A Bunch Of Ginger Ales

I have been on a bit of a rant against High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) lately. It started some time ago when I made my first batch of orgeat and compared it to the Fee Brothers’ Orgeat. The Fee’s was foul stuff, and I dumped the entire bottle down the drain. Since then I’ve been occasionally destroying the kitchen making a number of homemade ingredients like orgeat, more orgeat, passionfruit syrup, grenadine, and rock candy syrup. In all cases I’ve been using organic cane sugar, and have seriously begun to appreciate the taste of a quality sugar in a beverage.

I began to notice some of those “artisanal” sodas, like Jones Soda and Stirrings Ginger Ale, and have been checking the ingredients. If it was a flavor that sounded interesting – and it contained cane sugar – I bought a bottle. My wife has been going crazy since I’ve been packing the fridge with this stuff lately. Sheesh. I could have worse habits.

Some of these sodas have been quite good, and some mediocre. The Jones Sodas are simply fantastic. If you have not tried one yet, please do so. I love vanilla cream soda, and Jones is one of the best, along with Polar Premium Classic – or something like that. The Polar website does not list this exact soda, though it does list the typical version with HFCS. They are not the same, not in the slightest. Many of the others I’ve tried – like Boylans, Mercury, and a few others from the local Whole Foods Market – have been decent but I haven’t found anything that comes close to the Jones. Yet. I’ll keep looking.

Until then, I’ve been exploring making my own sodas. I’ve got a little studying to do, since most of the information out there has to do with fermented sodas and I’d prefer to have more control over the carbonation. I love carbonation. I love those big fat sharp bubbles that almost cut my tongue. So I’d prefer to carbonate by forcing carbon dioxide into the soda rather than experimenting with yeasts and temperatures until I get it right. Maybe I’m fussing for nothing, but I have a habit of over-studying a subject before starting something. Oh well, I do enjoy the knowledge-gain.

Ginger Ales
While these sodas are good or great, none have sounded too appetizing if mixed with rum. And it’s all about the rum, and a rum & ginger with a squeeze of lime is a simple, quick, enjoyable mix. So I went out looking for ginger ales made with cane sugar, and managed to find just a few. I decided to compare these against some of the typical ginger ales, and some of the not so typical ones.

Alas, so many ginger ales are regional. I seriously wish that I could find Vernors around Boston, or Blenheim’s.

The High Fructose Corn Syrup Selection
Oh, boy. I get to swig down some HFCS. And I do it willingly! All in the name of science…

(I’m not going to mention prices on these HFCS ones since they’re fairly typical prices.)

Ingredients: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sugar, citric acid, natural flavors, sodium benzoate, caramel color.

Sweet, tiny sharp bubbles, small amount of ginger, very crisp feeling but a mild taste. HFCS isn’t too noticeable – at least it’s not horrid. Overall, not bad, but definitely not enough ginger by a long shot.

Canada Dry
Ingredients: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, natural flavors, sodium benzoate, caramel color.

Much softer than Schweppes in the bubble department. Drier, but not by much. The ginger amount is about the same, but the ginger seems a tiny bit sweeter.

Ingredients: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sugar, citric acid, sodium benzoate, caramel color, and natural flavoring.

Bubbles are almost as sharp as the Schweppes, but there’s very little taste. Really, why bother? This is a waste of good carbonation, and I’m left feeling sorry for a bunch of ginger plants that gave up their existence for nothing. It’s sad that this contains more preservative than natural flavor.

Ingredients: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, natural flavoring, and caramel color.

Not a lot of taste here. Bubbles are mediocre – smooth and tiny. Somewhat sweet. Pretty much a waste of time though. No sodium benzoate though, which has got to be better for the taste – if there was more taste…

The HFCS isn’t so terrible is all of these. Granted, none are as sweet as a Coke or a typical Cream Soda, so maybe I was afraid for no reason. But none have much taste, in my opinion. The ginger is quite mild in all of them, like an afterthought – or an active thought that this stuff needed to taste different when compared to seltzer. My pick is the Schweppes, but I primarily chose that because I love the bubbles. They are all equally boring in taste, so I have to pick for some reason, right?

The Cane Sugar Selection
As I mentioned, I was not able to find too many ginger ales made with cane sugar. Well, not “pure” ones at least – I did find some Jamaican-style ginger ale, some ginger beers, and a ginger ale seltzer. I’ll get to these “oddball” ginger ales after I go through the “typical” ginger ales.

Outrageous Ginger Ale from Natural Brew
Ingredients: Sparkling filtered water, evaporated cane juice, brewed ginger, natural flavors, citric acid.

I bought a single 12oz bottle of this, but I seem to remember that a 4-pack was about $4.50. Don’t quote me on that though. Natural Brew is a division of Smucker’s – http://www.smuckers.com/fc/brands/default.asp

This stuff has lots of ginger taste, is fairly sweet, with very smooth carbonation. It’s got a hint of oddness to it, not unpleasant at all, just different. I’m going to take a wild stab and guess that this might be from the use of Jamaican ginger. (Note: After tasting the Reed’s below, this guess is more of a hypothesis.) It is very good, but I can imagine better. And the carbonation is too soft for me.

Stirrings’ Ginger Ale
Ingredients: Triple filtered carbonated water, sugar, citric acid, ginger extract and other natural flavors.

Update: Interestingly enough, the Stirrings’ website says “Our Ginger Ale is made with triple purified water, real ginger, Mexican lime and cane sugar. ” Lime?

This soda comes in a 4-pack of 6.3oz bottles, for about $5. That’s quite expensive for a ginger ale, but if it’s worth it…

This has an incredible punch of ginger, far more than the Outrageous above. The ginger is mildy sweet in itself – perhaps because they use ginger extract? Beyond the ginger itself this is a bit sweet – sweeter than the HFCS ones above but still far from a Coke. The bubbles are tiny, but still a bit sharp. (The bottle calls the “Champagne bubbles.”) This is very good, though the ginger itself is slightly imperfect. http://www.stirrings.com/

365 Ginger Ale
Ingredients: Filtered carbonated water, pure cane sugar, natural ginger flavor, citric acid, and caramel color.

This is Whole Foods Market store brand, and is priced quite aggressively at $2.29 for a 6-pack of 12oz cans. http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/

This has a decent amount of ginger flavor, but it seriously comes across as the quality of a store brand. I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just that it not quite as refined as the two above. It’s a little sweet, and the bubbles are very smooth – barely above the Outrageous. Chances are good that I’d grab this if I were throwing a party – it’s about 1/6 the price of the Stirrings’.

Boylan’s Ginger Ale
Ingredients: Carbonated water, cane sugar, citrus oils, natural ginger flavors, citric acid, caramel color, sodium benzoate

I bought a 4-pack at Trader Joe’s and seem to remember it being about $4, though it could have been $4.50. This is in line with most others in this area, like the Outrageous. This company from New Jersey makes a number of sodas made with cane sugar, and also produces a small line called “The Natural Kind” without artificial flavors, artificial colors, or preservatives. Alas, no ginger ale in this line. http://www.boylanbottling.com/

Small bubbles, but crisp. A bit sweet but not too far at all. Decent ginger taste, but still milder than I’d like. It has a much milder taste than the Whole Foods’ 365, but the Boylan’s does taste a bit more natural. The bubbles in the Boylan’s are much better though, which isn’t too difficult against the 365. The Boylan’s has noticeably more taste than the Schweppes, and actually has better bubbles, too.

