruity notes and almost nothing of spice. The taste of sugar was also much more prominent in this one, there was dried fruit in there, maybe raisins, and a slight licorice taste appearing every now and then, but not quite able to break through the sugar for very long. What it really reminded me of was a sugar water concoction that my mom used to give me when I was little and wasn’t feeling too well. “Aguanita” I used to call it.

The first glass definitely showed a more complex profile, though I feel that it may have opened too strongly for its own good. The second glass was consistent in its delivery, if a bit one dimensional in its sweetness. Although I gave the second glass nostalgia points for bringing up fond childhood memories (and on Mother’s Day, no less), the battle had to go to the firwash lass, which I assumed to be the Mocambo.

Turning the glasses over, I found I was right; the first glass was the Mocambo. As usual I poured another tasting of each to confirm my findings. I did notice some more flavors appearing in the Bacardi that time, some more fruit and a bit more of the oak base, but nothing that would come close to overturning my decision. The winner was Mocambo 20 Years Art Edition.

Next up: Group A Battle – Cruzan Single Barrel vs. Gosling’s Old Rum

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