This is not a rum review but a rum rant, the difference is that I don’t pretend to have the qualifications to “review” a spirit. However, in the purest tradition of freedom, and I’m only half-joking here, why should I let that stop me? I’m just up front about the fact that I’m simply a guy that drinks a lot of rum and likes to talk about it. So pull up a chair, pour yourself a glass of something you enjoy, and let’s see what’s what.
Kirk and Sweeney rum is bottled and sold by the 3 Badge Beverage Corporation out of Sonoma, California. They have a pretty cool corporate history. Basically a multi generational family business that started in the wine trade and has recently diversified, you can check them out here. The rum itself is made in the Dominican Republic, we are not told by whom, and I assume aged there. Internet rumours have it distilled by one of the 3 B’s of Dominican rum (Barcelo, Bermudez, Brugal), specifically in this case by Bermudez. That distillery is based in Santiago De Los Caballeros, which meshes neatly with what is written on the bottle. Further internet rumours have the rum aged in the D.R., but then shipped to California for bottling and “finishing”. I was curious about that last step, so I wrote to 3 Badge consumer service via a contact form on their website. No answer. Possibly there’s no one at the other end (es posible), or some of my questions were touchy (también es posible).
Edit: over two months later still no answer… don’t you hate it when that happens?
I was pretty excited about this rum. I’ve tasted very old spirits in my wilder days, but the oldest rum I sampled was the 15-year-old El Dorado, which frankly I was not that impressed with. I was very curious about Kirk and Sweeney, the unorthodox sounding name, and attracted by the fancy presentation. Though to be fair, I always get a mixed response to fancy bottles, part of me gets rapidly suspicious when looks seem overwrought. It almost feels like the equivalent of guys putting gym socks down their pants in high school: big show, little go.
Sidebar: when I rant about rum I don’t do it from a single session, I try and to spend some time with the liquid to sort of come to an understanding of what it has to offer. During one of those sessions I had a D&C founding member with me who spontaneously offered his impressions about the bottle, I’m paraphrasing from notes I took (I do that): “Big bottle, trying to be like cognac, you need big manly hands to hold it.” I thought that was interesting, I had never thought of that macho appeal aspect of packaging. To be fair the bottle is squat and quite heavy, with an imposing thickness of the bottom. Insert pirate and booty joke here.
But are we going to judge ahead of time? Certainly not, the proof (about 84 btw) is in the pudding, or in this case the fancy bottle.
First, however, a word from our beloved sponsor: History. One look at the bottle shows it is replete with maritime imagery, a compass rose, bits of navigation charts, even the golden coloured seal over the cork is meant to evoke the brass fittings found on a ship. All very naughty-cal. Drum roll cymbal crash.
Kirk and Sweeney was in fact the name of a ship, that quite appropriately, ran rum (or booze in any case) from the Caribbean to the north-eastern U.S. seaboard during that blight that was prohibition (I’m going to say it loud and say it proud, fuck the Volstead act). The ship’s history is a little murky though.
What we do know, is that the Kirk and Sweeney, was originally built in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, as a deep-sea fishing vessel for the W. Lawrence Sweeney fisheries. Sometime in or after 1924, it was caught by the Coast Guard with a large quantity of alcohol on it (below is the only extant picture I could find of the vessel), and eventually pressed into service as a training vessel. Ironically, the smuggling ship was renamed the Chase (CG-9277), not after the verb, but after the Civil War/Reconstruction era U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, essentially the father of the IRS. Ouch.
Where things get uncertain in the history of the K&S, is that most sources claim the ship was captured in 1924. However, it only appears on the Coast Guard registry as the Chase in 1934. What happened in the intervening decade? We don’t know. Additionally some sources report the ship was renamed the George and Earl, however, both names appear on the list of vessels owned by W. Lawrence Fisheries, not something you would expect if it was the same ship. It endlessly fascinates me how even very recent history can become muddied, and we have actual newspapers and photographs of the era. So imagine what it is like for historians to argue over a single manuscript… The ship ended its days somewhat ignominiously as a break water at Rock Hall Maryland, in the 1950’s. I wonder if it just sank there or was broken apart. No one seems to know.