Though none of these are perfect, they are all above the HFCS selection. They have more natural tastes, far more ginger taste, and are simple better tasting all around. Stirrings’ wins this round easily. The Boylan’s comes in second, but it might actually be preferred by many since it tastes more like a typical ginger ale than the others. The 365’s bargain price is not to be missed at the right times though. And if you might prefer the Outrageous, if you happen to like its slight oddness that I guessed was Jamaican ginger.

The “Atypical” Selection
These are not what I consider to be typical ginger ales in the style that I grew up with, so I call them “atypical.” They certainly have their own categories, so categorize them how you like. One is made with 80% fruit juice and I just can’t call that typical. Another is a Jamaican ginger ale, and having tasted it in the past I can not file this along with Schweppes or even Stirrings’. The last two are ginger beers, which are typical less sweet than ginger ales and pack more ginger flavor.

Knudsen Ginger Ale Spritzer
Ingredients: Sparkling filtered water, white grape and apple juice concentrates, ginger root, natural flavors.

I got this at Whole Foods Market. A 6-pack of 12oz cans was $4.69, so it’s about in the middle of the cane sugar ale pricing. This one is certainly unusual because it contains 80% fruit juice. Yet they call it ginger ale. And the can also says its a “flavored sparkling beverage from juice concentrate.” How typical is that? Even though it doesn’t contain cane sugar at least it has natural sweetening from the fruit juices. http://www.knudsenjuices.com/

The smell of the pear juice hits as the can nears my mouth. It’s sweet, and there is ginger in it. The bubbles are very small and far between so I’m not a fan of the carbonation. If you wanted a different taste to your fruit juice this is the way to go. It is quite good but it’s just not a ginger ale, and I would be hard-pressed to use this in for mixing. (Though some mixologist might put this to good use in a cocktail.)

Reed’s Premium Ginger Brew
Ingredients: Sparkling filtered water, sweetened by a blend of Canadian white water clover honey and pineapple juice from concentrate, fresh ginger root, lemon and lime juices from concentrate, and spices

A 4-pack of 12oz bottles was $4. This bottles uses the phrases “ginger brew” and “Jamaican style ginger ale” so categorize it however you like, but I can’t directly compare this to Canada Dry. Also, it’s sweetened with honey and pineapple juice, so it doesn’t really fall in with the sugar cane drinks. http://www.reedsgingerbrew.com/brews.html

This packs some strong ginger tastes, but not the same type of ginger as those above.Between the Outrageous above and this bottle I will attribute this difference in taste to the use of Jamaican ginger. Then again, this contains a whole bunch of ingredients that aren’t in the other ginger ales, so I can’t be too sure. This is fairly sweet, with tiny smooth bubbles. Luckily there’s a good deal of those bubbles so my desire for carbonation is satisfied. Overall, this is a very good drink, and the taste difference will probably grow on me and I’ll like it a lot more. There’s no doubt of the quality in this one, it’s just that the taste is a little different right now.

Reed’s makes several variations of this ginger ale. I’ll have to try some of the others.

The Ginger People’s Ginger Beer
Ingredients: Water, cane sugar, naturally pressed ginger juice, natural ginger extract, citric acid, natural flavor.

Another Whole Foods Market purchase, a 4-pack of 12oz bottles was $5.50 putting it at the high end of these sodas, though still far cheaper than the Stirrings’. Apparently this won an award – Most Outstanding Beverage – from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. The Ginger People make a whole slew of ginger products – I even purchased some of their ginger extract today. http://www.gingerpeople.com/

There is quite a bit of ginger in this, by far the most so far. The aroma hits before the bottle touches my lips. This has so much ginger that it gives a bit of a spicy burn at the back of the throat. And this stuff kinda tastes like they roasted the ginger – though this isn’t possible given the ingredients. Perhaps they age it? Vernors ages some (or all?) of their ginger drinks.

This is not very sweet, very tiny bubbles and a decent amount though I’d wish for more. Very high quality. I’m not sure what else I can say about it other than I simply *must* try a “Darkn Stormy” with this ginger beer. Outstanding.

Barritt’s Ginger Beer
Ingredients: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, natural and artificial flavoring, citric acid, sodium benzoate, gum arabic, caramel color, guar gum.

This seems to be available at most good liquor stores around me. I have no idea how much I paid for it. Let me be upfront by stating that I am *very* depressed that the beer I got was made with high fructose corn syrup, not sugar. And canned in Florida. And look at those other ingredients – guar gum? I did not get the real thing. I’m very depressed. http://www.barrittsgingerbeer.bm/

This has a very good amount of ginger in it. Not as much as Stirrings’ or The Ginger People’s, but more than the Reed’s. So for ginger strength, this comes in third. It’s fairly sweet, but does have the tinge and burning sensation of HFCS. The bubbles are very good – medium seized, slightly sharp, and plenty of them. It is quite good. I can only imagine how good the sugar version is. Even still, this is good enough to continue buying.

This is an easy decision – The Ginger People’s Ginger Beer is outstanding. Simply fantastic. The Reed’s is very good, too, though it has that blend of ingredients that make it quite unique. The Barritts, despite the HFCS, is quite good and comes in a close third. The Knudsen’s fruit juice stuff is simply out of the running. Though it’s very good and high quality, it just does not belong here amongst the others.

Overall Summary
Well I’ve spent almost 3 hours now sampling 11 carbonated ginger beverages and I’m not quite burnt out yet. But I’m tired as hell, so I certainly can’t continue.

This entire comparison was intended to pick a ginger ale suited for mixing in a Rum & Ginger. To that end, the Stirrings’ is probably my first choice. I’d probably pick the Whole Foods 365 next, unless I wanted some powerful bubbles and then I’d grab the Schweppes. Go figure on that last one. But this choice for mixing is a bit of a guess at this point, and I’ll have to do some comparisons with rum. Hopefully very soon.

But another wildly different cocktail is the Dark n Stormy, traditionally made with Barritt’s and Gosling’s Black Seal. The ingredients are almost identical to a Rum & Ginger – rum, lime, and ginger beer instead of ginger ale. I can’t help but think about a Dark & Stormy made with The Ginger People’s brew, and I’ll get right on that as soon as possible. I’m curious too, about making one using Gosling’s Old Rum. Hell, it’s the same rum as the Black Seal – just aged longer. Will a Ginger People and Gosling’s Old make for an upper-crust Dark n Stormy?

Not to skip it in the end, I have to mention the Reed’s again. This stuff is very good, but a bit unique for mixing. For me. One of the talented mixologists out there should be able to create something using this ginger ale.

Edited 11/16/07 – Added Boylan’s Ginger Ale.


4 Plantation Rums

I’ll always have a fond memory of Plantation Rums, since one of them was the very first “great” bottles of rum that I ever had. Damned if I can remember what it was, but I wanted more when it was gone. Back then I didn’t know jack about rum, and I figured that I’d just grab “that” bottle called Plantation. Alas, the first store I visited had 5 or 6 different Plantation rums, all lined up and looking identical in their straw-wrapped bottles. Among all of the Plantation bottles on that shelf, the only things that were not identical were the important things – the island, the year, and the price. At this point I was betting that the stuff inside the bottles wasn’t very identical either, and I left the store, confused. And sad.

I never did remember which Plantation Rum I had. I’m a whole lot smarter now, though, and I’ve learned to write things down and take tasting notes. Which doesn’t do me much good with the Plantations, because they are almost all vintage years, thus they change and become unavailable. I’ve had most of these for some time, even though only one has been opened (and fairly well drained). I don’t know if any of these are still on any shelves, anywhere.

It may be obvious to you by now that I’m going to write a review which quite possibly won’t do you a damned bit of good. Ever.

What da ya want for nothing? A rubber biscuit?

