Some but maybe not all of you, will be familiar with Serge Valentin. Serge runs the extremely popular whisky website Whisky Fun. In recent years Serge has begun seeking out “Malternatives” often in the shape of rum.
Serge’s pocket sized reviews and commitment to the website mean that he publishes hundreds of notes every month. New reviews are published pretty much on a daily basis. Accurate, interesting tasting notes and an almost immediate assessment has ensured the sites popularity.
However, a reviewer is only as good as his reputation and Serge’s success reflects his knowledge of Whisky and other spirits. Throw in some more idiosyncratic elements on such as cartoons and Jazz reviews/recommendations and Whisky Fun offers something very different to most standard whisky sites.
Serge is the second person with more of a Whisky background (Dave Broom being the first), who I have sought out to ask some questions for the site. I’m sure once you begin reading his responses you will understand why I was so keen to ask him about rum. Serge is not commercially linked to anything in the industry so he offers his personal opinions.
Like Dave Broom before him he might not be a Rum Expert in his own eyes but he certainly is in mine….
1. Serge you are very well known in the Whisky world for your website – Whisky Fun.com. With over 12,0000 whiskies sampled to date, what made you want to also begin sampling and reviewing rums?
Perhaps those 12,000 whiskies! In fact I had accumulated many samples and bottles of rum over the years and thought I should do something with them. I was also getting many requests from whisky people, partly because interesting whiskies became so expensive and branding so dominant. In a way, rum was seen as more naïve and authentic quite a few years back… and cheaper. And after all, aged rums can be very similar to whisky, same with cognac, armagnac, calvados, tequila… I believe very old spirits kind of converge and should you try some of them blind, I’m not sure everyone could tell which is which.
2. Was their any particular person or any particular experience which led you to want to experiment with “Malternatives”?
Oh yes, some good independent bottlers who always had a few great rums and who would have given you one or two samples hidden amongst their whiskies, almost inadvertently. Gordon & MacPhail, W.M. Cadenhead, Samaroli… Some famous retailers have also been at the forefront and have influenced me, such as La Maison du Whisky. They always had flair.
3. A slightly envious question – You get some cracking samples particularly of old and rare rums, which many of us Rum Reviewers would be over the moon to receive. You must have some very good connections in the rum world? Which people in the rum world are you in regular contact with?
Collecting friends and bottlers! You know both worlds tend to overlap more and more, and most hardcore whisky people have loads of rum too. So whenever they open a rare old bottle, some like to let me taste it. Also, more and more whisky bottlers are doing rum too. The Germans, Italians, Brits, French… They know the high-end whisky market is moving towards other categories, so they may believe that a whisky taster has got a worthy audience in that respect. And I do buy some too! What’s more, we have a small group called the Rumaniacs, with several collectors, and quite some rare rum is shared within that group.
4. You have always been clear on what styles of Whisky you enjoy such as Clynelish. Any styles of rum you particularly fond of?
First and foremost I remain a whisky lover, so my favourite rums are the ones that, indeed, I call ‘the malternatives’, which gather their character from the distillate rather than entirely from the casks or from flavouring.
5. Any styles you are not so keen on?
Yes, either the very light and thin ethanol-y ones. Not that they’re bad (they cannot be since there’s nothing inside) but I find them uninteresting, or the flavoured ones, which I just hate. Liqueurs called rum, usually pure ethanol, flavoured with sugar, vanillin, coffee and god knows what else and thickened with glycerol. From a whisky lover’s point of view, those are undrinkable and make you want to reach for your toothbrush (or a lot of crushed ice).. I’m not keen on fake ages and vintages either, or fake provenances etc but that’s another story.
6. Richard Seale and Luca Gargano are trying to introduce a new classification system? Have you seen the proposals and what are your thoughts?
Absolutely. I’d leave those issues to genuine rum experts, but I’m rather sure they’re right. It’s a scandal that someone making proper rum would have to compete with fraudsters (some call them brand-builders) who are just cheating and are getting away with that, because the category is so badly regulated. Or when there are regulations, those aren’t enforced. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps because money has no smell. But educating people is a tough job, because the vast majority of the people who are commenting on those issues do benefit from the smokescreens and are actually doing their best to discretely keep the fire burning. Salesmen, industry people, brand ambassadors, retailers, commercial journalists, PR people etc.