Sidebar #2: The Kirk and Sweeney is sometimes referred to as a sloop, that would be incorrect, since a sloop is a single-masted vessel, while the two booms (horizontal masts so to speak) present on the picture above clearly put the vessel in the schooner category. You’re welcome. Talking about sloops, no doubt you’ve heard the Beach Boys song Sloop John B., did you know that it is part of Bahamian folk repertoire? I didn’t either. It is sometimes called the unofficial Bahamian anthem, and the “real” title of the song, as these things go (I mean for oral lore), is either The John B. Sails, or The Wreck of the John B. The earliest recorded version that I could find, is by an unjustly forgotten ragtime/blues guitarist named Blind Blake. He recorded with Paramount up to 1932 and died in 1934, when he was just 38. I strongly recommend you give it a listen here, it is fabulous in so many ways. I have actually been listening to quite a bit of Blind Blake (not to be confused with “Blind” Blake Alphonso Higgs, another musician active in the 30’s and 60’s, “even” wiki seems unclear as to who is who). The early Blind Blake’s songs are a treasure trove of information about life and drinking in the early 30’s. There’s good research material there for a person with inclination, time and money…
Sidebar #3: I mentioned him in my mai-tai post, and I will talk about the gentlemen more in an upcoming post. Ernest Beaumont Gantt, who legally changed his name to Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber, and single-handedly started the tiki movement, seems to have spent some formative years running rum from Jamaica to the U.S. aboard his grandfather’s ship. I like. He seems to have lived richly and died poor, certainly a man after my own heart.
Back to the rum, according to the reverse side of the fake Coast Guard impound label, this is the second batch of 18-year old K&S, and bottle 2094. That info is not super meaningful as we don’t know how many bottles there are in a batch. The rum is bottled at 42.1 % ABV, and I do not have (yet) the tools to perform a density test, so I can’t guess at the amount of sugar that may have been added (a big pet peeve of late).
I poured some of the rum into a proper tasting glass and let it sit for about 20 minutes. It’s one of the many things I learned from a real spirits reviewer named Ralfy: let your spirit rest a minute in your glass for every year in the cask, it gives your tipple time to open up. As you can see from the image below, I also had some water on hand, a few drops usually do wonders to tease out flavours.
A quick note about colour. Colour tells you NOTHING useful about a spirit, we have developed a reflex of “darker is tastier and better” but that is not the case, at all. However, because of that, many spirits, including Scotch single malts, are being doctored with caramel to deepen their hue and make them more attractive to uninformed consumers. Reviewers/bloggers/brand ambassadors/drunks who praise the colour of spirits are, in my opinion, guilty of promoting that misconception. The irony, is that I currently avoid spirits that appear too dark because I distrust them. My knee-jerk reaction is, if they were willing to fudge with the colour, what else have they screwed with? It does not breed trust and a belief in the product’s integrity.
After 20 minutes I started nosing the rum. Remember this is a rant and not a review, so don’t expect master blender info here, plus I’ve said it before, I’m blessed with a mediocre palate. In fact you may want to skip the next few paragraphs as they will be über subjective.
Nose: Not the punch I somehow expected (I guess unconscious expectations due to colour, damn you marketing!). Vanilla, custard, egg flan, a friend spotted bananas, I didn’t. Vague hints of something orangey and yeasty. Smells for the world like pastry such as Polish donuts. There’s an elusive note of match heads or sulfur, but it is very hard to consistently find. Not unpleasant but a bit cloying and I can’t manage to figure out what is hiding beneath the heavy blanket of vanilla/pastry. With water added, some burnt caramel seems to surface.
Taste: Very very sweet, the alcoholic bite is much stronger than I expected for this age statement and ABV, it burns, though not completely unpleasantly so. A lot of bitterness as well, which actually works not bad in counterbalancing the dominant sweetness (I’m alarmed by how sweet it is). In my tasting notes twice I noted something “dusty” on the finish after having added water. The finish is phenomenal, to my palate extremely long, the bitter balances the sweet but the burn is on the verge of too much. It is very easy to drown this rum adding water, proceed drop by drop. A friend opined there was “something missing in the middle”.
Conclusion? The sweetness is too much for me. It blankets everything and almost numbs my mouth. I’ll keep on drinking this rum for the next few days and update this post if I get new insights. I will also make sure to keep enough of it to perform a density test, as I fear the sugar added may be excessive. A pleasant enough drink to be sure, but not something I would think of purchasing again.
I think, however, that K&S 18 will work a treat as an ingredient in cocktails (I can hear the purists grumble as I chuckle). It was quite interesting in a stormy, and brought a port like quality to the drink. Just go easier on the simple syrup if you choose to mix with it. I think I’ll try it in a mai-tai, then a daiquiri next.
See you soon.