Plantation Rums

Plantation Rums are made by Cognac Ferrand, makers of Pierre Ferrand cognac, Gabriel & Andreu cognac, Mathilde Liqueurs, Citadelle Vodka, and a few other high-quality spirits. They currently market 6 different rums from various islands – 2 of which I’ll be reviewing. Let’s hope the other two aren’t as good… or, even better, that they’re fantastic and still available. (Hey, I can dream…)

One irritating thing about their marketing is that their web site briefly mentions that their rums are aged in barrels previously used for bourbon, cognac, or sherry. OK, that’s kinda cool, but the irritating part is that they don’t say which ones! Their web site is silent about the specifics, and the bottles say even less. Oh well.

So maybe these were aged in cognac or sherry casks, but I’ll bet money that used bourbon barrels are more likely. You’ve got to love the law that states that bourbon must be aged in new barrels, thus making all those old barrels available for rum producers. But I’d love to see more rums aged, or at least finished, in other casks. Doorly’s XO, which is finished in used sherry casks, is the only rum that I know about that switches to such a barrel. Oh, I’ll bet there are more, but I just don’t know which ones. Yet.

Trinidad 1991 – Price Unknown

I figure that I’ll start with the oldest. Well, the oldest rum, not necessarily the one that’s aged the longest. These Plantation rums don’t mention the aging time, except for their Jamaican which is aged 8 years. So I have no idea how long this rum was aged. I really wish companies gave out a little more information about their rums. I’d love to know how old it is and whether it was really aged, or finished, in cognac or sherry casks. I have seen reports on the web that it was aged for 9 or 10 years – a couple mentions for each age, so take that as a rumor.

I guess the thing that matters is the taste, eh? So let’s get to it.

This is a very light rum – the lightest of the 4 I have. It still manages to be a golden color, like a light tea. The smell is pretty intense – a lot of sweet fruitiness – mostly sweet – and a bit of molasses followed by a decent amount of barrel, but it rather light and pleasant barrel, not like heavily charred oak. It’s all very nicely balanced, and almost comes across as a single, delicious smell.

A little sip shows a lot of sweetness, quickly followed by a spiciness around most of the mouth. A larger sip finds a good amount of barrel, somewhat smooth, and a long, slow, spicy finish. The spiciness indicates to me that an ice cube would probably tame this rum quite a bit, but I have none handy so I’ll brave it neat. (By the way, this is 90-proof. They all are, except the Barbados Grande Reserve) Another sip, and I’m a little bored with the flavor. It’s so balanced that it’s almost flat – well, that’s a bit strong, but it isn’t as complex as the smells led me to believe. I’m wondering where all those smells went if they didn’t go into the flavor.

A final sip, and I’ll have to say that this isn’t bad at all, but it’s not great since it’s a little boring, and too spicy. It hits quick with some sweetness, startles the mouth with spice, and finishes long and slow and spicy. It reminds me of the Mount Gay Eclipse or Gosling’s Gold, but sweeter and slightly better than either. I really think this rum deserves a couple drops of water and 5 or 10 minutes of sitting, but I have no patience tonight. I’ll have to try it again some other night.

Trinidad 1993 – $25

This rum has won a couple awards, including Food & Wine’s Best Rum Of The Year for 2003. The Beverage Tasting Institute rated this a 93, which is very respectable from a source I trust. Supposedly this has been aged for 11 years, and even though I’ve seen a few mentions of that I can’t confirm it, so your guess is as good as mine. Other than these tidbits, I can’t find much about this rum. The 30 words on the website closely match the 20 words on the bottle.

This rum is quite a bit darker than its older brother, and comes with the first plastic cork I’ve ever seen. Yeah, a plastic cork with one of those black plastic tops on it. I’m kinda bummed, since I’m so used to the Plantations being topped with sealing wax. Of the 3 unopened rums here – the Trinidad 1991 was opened quite a long time ago – only the Venezuela 1992 has the sealing wax. Oh well, it doesn’t make much difference to the rum but it was a nice feature.

This rum is sweet, like the previous, but the smell is a bit darker and richer – more molasses, more barrel. The smell is very rich and inviting, making me want to sip and swallow, but I must sniff some more. (I guess.) There’s some fruit hiding in the aromas – bananas maybe, a tiny hint of orange. And the sweetness keeps its presence very well known.

A tiny sip is actually a bit dry, with some spiciness and a bit of a burn. Dark fruits peek out, and the barrel makes itself known but not obnoxiously so. A larger sip provides more of the same, and a long slow spicy/peppery finish. It’s quite potent, full of dark flavors but not a lot of complexity. Again this seems like a rum that would benefit from some water and a few minutes of waiting, but I still have no patience. There’s no doubt that this rum could stand up to some ice though. It’s full of flavor. I want a cigar.

Venezuela 1992 – $29

Once again I can’t find much about this rum, though a couple blurbs say it’s been aged for 10 years, and one specifies bourbon and sherry casks. At least this one has the sealing wax, and since I’m bored with looking for info I’ll just dive into this one.

This one is the darkest of the bunch, a couple shades darker than the last. Once again the first thing that hits is sweetness, molasses, and a bit of barrel. It’s not as sweet at the Trinidad 93, and the smells are a bit heavier, but mostly of molasses. A small sip is intriguing as all hell. At first I cocked my head sideways like I was about to gasp but never made it because some other very nice tastes jumped up and did a quick pirate shanty on my taste buds. Hold on, lads, I’m going in again… Yeah, there’s a bit of dark barrel in here, but some heavy dark fruits – almost like figs or dates – some out, followed by a bit of sweetness. This rum is playing games with me, taunting me, and teasing me.

And just for that I’m going to play hard-to-get, and let it sit for a moment or two.

Tap, tap, tap – no patience. Yep, dark fruits of some sort, barrel, sweetness follows and then a medium-length finish with a bit of spice. It’s certainly very interesting, though I don’t yet know if this is a sipper. It could easily hold an ice cube – so far they all could, but this one would hold it well. For some reason I don’t think that a waiting period would do much for this rum – it seems like it gives it all up in a quick four-step staccato of tastes.

And the tastes – I would not call them “balanced” by any means. They just hit you one at a time.

Oh, I was so wrong about waiting. Just a few minutes has mellowed this rum a bit, and what were punches of flavors are now tomboyish slaps of affection – yeah, she likes you, but you know she’s holding back. Do you dare? Come on – Do you want to live forever? I’m going back in…

OK, I teased her back, since I poured and I’m going to let her wait a few moments. Older, wiser, sure.

Well I managed to stuff 10 minutes of impatience into a 5-minute period. The smell is milder, and with a different sweetness, almost like a vanilla sweetness. Some more fruit has come up, but it’s still the darker fruits letting themselves be known. A sip now is much mellower, though without so many flavors either. Its quick – finish and all – and much nicer. Again the barrel comes out, with a few more of its flavor like vanilla and a mellow spice.

This is a very interesting rum, though I might not recommend it for everyone. Again, I want a cigar, and I don’t consider it quite a sipping rum. An ice cube and a few minutes of patience will certainly do a lot, but it’s quite intriguing straight from the bottle.

Barbados Grande Reserve – $16

I ran into this rum at Rumba, the fancy rum bar at the Intercontinental Hotel in Boston. I was quite pleased with it, and grabbed a bottle when I could. This one is a little unusual in the Plantation line since it’s the only one that is not a vintage. And it’s quite decent in its price at $16 (give or take) – though none of the Plantations are too expensive in my opinion. So far they’re worth every penny.

