I am away on a rum pilgrimage, visiting one of the best countries in the world when it comes to rum…Jamaica.
As someone who is no stranger to Jamaican rum and in particular Appleton, you can imagine my delight when a personalised letter was left in our room inviting us to an Appleton Estate rum tasting right here in our hotel that would be hosted by Jamaica’s Appleton Estate Rum Ambassador, Paula.
Having spent the first week of my Jamaica trip drinking Appleton rum, I was well warmed up for this evening. Our hotel, the Iberostar Grand in Rose Hall, Montego Bay, has Appleton Genesis, Special, Signature Blend and Reserve available. Therefore, I was hopeful for some additional tastings…12 year old? 21 year old? Something else maybe…?
We entered the lounge set aside for the tasting, which had been ‘decorated’ with some pop-up posters and bottles of the core Appleton blended range – Signature Blend, Reserve Blend, Rare Blend / 12 Year Old and 21 Year Old. This immediately made me smile with anticipation as it really felt appropriate to drink the really good stuff Appleton-wise, when in Jamaica and in particular, when at an Appleton tasting session.
Our delightful host Paula, buzzed around the room as people arrived, pouring some tots of rum into our glasses that had been set out on Appleton Estate place mats. Paula’s only rule was to wait for her before tasting. We duly adhered to this rule, despite temptation.
But, there were only three places with no space for the 21yo. Oh well, no problem, I love the other rums so it will still be great, I thought. As Paula passed by our table, smiling warmly as she did throughout the tasting, I could not resist flashing a RumShopBoy.com business card in her direction and introducing myself as a rum-obsessed English tourist who sees Appleton Estate as one of the holy grails of the rum world. Paula’s smile widened and we spent the next five minutes or so discussing everything Appleton, from Special all the way through to the 50 year old. I did not realise at the time, but this meant that going forwards my card was marked.
Paula embarked on a very passionate description of the Appleton Estate, its history and unique terroir that gives the rum its character. Queue some rum trivia questions posed in my direction, duly answered including how rum is made, from sugar cane to barrel-ageing. At this point, I felt as if I could have swapped places with Paula 🙂
We moved on to discussing rum styles and how to examine a rum, using a tot of Wray & Nephew overproof as a starting point for the group of rum students to learn about the legs in a rum. Tilting our glasses on the side and then upright again in order to reveal and discuss rum ‘legs’, how thick they appear and how quickly they drop down the sides of the glass.
Appleton have recently renamed and re-packaged their core range of rums. Inevitably, with renaming and repackaging comes a change to the product contained within. Whilst I was somewhat familiar with the changes, it was useful to hear the precise explanation directly from an Appleton representative. Specifically, Appleton wish to emphasise the “blend” aspect of their products as opposed to the age statement.
Paula explained to us Appleton now uses the term “Signature Blend” to describe what was previously its VX rum. This blend is now comprised of 15 rums, with an average age of four years. I may be wrong, but if memory serves correctly, the VX used to refer to the rum being between five and ten years old whereas now there is no longer an age statement associated with this bottling and the rums used are much younger. This does not necessarily mean the rum is not as good, though, but it does concern me in case Appleton are reducing the quality.
As a group we all nosed our first rum, the Signature Blend, with our host inviting comments and opinions. I really did not want to spend the whole session being the only contributor so decided not to comment as I listened to others referencing it as fiery and sweet. For me, the molasses and buttery spiciness were evident as well as Appleton’s signature dried orange peel. It does smell quite alcoholic, almost overpowering. Onto the tasting and this tastes rougher than it used to. I am not sure if this is because I have not tasted it for a while and am more accustomed to the 12yo and 21yo or if it is the change of blend that has affected the rum. One can definitely notice the molasses and pot still influences along with some peppery spice giving the rum a real kick. Paula is definitely of the opinion that this is now solely a mixing rum and I think that is the correct use for this going forwards. At £20 or so in the UK, it is great value and you would not feel as if you are wasting the blenders’ abilities or hard work if you did add a splash of coke to this rum. The fire will lift your rum and coke tremendously.
Moving on to our second tasting, the Appleton Estate Master Blender Joy Spence’s own creation, “Appleton Reserve.” If memory serves (sometimes it does, but not always), this was first created around the turn of the century to commemorate Appleton’s 250th anniversary and was originally an eight year old rum and stated so on the bottle. In June 2016 in the UK, the new “Reserve Blend” was launched. As with the Signature Blend, I am concerned about the quality of this new blend. Going from a tasty blend with a guaranteed age statement of eight years and an ABV of 43% to a “premium blend of 20 select aged rums” with no official age statement, but an “average age of six years” and a reduced ABV of 40%. You can draw your own conclusions as to the benefits for parent company Campari by doing this.
