Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Rum Review: Appleton Estate Vertical Tasting

Appleton is one of about half a dozen distilleries on the island of Jamaica. The Appleton estate was established in the Nassau Valley, roughly a century after the English capture of Jamaica in 1655, with rum production beginning in 1749. This makes it the second oldest continuously operating rum distillery in the world, between Mt. Gay (1703) and St. James (1765). The estate was independent for most of its history, but was absorbed into the J. Wray & Nephew company in the early 20th century. The company grows all of its own sugarcane on their 11,000 acre property, producing both refined sugar and molasses.

Arial view of Appleton Estate from the Jamaica-Gleaner
As with all Jamaican rums, the key to the distinctive quality comes from the use of dunder in fermenting the molasses mash. Dunder made from the residue left in the still at the end of a run, which contains dead microorganisms, minerals, and other residual material that was not digested during fermentation. This provides a rich source of food for wild yeasts and bacteria that colonize it when the dunder is left in outdoor pits. The vile mess is then added to the next batch of molasses mash to begin the fermentation. Because of the numerous varieties of microorganisms present in the dunder, fermentation often produces a much higher quantity and variety of esters and other 'funky' aromatic compounds than are found in mashes fermented with carefully cultured yeast strains. This is why the one of the distinctive characteristics of Jamaican rums is often described as 'dunder funk'.

A closer view of Appleton's production plant from O Canada
Appleton uses both copper pot stills and continuous column stills to produce their rums, providing them with a wide array of spirits for aging and blending to generate their final products. From these raw materials, Joy Spence, the first female master blender in the rum industry, pulls together casks to make the various expressions produced by Appleton. The best of these are bottled under the Appleton Estate label. The two bottom rungs have no age statement (though they do outside of the US), while the higher level bottlings include 12, 21, 30, and, most recently, 50 year old rums.

Appelton Estate V/X

Nose: prominent esters, but still relatively light, definite hogo, underlying fruitiness, dusty oak, nutmeg, sugarcane and molasses, with growing sweetness over time. After adding a bit of water, the nutmeg aromas become stronger, while the esters become less sharp.

Taste: light sweetness with some sharp acidity up front, some black/chili pepper in the middle along with swirling esters of citrus, berries, and funk, oak, chocolate, and molasses near the back, growing sweeter into the finish. After adding water, the beginning of the sip becomes smoother, losing the acidity, while the black pepper remains fairly strong.

Finish: balanced oak and esters with a touch of molasses

In bottlings outside of the United States, V/X is listed as a five year old rum and that sounds about right to me. It's a good choice if you like your rums on the drier side - V/X isn't nearly as sweet as older rums tend to be. The oak is present, but hasn't had time to clobber the inherent characteristics of the rum aside. While ofter derided as 'not a sipper', I actually find it to be rather pleasant (though you should not that I think Smith & Cross is a good sipper, so your mileage may vary). However, I will admit that it shines even more in cocktails. It's one of my go-to rums for mai tais and fits in well with other drinks calling for Jamaican rum. There's just enough hogo to make itself present in cocktails, but it doesn't have the aggressiveness of Smith & Cross. The greatest testament I can give to the importance of Appleton V/X is that after finishing off my first bottle, I purchased an entire handle (which can be bought from Hi-Time Wine for all of $34), proceeded to finish that off, and then bought another bottle. While I have a strong tendency to buy a bottle, use it, then move onto something new, this is a rum that I will always have on my shelf. If you only get one Jamaican rum, make it Appleton V/X.

Appleton Estate Reserve

Nose: gentle sweet molasses balanced with savory esters, lightly fruity, almost malt/corn graininess, dry oak, grassy, nothing particularly assertive. After adding a few drops of water, the grain notes and oak become more prominent while the molasses fades a bit, with the hogo taking a supporting role, while some baking spices (cloves and nutmeg) emerging with time.

Taste: mildly sweet molasses with light berries up front, which changes place with bitter to bittersweet esters and oak mid-palate, at which point light pepper also comes in. After dilution, it becomes sweeter (and more sucrose-like) with more robust bittersweet molasses notes near the back, while the oak retreats a bit and the esters fade towards the background, and a bit of vanilla pops up near the back.

Finish: oak comes in very late, rather bitter and less pleasant esters

Estate Reserve is bottled as an 8 year old outside the U.S., as well at a slightly higher strength of 43% compared to the US 40%. It's something of a peculiar rum - smoother than V/X, but not quite rich enough or interesting enough to make it an engaging sipping rum to me. I guess they were aiming for it being relatively inoffensive to draw people into the brand, but it just feels awkward and not really great at anything. There is more sweetness than V/X, but is so stripped of complexity as to seem almost unidimensional. To cap it off, V/X is cheaper and the 12 year old isn't much more expensive, so it doesn't even represent a particularly good value. I would give this one a pass, opting for either of the other rums here. The 43% version might make the flavors more robust, but I'm still not sure it would be a strong proposition then.

Appleton Estate Extra 12 Year

Nose: still very ester-y - which joins up with the fairly prominent oak, sweet molasses and brown sugar, lots of baking spices - cinnamon and nutmeg, dry/savory quality. After adding a few drops of water, the molasses and oak merge into one bittersweet aroma,

Taste: sweet pepper up front, brown sugar, tropical fruit, and berries mid-palate, then lightly syrupy esters, more pepper and oak at the back, slightly vegetal. After dilution, it becomes much sweeter throughout, though still balanced by bitter notes of oak, hogo, and molasses, with lots of nutmeg going into the finish.

Finish: esters, wood spices, bittersweet molasses, pepper, and oak, fading into sugary sweetness

Estate Extra is the oldest and strongest of the bunch I'm tasting in this series, at 12 year old and 43%. It is also the only one that gets an age statement in the United States. Containing rums aged up to 18 years old, the extra time in barrels really shows, though it isn't nearly as tannic as I would have expected. It has a richness that isn't found in its younger siblings, making it a more pleasant sipping rum. With that said, you still have to enjoy the esters that are so characteristic of Jamaican rums to find this one agreeable. Age may have mellowed it, but the dunder funk still shines through. The richness that makes it a pleasant sipper also makes it killer in cocktails calling for dark Jamaican rum. It's obviously smoother than something like Myers or Coruba, making for incredibly elegant drinks. For instance, put it in a Navy Grog for an out of this world experience.

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