This rum is a touch darker than the Trinidad 1993, but a couple shades lighter than the Venezuelan. The smell is the mellowest so far, though it still hints at sweetness and a bit of molasses. It is definitely much lighter with barrel smells though they still exist. The taste is also the mildest, and damn it’s also quite interesting with some vanilla that unusually prominent long before the finish. There is a bit of odd spiciness at the end, with a lingering finish. It’s dryer than I expected, though not as dry as the Trinidad`93.

Of the bunch, this is the most sippable, except for that odd spiciness – not quite peppery but still leaves a tingle. Not that the spice is bad, it’s just a little odd, and I can’t quite place it. It’s not quite sweet enough for me, though it’s far from being called a dry rum. All in all, it’s very good, though not quite prominent at anything it does. (Dang, that sounds a lot like my description on the Mount Gay Eclipse.) Again, not quite a sipper, and this one couldn’t stand up to ice as well as its siblings above. But it is very good, and a good price. I’ll have to go back and compare this against the Mount Gay and/or make a cocktail or two.


All of the Plantation rums mentioned are very good, and very well done in the craft of rum-making. But none are quite sippers, and the prominent barrel may make most difficult to use for cocktails. (The Barbados Grande Reserve has a good chance, though.) The Venezuelan was certainly quite interesting, that’s for sure, but the one I’m least likely to recommend since it is a bit odd in its display of tastes.

I’m somewhat on the edge about all of these – you can’t go wrong buying one, but you’re not going to find a new favorite rum in this bunch. But after tasting these 4, I’m somewhat reserved about buying another Plantation Rum, since I have to wonder if I’m going to find the same sweet smell, molasses, and a good amount of barrel. Even though they’re all quite different there’s no doubt that the same folks are making these. Same barrels and blending methods…

Now there’s an interesting thought. All four say that they are products of their respective countries, but the Trinidad 1993 says “Bottled By C. Ferrand, 16130 ARS – France.” Judging from the similar tastes and habits of these rums I’d venture a guess that they are bottled in France – but please note that this is just a guess, and I really don’t know for sure. It just seems a little odd for 4 distillers and blenders on 3 different islands would produce similar tastes between the products.

Again, that’s just a guess. But I’ll have to check into it.

Since I digressed a bit about the similarities, I’ll have to repeat a sentence as a final summary: “…you can’t go wrong buying one, but you’re not going to find a new favorite rum in this bunch.”

8 Gold Mixing Rums

I’ve been planning to do a review of gold rums for quite some time, but didn’t manage to find time for such a large undertaking lately. And the last few weeks have been extremely busy for me, which explains the lack of posts. I finally managed to dedicate a weekend to rum, and sampled quite a bit – 19 or 20 rums. Yeah, that’s quite a bit of sampling, but it’s due to the nature of my quest. I want to learn more about rum, the different types, the differences between the islands, the similarities, etc. I do not feel that I was doing this when only high-end tasting sipping rums, so I grabbed a bunch of white ones and tasted them all together, one after another. I’m doing the same thing now with 8 gold rums.

I should mention that these are what I consider to be “mixing rums” chosen for their moderate prices. I have plenty of sipping rums that are gold, and plenty more gold rums that might be considered too expensive to use for general mixing. (Well, some folks might consider them too expensive – I’m one that believes in using the most appropriate rum for the cocktail being made, regardless of price.) But for this comparison I’m keying on moderately-priced gold rums.

Without further ado, 8 Gold Mixing Rums.

Appleton V/X – Jamaica – $17
In 1893 there were 148 distilleries on the island of Jamaica. By 1948 there were only 25, and now there are only 5 left. Appleton’s rum distillery dates back to 1749, though its history of sugar cane production dates back to 1655. It is is the oldest distillery on the island and the world’s second oldest rum producer.

Appleton’s V/X rum is a blend of rums aged between 5 and 10 years. After blending they are placed in large oaks vats for several months, a process which allows the rums to “marry” or fuse together.

The rum smells a little sweet with a good amount of oak and molasses. The molasses almost smells a little bitter, though this may be because of the char of the oak. There’s some nuttiness coming through, along with a touch of citrus. An initial sip shows a sharp bit of spiciness, and the oak taste isn’t as strong as the smell. It’s full of flavor, fairly well-balanced, and not too sweet. The nut tastes come out a bit, and it finishes dry with spiciness in the back of the throat along with a mild burn, and a somewhat long finish.

This is a good rum, though not really one for sipping neat. It’s full flavor lends it to cocktails that have enough taste to balance the rum. The oak smell and spiciness will certainly come through a simple cocktail.

Appleton Special Gold – Jamaica – $12

This rum is a blend of pot- and column-column distilled rums, aged separately and the hand-blended. This should result in a richer, fuller flavor that rums that just meet the column distiller. Apparently this rum was formulated during World War II as a substitute for whiskey, which was difficult to find at that time. Jeff Berry, the Beachbum, recommends this rum in a simple but effective way: “For your gold Jamaican, stock Appleton Special Gold.”

Though the Palo Viejo has the lightest color of these rums, the Appleton Special is a close second. The smell of this is fantastic – sweet, with some honey and apple smells backed by some molasses. It’s delectable, and very inviting – I want to sip it immediately. The smell isn’t strong – I can stick my nose inside the glass and it’s not getting burnt out – but nicely balanced and lively. An initial sip gives a fair amount of burn, but the taste of sweet apples and mild molasses is very nice. There is a bit of an alcohol hit to this rum, but it’s not bad just noticeable. The finish is a bit quick, with a touch of wood, and leaves the mouth feeling clean.

Though I’ve got to give the other rums a chance, I’m already inclined to keep this one stocked at all times for a wide variety of drinks. The flavors are milder than the V/X, with less wood and more sweetness. This is definitely a very good choice for mild or light cocktails calling for a gold rum. Very nice.

Gosling’s Gold – Bermuda – $12

Gosling’s began it’s rum history in 1857 in Bermuda, when the Gosling Brothers store received its first barrels of rum. After 3 years of trials, the famous Gosling’s Black Seal Rum was offered for sale. It wasn’t until 2004 that its Gold Rum was introduced. This rum is a blend of pot- and column-distilled rums, with the majority being aged 5 years.

The smell of this rum is very mild, with only hints of wood and molasses coming out. A few more smells make me a little leery – the smell seriously gives me the feeling that this rum will have a bit of a bite. An initial sip shows that it does not, though it doesn’t show much more than a bit of spice. A larger sip certainly has more flavor – of wood and molasses and spices. There’s almost no burn, really, which is a surprise after the second smell. But there’s not really much happening with this rum – it’s doesn’t have many tastes, just some spice at the end. It’s a touch dry, not enough molasses taste for my liking, and the predominant tastes are of wood and spice.

This is not a bad rum, and its smoothness is a pleasant surprise, but there’s just not enough of the right things going on here. If you like a sharp, spicy finish – or have a cocktail that needs a little extra edge – then this would be a good choice. It’s good enough to ensure that I won’t waste it, but I don’t foresee the purchases of another bottle.

Mount Gay Eclipse – Barbados – $17

Mount Gay of Barbados is the world’s oldest rum producer, according to a deed that dates back to 1703. Although some people believe that rum was being produced in Barbados as early as 1663, the deed of 1703 is the only legal evidence listing rum distillation equipment on the island – and the world.

This rum smells of a rich molasses and some sweetness. I have to dig deep into this rum to get some more smells, and I can detect bare hints of banana and toffee or caramel. The taste is light – not very strong at all. But there’s a good amount of spice in here, mainly a peppery burn that’s not overwhelming but you certainly know it’s there. The finish is long, but it doesn’t really finish like much.

