Barrel aging began as an accident - barrels happened to be the available method for storing and transporting large quantities of liquids for a good chunk of history. Eventually it was noticed that spirits that had been in barrels for a while were significantly better than the raw spirits straight off the still. Over time aging became more of an intentional action, producing the more refined spirits we know and love today. The class began with a discussion of oak barrels and the characteristics of different varieties (primarily American vs. French limousin) and how those influence the spirits that are aged in them. There was also discussion of barrel characteristics such as size (smaller means higher surface area to volume ratio, so more wood contact), char (to a point, higher char caramelizes more wood sugars and other compounds, making them more readily extractable by the spirit), the environment where they are stored (larger temperature variations cause the volume of the spirit to change, moving it in and out of the wood, which speeds up extraction), and spirit entry proof (higher proof spirits will extract flavors more quickly).
From there we moved on to tasting a number of different spirits. My tasting notes are a bit sketchy, as I was trying to write and keep up with the flow of the class, but I still managed to get quite a bit out of it.
The first rum on deck was J. Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum. This is a real fire-breather at 126-proof, which used to scare me to no small degree. However, my palate has evolved and toughened, so I was surprised by how much more approachable I found it now.
J. Wray & Nephew Overproof Rum
Nose: plastic, foreshots, a little grassy, lots of esters
Taste: sweet fruits, coffee, esters
While still a rough 'n ready rum, J. Wray is a lot more comprehensible to me know that I have a handle both on the flavors of Jamaican rums and the ability to drink high proof spirits without instantly choking. While not something that I would want to sip on a regular basis (the plastic notes are still kind of off-putting), there are some nice elements in the spirit.
|Blair pouring straight from the barrel|
J. Wray 30 Days Old
Nose: less plastic, slightly oaky, vanilla
Taste: a little caramel, bitter esters, slightly tannic
While still pretty rough around the edges, a month in a small barrel had definitely reduced some of the more unpleasant characteristics of the spirit while adding pleasant barrel notes of caramel and vanilla.
Next up was samples of J. Wray that had been aged for 60 days in the same barrel.
J. Wray 60 Days Old
Nose: lots of vanilla, plastic is much calmer, flatter, caramel, coffee, mellow esters
Taste: very sweet, more tannic at the back, lighter esters
The barrel was starting to win the battle with the spirit, heavily imposing its mark on a very robust rum. At the same time, the tannic elements of the barrel were starting to become a little bit too strong, suggesting that this was reaching the limits of what could be done without ruining the spirit. This is one of the tricky things about small barrels - extraction proceeds so quickly that even a few days too many can over-oak a spirit, so care must be taken to sample it frequently to find the sweet spot of aging.
Changing things up, we tried Don Q Cristal, a white rum.
Don Q Cristal
Nose: very light, almost non-existant
Taste: light, not much going on
This was basically good vodka, with the barest hint of rum character. However, a little while in a 5 liter barrel that previously held Plantation Barbados rum made for an interesting twist.
Don Q Plantation Barrel Rum
Nose: still light, a little caramel, hollow floral notes, vanilla
Taste: sweet wood, vanilla, cognac
This was much more interesting, both bringing in barrel notes (caramel, vanilla, cognac from the previous occupant) and highlighting the inherent floral notes of the spirit. Also, because this was a reused barrel, aging the Don Q in it didn't add any tannic notes to the rum.
After that we switched tack, trying two different rums from Dos Maderas. First up was their 5+3 rum, which is sourced from Barbados and Guyana, then aged in ex-bourbon barrels for five years in the Caribbean, followed by three years in ex-Palo Cortado (a style similar to amontillado) sherry barrels in Spain.
Dos Maderas 5+3
Nose: vanilla, sherry fruitiness, creamy, light nougat
Taste: creamy, light sherry, nutty, a hint of coffee bitterness
While very tasty, I would have a slightly difficult time identifying this as rum rather than another base spirit. It reminds me a lot of sherry cask finished whiskies like Glenmorangie Lasanta, with the nougat and sherry notes on the nose. So while a pleasant sipper, it just doesn't quite tickle my fancy.
Dos Maderas 5+5
Nose: brandied raisins, bittersweet, baking spices
Taste: very sweet sherry, raisins and raisin skins
This is rum sourced from the same Bajan and Guyanese distillers, which is aged for five years in ex-bourbon barrels in the Caribbean, then shipped to Spain and aged three years in ex-Palo Cortado sherry casks, then two years in ex-PX sherry casks. While it has a certain charm, I felt like the sherry barrels had overwhelmed the rum, even more so than the 5+3.
Given that the company is relatively new, my guess is that they're using first-fill (to use the scotch whisky terminology) ex-sherry barrels for their aging. Second- or third-fill barrels might impart a more nuanced layer on the rum, which could provide a more balanced experience. However, given the plaudits that they have received since coming to market (and the fact that it seems to be sold out almost everywhere), it sounds like they're better off ignoring my desires. The market has spoken.
Last, but not least, we flipped things around by tasting Balvenie Caribbean Cask, a scotch whisky that is aged in ex-bourbon barrels for fourteen years, then finished in ex-rum casks.
Balvenie Carribean Cask
Nose: malt, mild raisins, lots of hogo
Taste: malty, a little pepper, dry rum finish
Sadly I wasn't able to get as much out of this rum as I would have liked, given that it was the last one of the class and my palate was already kind of burned out. The hogo on the nose was rather surprising, but a nice twist on the usual whisky aromas. I'd like to give this one a try again under better circumstances.
I was really pleased with how the class went. Blair had a good theme, structured the class well, and presented a lot of useful information. More classes are planned, so if you're in the Portland area, keep an eye out on the Hale Pele Facebook page or events calendar for news.