When I hear the word ‘single barrel’ I usually think bourbon. So I was quite surprised when I was invited to Hix in Soho, to sample some single barrel, single still rums from El Dorado. I have to confess that I was a little perplexed by the idea, as for me the artistry in rum production has always seemed to be in the blending, so the concept of a single barrel rum seemed like an oddity, but not the sort of oddity I was going to miss out on trying.
I’m sure a lot of you know El Dorado rums already, the range that we normally see includes the 3yo white, 5yo and 8yo golden rums and of course the more premium 12yo and 15yo rums. Every now and then you see a bottle of El Dorado 21yo or even the 25yo on a back bar. All of those are fine blends of aged rums coming from a selection of the different stills that El Dorado own.
El Dorado are a bit unique when it comes to stills; they have 9 in operation, including a number of wooden stills and this gives them a huge range of possibilities when it comes to producing rums with different flavour profiles. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to sit in on one of Stefanie Holt’s (El Dorado brand ambassador in the UK) training sessions you get a good insight into the different styles that the stills produce and what they add to each blend. That being said nothing can compare to actually tasting the single still, single barrel rums to get a real idea of how very different they are from each other.
So when the chance came along to sample a few of them, I jumped at it! It was a small tasting group, a couple of journalists, Nick Strangeway (bar legend) and myself being talked through the rums by Stuart from InSpirit, who distribute El Dorado here in the UK. The tasting itself was an eye opening experience and really got me thinking about single barrel expressions in a new way.
We were presented with three 15 year old single still, single barrel rums which have been released in the US and will eventually be available here in the UK. The three were completely different from each other and after much sipping and debate I was left with the conclusion that although they’re interesting rums that will appeal to the serious rum drinker, a blebded rum will always be more approachable for everyday consumers. That being said, as soon as I can get my hands on them they will be added to the bitters&twisted drinks cabinet for sure!
You’re going to have to bear with me with the names of the rums below. It’s not just me making lots of typos after a few too many drinks; they are abbreviations of the stills or plantations where the individual rums are produced
– an expression from the Uitvlught sugar plantation is created using a French still and had a light elegant nose offering hints of mango and tropical fruit. It was sweet and lively on the palette, dry in the middle after an initial fruitiness, with a lovely long finish.
The EHP – produced using their wooden Coffey still (the only one still in use today) had a slightly metallic aroma with caramel and burnt orange notes. The flavour was spicy and dry with burnt almond and dark sugars coming through as it opened up.
Last up was the PM – or Port Mourant, produced using the double wooden pot still . This was the most challenging rum we tasted and yet ended up being my favourite of the day. The nose offered leather and tabacco aromas as well as citrus peel and spice. The taste was almost smoky with leather and wood flavours leading into a strangely soapy mouth feel that is almost floral at the end.
The one thing that united the three rums though was their simple flavour profiles that offered little of the complexity and depth that you might expect from a 15 yo blended rum and this drew my thoughts right back to bourbon.
I couldn’t help but wonder why a single barrel bourbon can be so rich, deep and complex, whereas these single barrel rums had been almost basic in it’s flavour profile by comparison. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that one is better than the other, just that there was a marked difference between the two.
Having thought about this over the weekend I have a theory on the subject; (it is only a theory so if anyone has any other ideas please feel free to comment below) to me it seems that it might come down to two very simple factors: base ingredients and barrels.
You see most bourbons have three grains in their mash bill so right from the beginning there are multiple flavours adding depth to the liquid. Each of those grains not only offers something different in terms of flavour they also age at different rates, so from the outset you have a complex range of possibilities before you even put the liquid down to age. Rum of course is made from molasses plain and simple, one ingredient and one flavour profile, rich, sweet and tasty but also very simple.
Then you have the barrels. In the case of bourbon they have to use a brand new oak barrel (typically American white oak) which is toasted and charred to caramalise the natural sugars and vanillins. The barrel is used once only and then is generally sold on for other spirits to be aged in, including rum. Having the first use of the barrel means that bourbon draws out the most flavour from the wood and takes on a lot of character very quickly. Rum being aged in a used barrel will take longer to draw anything from the wood, which will have less impact on its final flavour.
These two factors; a complex range of flavours in the distillate and a lot of interaction with the new wood barrels, mean that bourbon ends up taking on a huge complexity of flavours really quickly, whereas the rums I tasted kept more of their basic flavour from the distillate and less of the caramel, vanilla and wood notes from the barrel.
I think the thing that I found most interesting from this tasting was that these were not the simple, easy sipping affairs you expect when you think of a 15 yo rum. They were challenging, and offered an insight into what a single still rum tastes like. But more than anything they have enforced my belief that blending rums is an art form. Taking these individual rums, with their almost austere flavour profiles and blending them to create a well rounded and complex finished product is a craft that I now appreciate more fully than I had before.
As for the three rums we tasted, it seemed foolish not to challenge someone to mix up a couple of drinks with them and we were lucky enough to have Charles Vexenat on hand to do just that. In the hands of a lesser bartender I might have worried that the rums would prove too challenging to mix with, but Charles took almost no time at all to come up with three drinks that showcased the unique character of each product.
SUGAR PLUM – by Charles Vexenat
50 ml El Dorado PM single Barrel
25 ml plum liqueur
5 ml Benedictine
Stir all ingredients with plenty of cubed or cracked ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist
If you get a chance to taste a single barrel rum, I highly recommend the experience and as I said keep your eyes peeled for these single still expressions from El Dorado at some point in the future, they really are a completely different rum experience!