Ron Matusalem is a brand that traces its history back to 1872 when the distillery was first established in Santiago de Cuba. Fast forward about fifty years and the company was doing great business as American tourists flocked to Cuba in an effort to escape Prohibition. However, things took a turn for a worse when Fidel Castro seized power on the island, which led to the family fleeing to the Dominican Republic. A new distillery was set up that sought to replicate the rum previously made in Cuba (the labels all declare that it is made with the "original formula of Cuba") and has been operating ever since.
Right now I'm going to review two of their older bottlings, the 15 year old and 18 year old Gran Reservas. One of Matusalem's claims to quality is that these rums are aged using a solera system. That means that a layered system of barrels periodically has aged spirit withdrawn from the bottom layer, then each layer is topped up with slightly younger rum, with new make getting added to the top layer. With a number of levels in action, this means that there is a significant amount of blending going on as the spirit ages and a small portion of the rum in the final level is very, very old. As with all age statements on bottles in America, the number must show the age of the youngest spirit in the blend. How much of a difference this really makes has been hotly debated, but in theory it should help to add complexity to the final spirit.
Nose: rich vanilla, marshmallow, light molasses and tropical fruits, nutty (walnuts?), oak, more alcohol than expected
Taste: recapitulates the nose - sugarcane sweetness and vanilla up front, a solid blast of pepper follows quickly, oak and molasses come in near the back
Finish: bittersweet molasses, wood, some chili
Matusalem 15 is a duel between the sweeter flavors of sugarcane and vanilla against the sharper notes of chili pepper and oak, with rich molasses forming a bridge between the two. While I can wish that it had just a bit more oomph from a 43-46% bottling strength, it mostly manages to hold its own at 40%. Sadly it does tend to fall apart with only a little water, so just leave it neat.
Matusalem wanted a fine, relatively smooth sipping rum and between the solera system and the skill of their blenders, we're getting a pretty tasty dram. And for as little as $20, it's a superb value. It also does extremely well in the aged Puerto Rican rum role for tiki drinks, delivering an exceptional smooth and rich experience. To see what I mean, try it with El Dorado 12 and Appleton Estate Extra in a Navy Grog. The results are decadently delicious.
Ron Matusalem 18
Nose: a healthy dose of rummy vanilla, slight undercurrent of oak, bourbon barrel notes
Taste: sweet, but not overly sweet, opening, with sugarcane carrying across the palate, more molasses, a bit of pepper and dark fruits come out at the back
Finish: molasses, pepper
While I only got to try this one at a bar and initially thought I might be missing something, reading over the official tasting notes makes me think that this is exactly what they were shooting for. It's an extremely smooth, sweet vanilla-focused spirit. That they managed this without it becoming over-oaked is quite a feat in a tropical country. However, I'll admit to being a little disappointed as I expected more complexity from a well-aged rum. Some more chili heat would have provided a nice balance, but it was only a hint, rather than a strong element. I have to wonder if a little less dilution might help, but given what it sounds like they were trying to create, more burn could be counterproductive, so we're going to get it at 40%.
Overall I'll have to agree with Cap'n Jimbo: the 18 year is a limp reflection of its younger sibling. Don't pony up the extra cash for the 18 year old, just stick with the more reasonably priced and lively 15.