This seems to be most like the Gosling’s so far, and I’d choose the Gosling’s which has other tastes that one expects in a rum. The Eclipse certainly isn’t a bad rum, but I’d have to say that it’s not very worthwhile because of it near-lack of taste.

And I have to admit that this tasting has changed my opinion of the Eclipse, a rum that was regularly one of my go-to rums for almost anything. I stand corrected now, and the tastes of the two Appletons above will pretty much ensure that I don’t buy the Eclipse again. Alas, many tiki cocktails do call for a Barbados Gold, so I’ll have to find some Cockspur.

Cruzan Estate Dark – St. Croix – $12

Cruzan Rum Distillery was founded on St. Croix, in the US Virgin Islands, in 1760. At one time the island used to grow sugar cane, but this is no longer true and Cruzan now imports all of its molasses for its rums. All of its rum is distilled in a process involving 3 column stills and distilled rainwater, resulting in a very clean taste in the final product. This rum is labeled as a “dark” rum it’s really a mildly dark gold – it’s the darkest of these 8 rums, but not by very much. Cruzan Estate Dark is aged a minimum of 2 years in charred casks of American oak.

The Cruzan has a fairly strong smell of alcohol backed by somewhat sweet molasses. It took me several sniffs to get past the alcohol, but I could finally detect some fruitiness and a touch of spice. The initial taste on the tongue is the spice, and the alcohol gives it a bit of a burn mixed with a peppery spice. After the tasting with the Cruzan white some time ago I am quite surprised by the showing of their gold. Kicking in with some bravado, I’ll take a few more sips hoping to find some tastes behind the spice, but it’s hard. It’s got a fair amount of taste, and I must be used to the alcohol because it’s no longer bothering me. But the peppery spice is predominant, overshadowing the bits of molasses and hints of fruit. I had much greater hopes for this rum, but they’ve been shattered by the pepper and not much else.

DonQ Gold – Puerto Rico – $12

The Serralles Distillery, which now produces over 60% of the rum sold in Puerto Rico, got its start in 1865 near the city of Ponce on the southern coast. In 1985 they acquired Puerto Rico Distillers, makers of Palo Viejo. This company Ronrico and the rum used to make Captain Morgan’s line of rums. This rum is named after Don Quixote, the famous character from La Mancha. This rum is aged between 1 and 5 year.

It takes a few initial sniffs to get past the mild alcohol of this rum. Not that the alcohol is strong, it’s just the smells behind it are very light. It finally has some molasses coming through, a bit of sweetness and some dark fruits. It’s not too bad at all, which surprises me after the miserable DonQ white that I had last week. A small sip has some sweetness, some molasses, and a touch of fruit. The finish is a touch spicy and interesting, and it’s moderately long which gives this rum a nice little touch after the swallow. There is a hint of something odd in this rum, almost like they used a wood other than the American oak that I’m used to. I can’t really place it, but it does add a nice little bit of something unusual and interesting.

So far in this tasting, I haven’t had much reason to go back and compare two rums like I usually do. As luck would have it the rums that made sense to compare were already back-to-back, but this rum makes me feel like I finally have something to compare to the Appleton Special. The Appleton is sweeter with less alcohol, and more fruit. It also has a lot more smell than the DonQ. And the tastes hold true to this sniff comparison – the Appleton beats the DonQ handily, showing more of everything good and less of anything less-than-good.

Bacardi Gold – Puerto Rico – $12

Once again I feel that I have to take one for the team and compare the mass-marketed rums of Bacardi to the others in the line-up. Luckily Bacardi is always available in small bottles, so I only have to waste a couple bucks at a time. Regardless, I don’t think that I’d be doing the world any favors if I skipped over Bacardi, so here I go…

The smell is reminiscent of the DonQ – light, some alcohol, and molasses and a touch of fruitiness hiding in the background. The first part of the taste isn’t bad, and I found myself arching my eyebrows in surprise. But it was short-lived as the alcohol wafted through my mouth and a touch of…

OK, I’m going a little too hard here. The Bacardi Gold isn’t that bad, though it does have an unpleasant hit of pungent alcohol. The finish is a touch spicy and fairly long and not unpleasant like the taste. A comparison to the DonQ show that the Bacardi is almost as good, but the DonQ has a nicer taste of molasses and is a touch sweeter. But I can see the Bacardi Gold doing a decent job in a general cocktail – certainly better than the Bacardi Superior would fair.

Palo Viejo Gold – Puerto Rico – $8-10

The Palo Viejo is the lightest gold of this bunch, and I have some hopes for it after tasting the white last week. Though not great, the white was a surprise because it was so good for the price, and I’m hoping that the Gold is the same.

A sniff shows some alcohol and some sweetness. The alcohol isn’t a pure ethanol smell, though, but has a touch of a medicinal quality that’s a bit more objectionable than ethanol. The taste is decent though, with some sweetness and molasses along with a touch of spice. There is a slight burn, but less than one would expect with an $8 rum. So I’d certainly say that this rum is a winner for the price.

But it needs some comparison, and it’s obvious to me that the most likely candidate is the DonQ. Though the DonQ has a better molasses smell, it also shows more alcohol in the smell, too. The DonQ is a touch sweeter, and a bit more refined. I’d have to say that the DonQ wins this little pair-off, but at 2/3 the price the Palo Viejo should not be ignored. Like it’s white sibling, the Palo Viejo Gold would make a good well rum.


I’m kinda bummed by this round. Out of 8 gold rums, I only found 2 that I can really say that I like – the Appletons. I’ll have to admit that I would buy the Palo Viejo or DonQ again if in need of a decent Puerto Rican gold for a cocktail.

I was surprised, and depressed, by the Mount Gay Eclipse and the Cruzan Estate Dark. I had really expected more out of both, but simply found that I would not buy them again. The Eclipse’s overall lack of taste was a surprise, like a lost rum which didn’t know what it wanted to taste like. It had a number of nice tastes, but they were quite light and this basically meant that nothing came forward. The Cruzan was similar, but at least it had a reason – that peppery spiciness which hid every other taste.

Although initially saddened by the Gosling’s Gold, it may actually get used before the Eclipse or Cruzan. At least its tastes were a bit more noticeable.

The 3 Puerto Rican rums all did decently, though nothing to write home about. But they are Puerto Rican rums – light, and useful when a drinks needs a boost of 80-proof rum that tastes like something. The Bacardi Gold was a bit of a surprise because it wasn’t as bad as the Bacardi Superior white.

I’m off to pour myself a dram of the Ron Zacapa 23…

7 White Rums

Well it’s about time I did some rum tasting… A whole month without a real post! Luckily it wasn’t a month without rum…

This past weekend I decided to tackle some more white rums, going back to the raw stuff in order to get the best idea of how some of these brands and styles compare. I don’t feel that high-quality sipping rum really gives me a good idea of a particular style. I figure the low-end whites should give me the best idea of a style without interference from extended aging or blending. Well, that’s what I’m hoping anyway.

I should stress that these are what I call “general mixing rums” chosen for their moderate prices. Any rums over $20 I start to consider “good mixing rums” but you can call them what you like. Personally I believe in using the most appropriate rum for the cocktail at hand, regardless of price. Sometimes a better or more expensive rum is not an appropriate rum for some cocktails. I suggest finding the best rum for the drink, if possible.

Mount Gay Special Reserve – Barbados – $20
This is the most expensive of these rums reviewed today, but I couldn’t find any other white from Barbados, so I grabbed it. At $20 it’s at the very high end of what I consider to be general mixing rums. This is not a clear rum – it’s actually a very light tan, or straw-colored. Even though it is filtered for some reason they don’t filter it to extreme clarity. This rum is aged for a minimum of 2 years.

