At this point, rum geeks in the know have surely come to be aware of Holmes Cay. We’ve tasted and reviewed the majority of their releases to date, and walked away with nothing but admiration for this small, indie bottler, which sources cask-strength, ultra limited releases from popular distilleries in hot rum locales such as Barbados, Jamaica, Fiji, Guyana and Belize. The allure of Holmes Cay releases is their simplicity—no secondary barrel finishes, no adulteration or dilution, no artificial color or added sugar. Just aged rum, straight from the barrel. It doesn’t get any simpler, and this style of presentation helps preserve both the distiller/ager’s art, and the varietal characteristics of rum from different world markets. The high price tags mean that the appeal of a Holmes Cay product to the masses will always be limited, but for rum geeks it’s exactly the kind of thing they’re looking for.
Suffice to say, we’re always excited to try a new Holmes Cay batch at this point, and today we’ve got two of them, vastly different in their origin and aging. On the younger and stronger side, there’s Jamaica Wedderburn 2011, ringing in at 118 proof. And on the opposite side of the spectrum, there’s the well-aged Guyana Uitvlugt 2003, at 102 proof. There’s a lot more to say about each of these individual rums, so let’s get right to it.
Distillery: Clarendon Distillery
ABV: 59% (118 proof)
Jamaica is of course one of the centers of the rum world, especially for hardcore rum geeks, so the first release of a Jamaican Holmes Cay batch was always going to get some folks excited. Right off the bat, I can very much appreciate that this release is significantly more affordable than every other Holmes Cay batch to date—although $89 is nothing to sneeze at, it appropriately reflects a “mere” 10 year age statement, which is younger than the majority of these releases. Overall, it makes the Jamaica Wedderburn 2011 batch easily the best bang-for-your-buck Holmes Cay release to date.
This rum was distilled at the very large Clarendon Distillery, owned by National Rums of Jamaica—itself owned in part by a number of parties, including the Jamaican government, Guyana’s Demerara Distillers Limited, and France’s Maison Ferrand, the owner of Plantation Rum. The Clarendon Distillery is vast, producing both column and pot still rums for a variety of brands in Europe and elsewhere. The most sought-after rums produced at Clarendon in the U.S. are in the Monymusk Plantation Rum line, and this Holmes Cay release likely has the most in common with these spirits.
This is a 100% pot still rum, tropically aged for 3 years in Jamaica and then aged another 7 years in the U.K. in ex bourbon casks. It’s described as “medium ester,” which synchs up with the heavy pot still rum produced by Clarendon, around 550 gr/hlAA for the hogo geeks in the house. In total, four casks were produced, yielding around 1,050 bottles. Says the company:
“We selected and bottled this edition to highlight Wedderburn, a classic Jamaican rum style that rum lovers know and savor,” said Holmes Cay founder Eric Kaye. “It is a pleasure to offer this superior example of a medium ester, pot still rum to US spirits lovers. Its characteristic flavors — created through lengthy open tank fermentation of molasses with natural yeasts — are approachable and harmonious. Despite the intensity of the tropical fruit, tobacco and oak flavors, a balance is created.”
On the nose, I have to say this one is immediately delightful—I’m getting tons of sticky toffee and juicy pineapple, with a brown sugar/cake-iness that suggests pineapple upside down cake with cinnamon. There’s a treacly quality, and a dusting of cocoa as well, with a surprising amount of spicy oak on the nose for this being a (relatively) younger release by Holmes Cay standards. Over time, I’m getting more leather on the nose, as Jamaican funk peaks out more strongly, and I’m overall surprised by how much balance there is between richness and oak.
On the palate, this rum has an immediate black pepper spiciness, paired with pineapples in heavy syrup. I’m getting moderate oakiness once again, combined with cocoa, leather and moderate funkiness. Over time, it’s trending more tropical, with notes of coconut and vanilla whipped cream—halfway to being a painkiller all on its own, when you add in the pineapple. The hogo funky-fruity notes are indeed “medium” in intensity, but the rum is quite balanced and frankly shockingly easy to drink neat at 118 proof. It’s a superb balance of assertive fruit and spice notes with reserved alcohol, oak and funk. All in all, a delicious release, one that is easy to love, and one I’d absolutely snap up at this price point.
Distillery: Demerara Distillers Ltd. Diamond Distillery
ABV: 51% (102 proof)
This is the second Holmes Cay release of rum from Guyana, also simply known as “demerara rum,” from the company’s sole major distillery Demerara Distillers Ltd. These rums in general are a very geeky corner of the rum world, as each individual still at DDL has a reputation/flavor profile that the more intense rum geeks could lecture about at length. This one came from the French four-column Savalle column still, originally located at the Uitvlugt Estate, and now found at Diamond Distillery in Guyana. This is 100% column still rum that was aged for two years tropically in Guyana, and then a far longer 16 years in the U.K. It’s fittingly far darker in the glass than the Jamaica Wedderburn 2011 as a result.
On the nose, this one initially struck me as actually sort of muted, and definitely less bombastically aromatic than the Jamaica Wedderburn 2011. It takes a little bit of time to open up, and becomes more characterful on the nose over time, seeming to respond to the heat of my hand as I hold it. Regardless, it’s more subtle than the big fruit, spice and funk combo of the Jamaica, and we must of course note the lower cask strength proof. As I return to it, on the nose I’m getting notes of green pineapple, pears and clove. Over time, sweetness I was initially missing starts to come out, and I swear I’m unexpectedly getting something that evokes maple syrup.
The palate on the Guyana Uitvlugt 2003 is quite interesting, providing an unexpected duel between brighter tropical fruit and more savory notes. I’m getting some dried herbal impressions like bay leaf or sage, along with moderate oakiness that contributes some tannic dryness on the back end. It’s often leathery, with notes of tobacco but not overt “smoke” at any point, but all of the savory notes are at least partially balanced out by more youthful hints of bright tropical fruit.
There’s a lot to suss out on this release, but I’d be lying if I said it hit my brain’s pleasure centers as squarely as the Jamaica Wedderburn 2011—a funky, fruity rum that is simply more my style. This, though, is the allure of Holmes Cay, offering expressions from all throughout the rum world to suit any number of flavor preferences. There are few better ways to get a working education in the many styles of rum than by tasting these releases.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.