I hope I am merely being overly suspicious and cautious towards Campari’s ownership of Appleton and that the high quality rum remains so in the future. I had a debate with Paula and another Appleton representative in their hotel shop regarding this product. They were adamant that the rum was never an eight year old, so I had to dig out an old picture of the eight year old to show what it was originally (above, side-by-side). Happy to know something about Appleton that they do not 🙂
As I said, now we are on to discussing and tasting the Appleton Reserve…..This is a deep mahogany colour, with medium to heavy legs. Immediately on nosing this, my first observation is that it does not have the alcoholic aroma and profile of the VX, sorry, the Signature Blend. There is lots of oak alongside smokiness and a hint of molasses on the nose. Nowhere near as much spice is present compared to the Signature Blend, but there is some vanilla noticeable. The taste is very different…much smoother and softer when compared to the Signature Blend, but still quite fiery, especially when I think of Appleton Rare Blend. The Reserve is more rounded and accomplished in comparison to the Signature Blend, but does feel lacking in smoothness if tasted in isolation, almost unfinished. The oak is dominant initially and gives this rum a dryness that is very welcome, although the oak does fade with multiple tastings and is replaced with some peppery spice. There is a noticeable orange flavour, almost like marmalade as well as some overripe banana. My first tasting would lead me to say this has a long finish, but the more I sip it, the shorter that finish becomes. It is not a rough finish, but it is not smooth either. Whilst the Reserve is far more drinkable on its own than the Signature Blend, I do think it is better suited to a rum and coke. At around £25 or so for a bottle, I can appreciate significant improvements compared to the Signature Blend, well worth an extra fiver, although with that comment in mind, an extra fiver or so on top of the Reserve Blend gets you a massive upgrade…the 12 year old “Rare Blend.”
That leads me to out third tasting, which is one of my favourite rums, the Appleton Estate 12 year old, rebranded as the “Rare Blend.” Thankfully, my aforementioned cynicism regarding a possible reduction in quality firmly stops before we reach this rum. Whilst I do not think the rebranded name offers anything appealing, it does fit with the new profile of emphasising the word “blend” and importantly, as far as I am concerned, the guaranteed age statement of 12 years remains on the bottle and ensures that every drop of rum in the Rare Blend is AT LEAST 12 years old. At a price point of around £30 or so in the UK, this rum is one of my ‘go to’ drinks whenever I fancy a guaranteed top quality and tasty tot of fine rum. I also like to use it as a benchmark for comparing other rums and their prices – if Appleton can produce a rum with a guaranteed 12yo age statement at this price, it makes me suspicious of other producers charging silly prices for Solera-aged rums. I digress…..
The Rare Blend has that look of a tasty tot of rum – I do not know why, but one always associates a deep bronze colour with a fine rum and whilst I know it is not always the case that a good colour of rum equates to a good quality or fine tasting tipple, with Appleton Rare Blend it most definitely is. The legs on the sides of the glass are thick and rich indicating a heavy bodied rum. The aromas include dark chocolate and an abundance of fruit…..orange peel, banana, raisins alongside some oak and vanilla and a touch of cinnamon. Tasting the rum is delightful – those fruity aromas develop into flavours alongside rich nutty molasses. This rum has a creamy smoothness as well as a bit of fire – a lovely balance throughout. The finish is more refined than the Signature and Reserve Blends and is far more complex. The 43% ABV is more noticeable and gives this rum a real presence and makes a real statement. I do not like to split rums into sipping or mixing types, but do feel it would be a shame to spoil this rum by mixing it although of course if you do want an amazing rum and coke, this is the rum to use.
As a bonus surprise, just when we thought the tasting came to an end, Paula produced an unopened bottle of 21yo, from which she duly popped the cork gently from the bottle’s neck and proceeded to pour tots for all of us lucky tasters. Other than saying how amazing I think this rum is and how reassuring that it is still produced to the same amazingly high standards as it always has been, I am not going to comment further as when I return to England, I think it is worthy of me doing a full tasting and review. But, I will add that it was easily the best drink I had experienced since arriving in Jamaica, although at well over $200 in the hotel compared to the £80 ($100 or so) it costs on Amazon, I won’t be buying any from the hotel’s Appleton shop.
Panic over…Appleton rums are still some of the finest in the world and most importantly, they are not tainted or altered.
As a final surprise, Paula announced she had some gifts to be ‘won’ if we could answer some rum trivia. With a wry smile, she looked in my direction and said something along the lines of “oh no, not you, If I ask a rum question you will get the answer, so to be fair, I will ask something else.” She asked what is a traditional Christmas drink in Jamaica…..as no-one else answered, I responded with ‘sorrel’ smiled and was duly awarded an Appleton t-shirt as a prize. The second t-shirt prize was claimed by my mother-in-law who managed to sing more Bob Marley tunes than my father-in-law in the second ‘challenge.’
We all thanked Paula who truly was a wonderful host for our Appleton tasting and has a real enthusiasm for this wonderful Jamaican nectar. She really made the evening thoroughly enjoyable and is a real credit to Appleton Rum.
When writing this and my cynicism about the new blends it made me think about Appleton’s future. With the assumption that the 12yo and 21yo will continue to be the premium offerings and Appleton have their core relaunched “blends”, I think there is room for some more innovation over at Appleton. This could be in the form of another premium aged-rum…25yo? 30yo (again)? Or is Joy Spence planning something completely new? At RumFest in October I asked her what is coming next and all she would reveal is “something special with amazing packaging and a $250 price tag.” Does this mean we are going to get some single cask offerings? With the emphasis on calling the lower-end of rums “blends” this certainly seems a distinct possibility. Let’s hope so…yeah mon!
I feel at this point I should add that currently, all of Appleton’s rums are “Single Blended Rums” – a blend of only pot still and traditional column still. I have not tested these rums with my hydrometers but expect Appleton and Jamaican rums to be above reproach in this regard in that what it says on the label is what is in the bottle.
Find out more about Appleton Rum on their web site.
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