The smell is sweet, predominantly of banana with molasses in the background. An initial taste is sweet, and the banana is odd – almost like it’s over-ripe. This is a rich rum, full of flavor, and it fills with the mouth with other hints behind the banana. The finish has a slight burn, with some spiciness and a lot of flavors coming through.

This is a very good rum, with a lot of flavor, though the banana makes it a bit odd and I’m sure that some will not like this. This would be an excellent rum for a fruity drink where the banana would not be so noticeable and would lend an extra bit of depth. It is sippable, more so than any of the others, but I would not call it a sipping rum.

Appleton White – Jamaica – $14
I’ve always loved Appleton Estate rums, but this is the first time I’ve ever tried the white. The rum is aged for 2 years and charcoal-filtered to remove color and impurities. The smell is pretty mellow, with a touch of sweetness and fruitiness, but nothing really dominates. It’s a simple, well-rounded smell. An initial sip shows that it has surprisingly little burn, some sweetness and fruitiness. Nothing to speak of, really. But the finish has some ethanol coming out, and this isn’t a very pleasant of a way to finish. The taste is a bit rustic, for lack of a better word. Certainly not refined but definitely not rough. Overall it’s nothing remarkable, just a simple rum, and not all that great.

Myers’s Platinum White – Jamaica – $14
The smell is a bit more potent that the Appleton, with some more fruit and sweetness but again nothing spectacular. It smells like a decent rum, but a bit plain. An initial sip shows a fair burn, rather boring flatness, and not really any sweetness whatsoever. There’s really nothing very good about this rum at all. It’s boring, flat and dull. And to add to that, it’s not sweet, and has a burn. This could be a vodka. And this might even be worse than Bacardi Silver. Ouch.

Palo Viejo White – Puerto Rico – $8-10
I found half pints of this rum, white and gold, in a local store and figured that I had to try them for less than $2 each. I really can’t find much information about this rum, and I was starting to worry that I had wasted $4. But what the hell – I’ll take one for the team.

The smell is actually quite strong, a touch of sweetness and fruit, and a good smell of molasses. Overall it has a very good smell. An initial sip shows more sweetness than the smell might imply, and it’s surprisingly smooth. It has a decent taste and good sweetness, with a very good amount of molasses for a white rum. It does have a burn though, a long slow one. But beyond the molasses there’s not much going on, but I do like that molasses smell. I like this rum quite a bit, and I’m amazed by the price. I did a quick comparison back to the Appleton, and the Appleton has more ethanol, less taste, and is less refined. The Palo beats it easily.

As a note, I ran to that liquor store tonight to grab some more. They were out, and I am bummed. I’m going to do my best to find a full bottle of this rum – it’s a very good basic mixer which will lend a nice rum taste to drinks.

DonQ Cristal – Puerto Rico – $12
The smell is quite bland, and light, and definitely boring. There’s not much going on in this rum at all. Even when I shoved my nose into the cup – something that’s not recommended with 80-proof liquors – I still can’t smell anything. Even after giving my nose a rest, just in case I burnt it out, there’s nothing here but a little ethanol. A small taste is predominantly bland, though a touch of molasses hangs below the surface. It’s got a bit of a burn and some ethanol, and I just don’t like this stuff very much – though it’s not as bad as the Myers’s Platinum.

Going back to compare against the Myers’s, the DonQ has a lot less smell and less taste. It seems that the DonQ has taken the bottom place in this little test, but it’s close. But to be sure, I gave my mouth and nose a rest and came back to it for one more try to see if I was missing anything. Nope. Ethanol and nothing much more than that. This stuff is not that frickin’ good at all.

Brugal White Label – Dominican Republic – $10
This has a decent smell, with some molasses, a touch of fruit and some sweetness. The fruit smells seems a little odd because they’re not the typical sweet fruit smells I’m used to – they’re more floral. An initial sip shows some molasses, a dryness, and a floral alcohol smell. A larger sip shows a lot of taste, a full flavor, but a lot of alcohol with a touch of molasses. This rum possibly has the worst burn of the bunch. But there’s something going on, and the tastes are sufficient to add some depth to a cocktail if it were used as a secondary rum in a Tiki drink. I don’t like it straight, but it has potential in a Tiki drink.

I compared with this with the Palo Viejo, and the comparison definitely leans towards the Palo Viejo. The Brugal has a larger flavor, and the Palo would get lost in a cocktail sooner, but the Palo tastes better with its molasses showing a good rum flavor and less alcohol. But for a extra kick of bold taste the Brugal might be the choice for a secondary rum, but it’s not a sipper.

Flor de Caña Extra Dry 4-year-old – Nicaragua – $14
Once again Flor de Caña makes me chuckle with their marketing – this rum is “Slow-Aged” whatever that means. Anyway, you may also find this rum listed as “Extra Lite” but Ed Hamilton says that they’re one and the same. This rum is aged in small white oak barrels which have been used only once.

The smell of this rum is pleasant with a bit of sweetness and a decent amount of molasses, along with some dry fruit. It also has a touch of alcohol, though. An initial sip was good at first, but then the alcohol tastes hit the back and roof of the mouth. The molasses does come through, along with a touch of sweetness but this is really a dry rum. A larger sip shows a larger taste of alcohol, but this really packs a lot of proper tastes, is quite smooth, and really it isn’t bad at all. It’s much better than the initial sip would have one believe, but there’s no doubt that this is a mixing rum and not a sipper. As a base in a cocktail it would be very good, since it has a lot of flavor and its dryness makes it quite versatile.

I broke out the Palo Viejo again, since I really like the flavor of it, and compared it to the Flor de Caña. Both have almost the same amount of alcohol taste, but the Palo Viejo beats the Flor. As to taste, the Palo beats the Flor by quite a bit with its pleasant molasses tastes.

Another Round
While going through all of the rums above I sometimes grabbed another for a quick comparison, and that should be obvious when I did. After I was done with all of them I took a break for a while, and did another quick round sipping them all and making more notes and clarifying existing ones. All told, I spent about 2 hours comparing them, with at least 3 or more full sips and another 4 or more tiny sips. After all of that, I rested, had a coffee, and rested some more.

I do not recommend doing a session like this, with such rums, if you can help it.

This comparison hit me with two big surprises: how bad the Appleton was, and how good that $8 bottle of Palo Viejo was. I think that I’m going to start a campaign to get all my local bars to switch their well rum to Palo Viejo. Well, to be fair I’d need to compare it against the local well favorites, Castillo and RonRico. I’m not looking forward to that tasting.

I was quite pleased with the Mount Gay Special Reserve, but I fear that its price tag of $20 really puts it into a different category than the rest. Some folks might not like that odd banana taste, but I’m quite sure that I’ll find a nice use for the extra bit of depth in a tiki cocktail.

The Flor De Caña and Brugal will find use as secondary rums in tiki cocktails, but I don’t think that I’ll be buying more when they’re gone. Instead I’ll stick to the Cruzan White.

The poor showing of the Myers didn’t surprise me as much as my disillusionment with the Appleton, but I had been hoping for more. Anything that is worse than Bacardi Silver… Well, what’s really frightening is that the DonQ was even worse. Really Bad Rum. Yuck.

3 Vanilla Cognacs

Cognac is my second favorite spirit, and I love vanilla. A recent post on Liquor Snob reviewing Navan Cognac reminded me that I had collected some nips of vanilla cognacs. Well, two vanilla cogancs, Navan and Meukow VS Vanilla, and a vanilla-vodka-brandy called Kajmir that I have to throw in because I like to compare 3 similar things at once. I had picked these up while visiting liquor stores for rum, and such visits will almost always find me perusing the nips behind the counter. While I won’t buy a 750ml bottle on a whim, I will certainly drop a dollar or two on a nip.

