It can sometimes feel like the world of high-end, cask-strength rum releases exists only for a small segment of us tiki nerds. Unlike the comparable barrel proof bourbon segment, many of which are so eagerly snapped up by collectors and traders that they hardly land on shelves at all, $100-plus bottles of well-aged or uniquely blended rum seem to be something of a more acquired taste shared by the rum cognoscenti. But there are some remarkable products out there, if you know where to look.
Kentucky’s Barrell Craft Spirits is a company that is primarily known for their sought-after bourbon and rye releases—spirits we recently reviewed pretty warmly, acknowledging that the hype was well earned. Less publicized, however, is the truly in-depth work that BCS is doing with cask-strength rum releases, especially via the company’s Private Release series. This is an ever-evolving series of small, single cask-sized releases of rums that are very different in profile, but alike in their over-the-top flavor threshhold.
Your average Barrell Rum Private Release is a blend of 5 rums or rhums, hailing from a variety of Caribbean ports: Jamaica, Barbados, Martinique (there’s your rhum agricole) and Guyana. These include such disparate substyles as demerara pot still rum from Guyana, dunder rum from Jamaica and English-style molasses pot still rum from Barbados. The finished products bear no age statements, although Barrell tells me the range of rums swing from as young as 3 years (the Martinique agricole) to 21-year-old demerara.
That’s not the end, however, as each blend is then combined and rested in another, unique finishing cask—these run the gamut from a variety of fortified wines to former spirit barrels, which ultimately makes each blend completely different. Each is then lettered and numbered, and the single resulting cask results in about 150 to 180 bottles per blend. Some are sold to a single retailer or club, while others are split between a few states or sold by the bottle by Barrell. If you come across these Private Releases, bearing the purple label, you’ll want to reference the blend number to the master list on the company’s website, which will reveal the specific finishing cask involved. The MSRP of these releases can vary quite a bit, although Barrells sets it at $109.99. Retailers, however, may go significantly higher, or occasionally lower.
For our tasting, Barrell sent two samples finished in very different ways. There’s Blend J802, at 129.5 proof, which is “80% Jamaican,” with the additional rums married in a French cognac cask. And on the other hand, there’s Blend B903, which is “90% Barbados,” with the final mix blended in a barrel “conditioned with Sicilian Amaro.” Suffice to say, the difference between brandy and amaro alone made me very curious how these might differ.
So let’s get to tasting, and find out.
At almost 130 proof, it’s fair to say this rum is a monster, and just uncapping the bottle you immediately get a strong waft of molasses, vanilla and fruit that starts filling the room. Feeling like I should at least attempt to sample this neat, I nosed the glass and got an immediate head rush of intense notes: Booze of course, along with powerful molasses, caramel, vanilla, clovey spice and fudgy chocolate. This one smells particularly rich—more “desserty” in tone than B903 would prove to be, although this is of course relative.
On the palate, this is almost overwhelmingly flavorful on first sip. The Jamaican rum funk is certainly there, with somewhat earthy notes of tobacco and tar, along with grass and slightly vegetal tones. The booze is fiery, settling into the chest like a smoldering coal. Sweetness follows—sweet cigar smoke and molasses cookie.
Water, it would seem, is a necessity. I drink plenty of barrel proof whiskey, but rarely is anything even in the 130 proof range quite this explosive. With a splash of water, J802 is tamed just slightly in the alcohol department, while gaining more of a toasty, biscuity note, but the sweetness seems to have been amplified as well. Caramelized but roasty, with plummy dark fruit, it puts me in mind of something like a vanilla-flavored cigarillo. Even with water, it feels like something that would overwhelm many palates not accustomed to this kind of bombast. I could honestly see using just a splash of this in various tiki cocktails as a way to add a punch of funky Jamaican rum flavor.
I was certainly curious what a cask-strength rum finished in a barrel that had previously conditioned amaro might taste like. How much of the liqueur’s bitterness might the rum absorb? Or its fruit or spice profile?
As it turns out, though, the base rum here is so strong that in both cases it feels like the finishing/marrying barrel is ultimately more of an accent than the primary determiner of flavor—these liquids are already so intensely flavorful that they remain very rum-focused, first and foremost.
Compared with J802, B903 strikes me as noticeably more herbal and grassy on the nose, with notes of green apple and green plantain, and correspondingly less of the intensely caramelized, syrupy rich notes of the brandy barrel-finished J802.
On the palate it is again quite intense, however—boozy and fiery—while also not lacking in sweetness, something that is probably inevitable at 127.2 proof. I’m getting marzipan-type nuttiness here, and some orange citrus. Water brings out more “green” impressions that I’m thinking are probably at least a little bit contributed by the amaro barrel, with notes of stem ginger and dried herbs, along with citrus and grass. After adding the water, B903 rounds out into what is probably the more balanced of these two Private Releases—it’s not quite the intensely rich bomb that is J802.
Regardless, this is one of the few times that I walk away feeling like some dilution is absolutely necessary. I won’t blame the rum geeks for wanting to sample these neat, at least at first, but if you’re drinking an entire glass of this stuff neat it’s because you think you have something to prove. These cask-strength rums from Barrell are absolute flavor behemoths, so if that’s what you’re looking for in this field, they’re absolutely something to keep an eye out for.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.