Many are great people but they’re everywhere and they do their best to try control the conversations. Although I wouldn’t blame them, they are friendly, they are doing their jobs and they often do them very well. But they are easy to spot, they usually use words such as ‘inquisition’, ‘instant experts’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘white-knight’ or ‘know-nothing’ when talking about you. All words that actually mean ‘ouch, touché!
7. Do you think rum needs to shed its “Rum is Fun” moniker?
No ideas, I’m afraid. I’ve never quite been exposed to those ambiances and ideas, and to me rum is just like whisky. Although I’d prefer “Rum is Funk”, and hope it won’t become “Rum is Junk” because of some high-selling monsters that are appealing to the sugar-hungry masses. I know I’m sounding like an elitist, and that ‘each to his own’ and that ‘everyone’s got an opinion and all opinions are equal’ etc. Sure, but opinions ought to be educated, or they sink to the bottom sooner or later.
8. What is your position on additives, in particular sugar in the rum world?
A swindle. The worst part is when brands tell that it’s traditional to add cartloads of sugar, while it’s not. I mean, to rum. It’s all fake, and adding the picture of a forgotten hero of the revolucion won’t make your lab ‘rum’ any more authentic.
9. It is now being suggested that an arguably even more sinister trend is occurring in mass produced rum – 96% ABV “alcohol” and above produced by continuous column distillation being flavoured and passed of as rum when in actual fact it is little more than flavoured ethanol/vodka. What are your thoughts on this?
No, I think that’s even less than Vodka. In vodka, the customers know about what they’re buying, more or less. Not so at all with these rum brands. Seriously, why would good people care so much about what’s in their deep-frozen lasagnas or tinned chickpeas, and not about what’s in their booze? That’s just insane.
10. Have you noticed a change in attitudes to rum in the past few years?
Hard to say, because I mainly know whisky people. Not too sure… There is some deception here and there for sure. Former whisky lovers who had turned to rum are now starting to tackle armagnac instead, but that’s still marginal. But it’s true that it’s very difficult to go from Lagavulin to Zacapa. Watch the ebb and flow.
11. Why is rum eternily in the shadow of Whisky in particular Single Malt Scotch. Why does the rum industry continually try to push rum producers towards promoting their rums as “Whisky drinkers” rums. What is it with rums inferiority complex?
Again hard to say. A theory could be that they know that sooner or later, the category will be better regulated and controlled, at least in the EU or in the US, and that they’ll have to drop their additives, so to speak, making their rums much, much drier than they are today, unless they accept to call them Spiced Rum or Rum Liqueur or something… And not in tiny letters! Rumour has it that it’s going to happen very soon.
12. If you were to put your name to any distilleries rums which distillery would it be (You can do this for rum and whisky if you wish). Any particular preference for what you would like to see bottled? ie production method, age etc
Sure, in theory, pot still rum, not obligatorily ex-vesou/cane juice, with very high esters. Say at least 15g/l like at Hampden Estate. Matured in refill wood for eight or ten years. Chicken and goats in the dunder pits totally optional (lol)..
As for the distilleries and more generally, Bielle, Neisson, Hampden, Worthy Park, Foursquare, or some of DLL’s, (provided no one added any sugar or other juices to the casks at birth) Oh and Chalong Bay in Thailand, such a shame that, by law, they cannot bottle at more than 40% vol. Superb distillate!
13. Back on the subject of Richard and Luca how have you found the recent Habitation Velier releases? Do you think they can ever go beyond the hardcore enthusiast or are they a step too far from many casual rum drinkers.
I think they are totally right. They’re catching the interest of cohorts of malt whisky drinkers, and rightly so. I think they are also busy educating the public, so they definitely are on the right path, even if they are infuriating many people here and there. It’s a trend that can be seen in wine as well.
Most rum (or whisky!) brands seem to ignore that premium-ising is not just about adding more gold to the packaging and raising the prices, it’s also about making a better, more transparent product. Remember the peated Islays? You could have wondered about that too thirty years ago. Many whisky people, not only die-hard aficionados, just love them now and I’d say their audience increased tenfold.
14. And finally what is Serge Valentin’s favourite rum drink (or just favourite rum)?
At this very moment, the Jamaicans. Modern Hampden, for example, or old-style Appleton. But they’re also, I believe, the closest to old-school malt whisky. So, no wonder… As for rum drinks, I have no ideas. Perhaps a proper Canchanchara, but that’s because I really like the city of Trinidad in Cuba.
I hope you have all enjoyed reading Serge’s answers as much I have. A very interesting, knowedgable character who perhaps has a better nose for rum than many of the so-called experts.
Thanks very much for your time Serge!