Blender’s Journal

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We are exploring rum blending. These posts intend to be extra inclusive and aimed at engaging other content creators. Take any ideas and run with them! It is inevitable that basic blending becomes important to the rum scene so jump in as soon as you can!

“To barge in to brewers who have been vatting their own rums for some time is a difficult business, and in fact the few flies that Chris Sherriff has put down in the course of his recent calls have produced an almost unanimous reaction against it.”

The quote is from an internal document penned in the late 1940’s regarding Chris Sherriff, the owner of Long Pond at the time before Seagrams bought it. Where I’m at with my own blending work is trying to get the lay of the land. There are many interesting bottles on the market that may be more fun to experience as blends than consumed alone and I’m trying to figure out some best bets for that.

If you purchase a heavy pot still Jamaican rum like Two James “Dr. Bird”, what’s a best bet for a usage rate? Wouldn’t it be nice to see a review for such a heavy rum that describes its blending personality?

This Ether, when prepared from sugar cane materials is of a pleasant fruity odour and a very desirable constituent of all rums of good body and bouquet. A broker in London would call a rum that was rich in Acetic Ether and well supplied with the heavy body and fruit Ethers “stalky” if no Butyric Ether be present.

Stalky? This quote comes to us from H.H. Cousin’s himself in Confidential: Instruction For Making High-Ether Rum by H.H. Cousins (1906). Cousins gives us more to chew on a year later in the West India Bulletin:

Thus a good standard of acetic ether, associated as a rule with a high standard of ethers and intensity of flavouring power, is appraised under the heading ‘pepper’ or ‘rasse,’ that is, breed. This is best appreciated when the spirit is smelt before being diluted. Butyric ether gives a delicate fruity flavour, and rums deficient in this ingredient are sometimes described by brokers as ‘stalky.’

We’ve added pepper and rasse. Pepper should not be confused with the “peppered whiskies” (and rums) contaminated with acrolein. Rasse may be what is commonly called headiness these days and may be best observed in the unapologetic ethyl acetate of Wray & Nephews or Rum Fire. Rasse is experienced before a spirit is cut down and often German blenders cut a spirit to 30% ABV (white spirit bubble) to observe a more specific fruitiness.

Charles Allan restates things in the 1906 Fermentation lecture which was an actually education course for Jamaican distillers.

Here again other things come in. These “other things” are difficult to define. They include body and what may be called the general character of the flavour,—what the Germans call I think, “Rasse.” These things can only be judged by one with considerable experience, but I am of the opinion that if the chemist acquired this experience he would be in a very favourable position not merely to give an idea of the value, but to render very material assistance to the manufacturer, especially in the way of assisting him to maintain a uniform standard in the article which he manufactures.

It seems like Jamaica had only bits of contact with German rum appraisal culture. No doubt language barrier was a factor. F.I. Scard gives us one more passage to look at in 1920:

The cane-juice itself is an important factor. Different kinds of canes give a different quality of rum, due, partly, to the case itself and partly to variations in chemical treatment necessitated there in the sugar manufacture. Even the different conditions of the same variety of cane will affect the flavour of the rum. On one occasion some Demerara rum made from very rank Bourbon canes were reported upon as being “green and stalky.” There is therefore outside the ethers specified some bodies present in excessive proportions which come down from the cane itself.

My guess is that the stalkiness descriptor best compares to the vesouté descriptor. We see it best exemplified by the grogues of Cape Verde. Including whole pieces of cane may confer this quality to a ferment. Agricoles and rums from syrups have it to a lesser degree.