Kajmir Vanilla Liqueur – $19, 40-proof
I have to admit that part of the reason I purchased this was because I love vanilla, and partly because I love the song Kashmir by Led Zeppelin. That a fairly silly reason, but it’s just the way the subconscious works sometimes. And I wasn’t about to argue with my subconscious mind over a dollar. I’d probably lose.

Kajmir is a blend of “premium brandy, fine vodka, and warm vanilla” according to the maker, Centerra Wine Company. (OK, so its not a vanilla cognac, but similar enough for a comparison.) The bottle label says that it’s made with “natural vanilla flavors” which sounds a bit better than “warm vanilla” in my opinion. This liqueur smells a bit sweet with a mild alcohol smell, and imitation vanilla. I can’t help but think of candy when smelling this vanilla, and that’s not a compliment. The taste is mildly like artificial vanilla, extremely smooth with no burn, and very drinkable. Again, it’s like candy, kinda like I’d expect vanilla cotton candy to taste like.

Overall, the taste is too artificial for me to recommend.

Meukow VS Vanilla Cognac – $28, 60-proof
This bottle caught my eye since it is simply a gorgeous piece of work, especially for a nip. It’s a frosted glass bottle in an unusual shape, with a panther in reverse relief, wrapped around the bottle. I was even more intrigued when I picked it up and saw it was a vanilla cognac liqueur.

This liqueur is a “subtle and unique blend of Meukow cognac and vanilla natural flavors.” It has a somewhat strong alcohol smell which dominates the vanilla and brandy which lie faintly behind. Strangely, it doesn’t smell very appetizing but that may be because of the previous candy smells from the Kajmir. A small sip shows a strong amount of alcohol taste, followed quickly by a decent vanilla and some cognac complexities. The vanilla is good, certainly natural, but not so bold as to overcome the cognac. A larger sip shows a long slow burn, not bad but you know it’s there. The vanilla fades back a bit as the cognac tastes come through some more. The mouthfeel is odd – this left a waxy coating covering my entire mouth, and it really isn’t too pleasant.

Overall, the taste of the Meukow Vanilla is good, with a nice balance of cognac and vanilla, but the mouthfeel truly detracted from the experience. It’s good if you can get past the mouthfeel.

Navan – $40, 80-proof
This is “fine French cognac with a touch of natural vanilla from Madagascar” according to its makers, Grand Marnier. I saw this on the shelves numerous times before I finally grabbed a nip shortly after getting the Meukow. I figured that a comparison of the two would be a good thing to do.

This liqueur has a very faint vanilla smell that is very fine and high quality, even though it’s not too strong among the cognac. There is almost no alcohol smell here, just complex cognac with vanilla overtones. The taste is very sweet, strong in vanilla yet with complex cognac tones underneath. The cognac here is more complex and nicer than the Meukow, but the vanilla is much stronger and thus the Navan doesn’t have the balance that the Meukow showed. The Navan is also much sweeter – sugary enough to make my lips sticky. There’s a burn in the Navan, but much milder and faster than the Meukow. There’s a thick mouthfeel to the Navan, but oily rather than the Meukow’s annoying waxiness.

The Navan is certainly very high quality, but misses the mark a bit due to a lack of balance. The vanilla taste is fantastic, but the cognac is far milder leaving one with a vanilla liqueur, rather than a vanilla-cognac liqueur. I’d recommend it, but only if you like sweet liqueurs. If you think you’d like a sweet vanilla cognac then rush out and buy a bottle, since I don’t think you’ll get much better than the Navan.

The Kajmir isn’t really worth considering unless you’re an alco-pop fan. Cheap, sweet, smooth – candy with a mild alcohol content.

The Meukow is good, but not great. It’s got a nice balance of vanilla and cognac, but neither were top scorers, so it misses the mark.

The Navan has great vanilla taste, but also misses the mark a bit due to its sweetness and lack of balance between the vanilla and cognac. This is probably the best bet for use in a cocktail because of its vanilla.

3 Caipirinhas

After recently comparing 3 cachaças I felt it would be good to also test the ultimate cachaça cocktail, the caipirinha. For the most part, I followed the excellent instructions from the Caipirinha.us website which can be downloaded in PDF here. While these instructions suggest Fazenda Mae De Ouro I think the instructions fit all caipirinhas and they’re the best instructions I’ve seen for anyone who has never made a caipirinha.

I have to admit that I did divert from these instructions in a couple ways. These instructions say to “Always use Superfine Cane Sugar (Domino Brand)” but I really don’t like such overly-processed sugar, so I used Trader Joe’s Organic Cane Sugar. I think this sugar adds a bit more depth to a rum cocktail without going over the top with a more flavorful sugar like turbinado. And since this is a very coarse sugar I made a 2:1 simple syrup from it, and used 1 tablespoon of this mixture per drink.

I feel these changes are slight, and I made each cocktail as identical as possible – I used limes that looked identical in size, lined up 3 glasses with the lime and simple syrup, muddled the same number of times, randomly grabbed a glass for each cachaça, measured the ice for each, and shook each equally in a Boston shaker. I just don’t feel that the comparison of the cachaças could be fair unless everything else were identical. Finally, my wife numbered each glass so that I could taste them blind. It was the best I could do to make things fair. This blind test, however, was a waste of time since I identified each cachaça immediately simply by smelling the caipirinha. But I tried.

Beleza Pura
The sniff test showed some strong notes coming through, very distinctive floral notes. This was a good cocktail, but the cachaça was a bit too overpowering and thus the cocktail lacked balance. That one distinct taste was strong enough to overpower all of the subtler flavors, and the only other noticeable flavor was lime. No balance, no depth. I have to say that I certainly would not complain if I was served one of these, and I might even prefer it if I was in the mood and desired a strong cachaça taste in the cocktail. But the lack of balance and depth dropped this down a couple notches.

Fazenda Mae De Ouro
This caipirinha had many more smells and flavors going on, though they took a bit of coaxing due to their subtleties. But none were distinct, and they all balanced very well with the lime, resulting in a nicely balanced cocktail with depth and some complexity. This was easily the best caipirinha of the bunch.

This caipirinha started out dull with the sniff test, and didn’t fair any better when sipped. The lime was the dominant taste in this cocktail due to the lack of flavor in the cachaça, and the result was simply boring. There was no balance because there was little taste beyond the lime. But I could see how a typical drinker, one who’s never had a good caipirinha, would like this cocktail. Even in its worst form this cocktail is very drinkable on a hot day, and quite refreshing. But the same people who would enjoy this would probably be the ones tired of Rum & Coke, or those who wanted to drink a “fancy cocktail” rather than a Budweiser. Sure, it’s tasty, but one can do so much better.

Once again the Fazenda Mae De Ouro comes out on top in this comparison, though the Beleza might be preferred by those who want a distinct cachaça taste in their caipirinha. But the depth and complexity of the Fazenda make the difference between a good caipirinha and an excellent one, and that’s what I’ll drink.

3 Cachaças

If you believe the Program for Brazilian Development of Sugar-Cane Alcohol (PBDAC), cachaça is the third most popular distilled beverage in the world, after vodka and soju. Wikipedia says it’s the fourth, adding rum ahead of it. Either way, it’s an extremely popular spirit made in Brazil as early as 1530. Over 30,000 small producers market over 5,000 brands and make about 350 million gallons a year – that’s about 2 gallons per person in Brazil, leaving just a little left over for the rest of us. Germany is the largest consumer of cachaça outside of Latin America.