Stalkiness and rasse are out there, but what do we do with that character? To start thinking of blends, I explored the exhaustive tests for a handful of rums on the market:

Clairin Le Rocher $38.99 750 ml 49.50% 1:125
Rota 48 Cachaca $20.99 1000 ml 40.00% 1:100
R.L. Seale 10 year $32.99 750 ml 43.00% 1:150
Hamilton Jamaica gold $29.99 750 ml 46.50% 1:200
Hamilton Jamaica Black $29.99 750 ml 46.50% 1:225
Hampden 8 year $69.99 750 ml 46.00% 1:275
Smith & Cross $32.99 750 ml 57.00% 1:200
Dr. Bird $34.99 750 ml 50.00% 1:375
Batavia Arrack $34.99 750 ml 50.00% 1:250
Alleyne Arthur Barbados $12.99 750 ml 43.00% 1:100
João Monteiro Grogue $24.99 750 ml 40.00% 1:100
Castillo Silver $10.99 1000 ml 40.00% 1:75
Demian ??? 750 ml 58.77% 1:300

The exhaustive test number (rightmost column) may be the easiest, cheapest, and quickest test we can perform to arrive at a practical usage rate. Higher ABV spirits, no doubt, will skew the exhaustive test upwards, but that concentration is also how you are likely to use the rum. It only becomes worth scaling the number when you are considering price.

This test very closely matches the Scoville scale organoleptic test for grading chili peppers. Performing it takes some getting used to. You are looking for the exhaustion of “rumminess”. Every now and then, other character will linger, but that doesn’t count. An example is a spirit I suspect has a diacetyl “butteriness”. This note is salient well after the rumminess is exhausted.

Column spirit rums typically have very little persistence and only stretch 1:75 or 1:100. Fresh cane juice rums can have intriguing character that feels penetrating, but this typically lacks persistence. Many only stretch 1:100 to 1:125. Some very satisfying premium blends can range from 1:150 to 1:200. Basic pot still rums hover at 1:175 to 1:225 and then extraordinary blending stocks can soar well above that. The concentration of over proof spirits can also elevate numbers.

I’m ready to drink Hamilton’s Jamaica gold right way and I also really enjoy the ABV chosen at 46.5%. 1:200 seems like a sweet spot and anything above that I really enjoy blended down. I frequently create sketches to experience two rums combined in a test ratio. Sketches are best experienced next to one or both rums individually as a control.

Currently, I’m drinking Clairin Le Rocher as a 50/50 sketch with R.L. Seale 10 year. I find them congruent and the averaging evens out slightly overbearing qualities of each rum that don’t match my tastes when consumed alone.

Professional blenders, catering to a large audience, strive for universal concepts like balance, harmony, and length of finish. While we as hobbyists may put together blends that are gutsier. I love Dave Brubeck and Wes Montgomery, but my overall aesthetic skews more rock’n roll. I trade balance for acquired tastes, but at the same time there is no doubt that many rums still need blending to maximize extraordinary sensoriality. I subscribe to the idea there is no such thing as dissonance, but rather a further removed consonance we have yet to absorb. In practical terms, that means I may enjoy the Velvet Underground, but not enjoy listening to straight static on the radio or screeching train crashes. Something like a high ester rum can thrill you for a minute, but how much can you really drink before you feel trapped in an academic exercise? Regret and missed opportunity may creep into the unblended experience. Overly full bodied wines are known to thrill at first, but then to quickly fatigue where a drinker loses interest. All these concepts may help guide new contemporary blends that compete for the attention of whiskey and tequila drinkers who do not shy way from boldness. Blending takes systematic work and a little philosophy.

After the exhaustive test, to get to know a rum, I often appraise it at 30% ABV using my white spirit bubble. I’m able to do this with very small sample sizes and then I can make apples-to-apples comparisons among rums. Fruitiness gets so much more defined at 30%. German buyers often also used hot water to dilute the rum and I’ve found the microwave is practical for heating samples as small as an ounce. Much fruitiness is generic, but this test is the best simple method of finding more focused intriguing character buried in a rum. Is the rum “stalky” or does it contain esters that can define focused fruit character like pineapple? In my birectifier appraisal of Jamaica’s MMW mark bottled by Plantation, I described this pineapple-esque character as Niagara ice wine pouring from the condenser. Would the 30% white bubble test be a quicker way to spot it? You can also be more confident in your evaluation when you are comparing two rums. Whenever possible, evaluate more than one rum at a time.

So far we’ve introduced multiple tests which comprise proof of work for a blend:
Exhaustive test
Evaporation test
30% white spirit bubble test
simple sketches
exclusion tests

Each one of these is going to need a little more attention.

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