Cachaça is made from sugar cane juice which is fermented for about 24 hours and then distilled to a product generally between 80- and 90-proof. Though this may sound similar to agricole, the two spirits should not be confused as the rest of the process – such as yeasts, distillation to 144 proof, maturation methods, cask woods, and so on – are quite different. As is the final product.

Given the number of producers of cachaça there are many, many variations. Much of it is drunk unaged, though some is aged a year or more in a variety of Brazilian woods, though American or European oaks are also used. Brazilian law states that cachaça must be aged at least one year in barrels no larger than 700 liters to be termed “aged” cachaça. Along with the unaged and aged cachaças, a third type is made by directly adding caramel or wood extracts. This variety is known as yellow cachaça, and is often sweeter because of the added ingredients.

Because of US laws cachaça must be labeled as “rum” when sold here, and is sometimes called “Brazilian Rum.” Knowledgeable liquors store owners realize this and often place cachaças away from the rum, so be sure to look around, or ask, if you’re shopping for cachaça. It took me a while to realize this, and I now have tendencies to roam the entire store looking for it. This is how I found my third bottle of cachaça which was over by the wine amongst 6 or 8 other cachaças. Discovering this third bottle finally allowed me to discover a true taste of cachaça and not one particular brand’s version of this spirit. It seemed silly to me to try a new style of cane spirit without knowing what the spirit itself was supposed to taste like, so I waited until I had 3 high quality cachaças before diving in.

Beleza Pura – $28 (750ml)
This cachaça, whose name means “pure beauty” in Brazil, is an artisinal cachaça brought to the US by Olie Berlic, a top sommelier in America. He moved to Brazil to find top wines, but instead turned his attention to cachaça. He spent 3 years tasting over 800 cachaças to find one that suited him and he brought it to the US as Beleza Pura.

This has a slight alcohol smell along with a bit of sweetness and a good amount of fruitiness, and thin but sticky legs that cling for quite some time. While I can detect hints of similarity with an unaged agricole it really is quite different – this is lighter and smells smoother, if that’s possible. An initial taste is very fruity, very nice, but with a bit of a burn that could be attributed to this being the first sip of the evening. Another larger sip show some hints of vanilla and the burn isn’t so bad. The finish is quick, but a very slight burn lingers a while before fading. A final sip has some more flavors and smells, one or two that I can’t place but are in that fruity/floral category.

Overall, this is quite nice. It’s not a sippable spirit, but it would certainly be very nice in the right cocktail – though it’s bold, assertive flavors might overtake many. I like it quite a bit, but I think it requires the right cocktail that would benefit from its assertive flavors.

Fazenda Mae De Ouro – $27 (1 liter)
This cachaça is an “artisinal” one, finely made by a small producer in the state of Minas Gerais. The sugar cane is grown in a sustainable way, and cut and processed by hand. The cane is cold-pressed, fermented using wild yeasts, and distillation in copper pot stills begins within 20 hours of cutting. Every 1000 liters of sugar cane juice end up producing only 120 liters of cachaça, and a mere 30 liters of this is aged for 1 to 2 years in 30-year-old Scotch barrels. After being filtered 3 times, it is bottled as Fazenda Mae De Ouro.

The smell is a bit more raw than the Beleza, not of alcohol but rather like fresher sugar cane. This has more similarity to an agricole smell, but again is milder. I really can’t detect any alcohol smell here. The legs are much thicker and slowly drip down. An initial taste is sweeter, less fruity, and much smoother than the Beleza. A larger sip shows more of the sweetness, fruit, and smoothness – though a mild burn hits after the swallow, and lingers a bit. But this finish has taste, unlike the Beleza’s simple burn for a finish. A larger final sip is very nice indeed – smooth and sweet. It lacks the assertive flavors of the Beleza but makes up for this in a gentler, subtler, smoother cachaça.

Overall, this is also quite nice but in a different way than the Beleza. It’s certainly much more sippable, and the subtler flavors are much nicer. I’m afraid that it might get lost in a bold cocktail, so this seems to belong in a simple cocktail with mild flavors that will let the tastes come through.

Leblon – $25 (750ml)
This cachaça is also made in the region of Minas Gerais, and the sugar cane is hand-cut and carefully milled. It is pressed within 3 hours of cutting, and fermentation begins using proprietary yeasts. After 15 hours the distillation process is started using copper pot stills. The resulting spirit is “rested” in XO Cognac casks for 3 to 6 months and then blended. It is triple-filtered and bottled.

The legs on this are somewhere between the other two – thicker than the Beleza but not as clingy as the Fazenda. The smell is similar to the Fazenda, but fruitier. A touch of alcohol is noticeable here, though it’s nowhere near the Beleza. An initial sip is a bit thick, and very sugary – like refined table sugar, not a smooth cane syrup taste. A larger sip shows some fruitiness, but not much at all, really. The long slow burn exists though, lasting far longer than it takes to type these two sentences. It’s a long slow fade. I’m wondering where the flavor is hiding, so I’ll give my mouth a few minutes to relax.

Finally, after a rest, I’m ready for another large sip of the Leblon. And… there’s some sweetness, and some fruit. I’m glad that I rested, even though I don’t miss that long fading burn. But another sip is bland, again. Is it only the first sip that has some taste here? Or is this the Bacardi of the cachaça world? OK, it’s not that bad, even though the burn is worse. A final sip, and I’m just left shaking my head and reaching for a sip of water to clear my mouth.

Just To Be Sure…
I wanted to go back and compare a small amount of the Fazenda to the Beleza, just to make sure that I’m thinking straight. I’ll do this in the reverse order this time, Fazenda then Beleza.

Fazenda… smell is mildly sweet and fruity, and refined – as in “clean” not as in “white table sugar.” A sip is raw/fresh, very smooth, some fruitiness but mellow with some sweetness. At this point of the night the burn is non-existent. This is good, but I am left wishing for a bit more taste.

Beleza… smell is mellower than I was expecting from memory. Still, it’s mostly alcohol, though some fruit and sweetness perk up. Taste is bold, fruity, with a burn. Nice, but not as nice as the Fazenda.

Cachaça is a different spirit than the molasses-based rums that I’m used to, but I like them for their sharp fruitiness and their taste of fresh sugar cane. They seem “livelier” than rums, more like a summer rum, and would kick some butt in the right cocktail. Yes, I’ll have to sample some caipirinhas and batidas. In fact I’m looking forward to it, before the summer ends.

As to the 3 cachaças sampled tonight, I’ll have to give my vote to the Fazenda Mae De Ouro. It’s certainly a cleaner cachaça, more delicate and suited to sipping. The finer, more subtle tastes were pleasant, not assertive or assaulting. I can’t wait until I can find some of the 5-year-old, though I understand it won’t be available in the US for a little while.

My second choice certainly goes to the Beleza Pura, though I will have to find the correct cocktail for it. The flavors were nice and bold – perhaps a little too bold – but the burn was not something I want to sip. In the correct cocktail this would probably be excellent, but I’ll have to wait until I find the right cocktail.

As to the Leblon, I’ll pass. The burn was almost as bad as the Beleza, but it had none of the tastes of either of the others. It was rather bland, really. Though it did have some sweet fruitiness it was no match for the clean and natural subtleties of the Fazenda.

Originally I had never mentioned the prices of these 3 since they were so close – only $1 off from each other. But a reader reminded me that the Fazenda is a 1 liter bottle compared to 750ml of the others. So not only is the Fazenda my favorite in this review, it’s the cheapest by a noticeable amount. Good deal!