Hampden Pagos 100% Ex-Sherry Cask, 52% ABV
In the colloquialisms of whisky talk, the word “Sherry” (and by extension, “Sherry Cask” or “Sherry finish”) simply cannot be used enough. A mere mention of the word isn’t just able to command a price premium, but could have the incredible effect of sending tingles down the spine and collectors into a frenzy. For something quite so available, it never ceases to amaze me how the word continues to hold such an amusing effect. Why doesn’t this apply to the other of the Big 4 aging vessels, “Bourbon”, “Rum” or “Wine”, or better yet- the various permutations and combinations of any of these seasoned casks? Why just Sherry?
So let’s talk Sherry.
Sherry is matured in a pretty unique way called the Solera system where aging barrels are stacked from youngest at the top (where new Sherry goes in) to oldest at the bottom (barrels at ground level) and where mature Sherry is drawn and bottled from. Each year, Sherry is transferred to the layer of barrels below and over time they make it to the ground level barrels which are called Solera barrels. (Image Source: Sherry Notes)
Ruben (of WhiskyNotes) wrote a great piece on the use of Sherry casks by the whisky industry. In brief, he outlines how Sherry as a beverage of choice was huge in the UK up until the 1980s and as somewhat of an unintended consequence, the whisky industry got a hold of discarded casks used to transport Sherry from Spain to the UK. At the time, laws allowed Sherry to be sold in bulk and even aged, stored and bottled in the UK, as the economics of it would dictate, it was far easier to discard emptied barrels in the UK than to bring them back to Spain. These unwanted casks (at that time) that had carried mature Sherry for months and had soaked their pores with litres of the stuff. They were widely available and of course, found a new purpose as maturation vessels for whisky. Sherry laws tightened up by the late 1980s, and Sherry now had to be bottled in Spain. The availability of these casks dried up and today, the overwhelming majority of Sherry casks used for whisky maturation are made-to-order and seasoned with Sherry simply for the purpose of supplying whisky distilleries with such casks. This is but a summary of Ruben’s 15 page work which also talks about other aspects of Sherry cask production, but I’ll leave readers to check that out for themselves.
These casks used to transport Sherry from Spain to the UK, where Sherry was really popular in the mid-1900s, were uneconomical to be brought back to Spain and so fell in the hands of Scotch makers. This obviously went on to significantly influence and shape the whisky-verse. (Image Source: Sherry Wines)
What is really pertinent here is that this seemingly-obvious obsession of whisky lovers and distilleries over the use of Sherry casks was very much a stroke of luck, whether they’d like to admit it or not – right time, right place and whole lot of opportunism. Were Sherry consumption in the UK, laws and economics a centimeter displaced, perhaps the fabric of the whisky-verse might have been significantly different.
Now, as the Sherry trade brought Sherry casks to the UK, so was the case for other cask-transported spirits such as Port, Madeira and Rum, amongst others. By the same logic as what was the case with Sherry casks, casks of those sorts too found their way into the hands of Scotch producers. However, none of their use cases have commanded nearly the premium that Sherry casks have, nor has any Scotch maker's reputation been built upon the use of Port or Rum casks. Ultimately, it was the Sherry that did it for 'em.
And yet, whisky distilleries continue to wax lyrical on the superiority of the use of Sherry casks in whisky-making (even though these “Sherry casks” are never really the casks actually used to age actual commercially drinkable Sherry, which are matured in a Solera system where casks can be almost kept in use indefinitely, some having been in use for 200 years). In fact, one of the darlings of the Scotch world, a distillery so esteemed their marketing team had to give it a formal salutation, The Macallan, could be said to earn its “The -” prefix from their astounding use of Sherry casks.
The layer of oak casks you see lying at the ground level are the Solera casks, which can be used almost indefinitely, some being touted to have been used for 200 years. These casks used for maturing drinking Sherry almost never make it out of the Sherry bodegas and aren't the same as what is used by the whisky industry, which are seasoned for a few years with Sherry not meant for drinking, solely for the use of whiskymakers. (Image Source: TripAdvisor)
Wait, wasn’t this a rum review? You’re right, and here’s why this elaborate discussion on Sherry matters. Because rums are almost never exclusively aged in Sherry casks – we’re not talking those holy grail Solera casks that are actually used in Sherry production, we’re talking about casks seasoned with Sherry for the specific use of spirits flavoring and maturation. Isn’t that pretty surprising given how its spirits cousin, whisky, has benefitted stupendously from touting the use of Sherry casks? If its effects on spirits are so highly revered and unquestionably marvelous, why is it that rum-makers have yet to catch on?
The Sherry triangle where Sherry can be officially produced and labelled as such. A confluence of factors - such as the popularity of Sherry in the UK, resulted in the happenstance use of Sherry for whisky aging. For the same reason, the Caribbeans where most rums are produced never stood to touch Sherry casks. (Image Source: A Crime Is Afoot)
Like I said, the answer to that lies in historical happenstance. The UK’s massive consumption of Sherry, the laws and economics of the category up until the 1980’s simply lent its use to proximal Scotch makers – right time, right place and a whole lot of opportunism.
As Richard Seale of Foursquare Distillery acclaim points out to me, the rum makers in Cuba (which obviously had great ties with the Spaniards) and Spain certainly benefited from their proximity to Sherry consumption and too found the use of Sherry casks in the 40's and 50's very beneficial. After all, they like their Scotch counterparts needed some sort of wooden maturation vessel and where they were, wood was not always available, so as they say, beggars can't be choosers. Yet, these producers too were not safe from the changes in Sherry rules in the 80's. So fair point, it is hyperbole on my part to say rum-makers have not caught on.
The Caribbeans are a string of islands each with their own ecosystem, hierarchies, and dynamics in their own unique style of rum production. (Image Source: Tiki Island Radio)
But there are exceptions to that, and the Caribbean Islands by far and large are a fairly outsized exception (although Richard has mentioned that Barbados' Foursquare has used Sherry casks since the late 90s, including some ex-Solera casks, but as far as I'm aware, has yet to bottle a fully Sherry cask matured expression).
As the world map would have it, the Caribbean islands never stood a chance to get close enough to benefit from the Sherry trade. And so two massive categories of aged spirits went down a very different paths. If this was understood, it was only a matter of time that some observant individual of sufficient clout would come along and seize the opportunity to introduce the rum-verse to some Sherry casks. Who else but Luca Gargano of Velier?
Luca Gargano, a man whose works you'll very quickly be acquainted with when you start jumping into the rum blackhole. (Image Source: The CEO Magazine)
Now, my namedropping of The Macallan was very much intentional. With the rum I am about to review, the new Hampden Pagos expression, Luca has made very clear his intent on bestowing upon Jamaica’s Hampden, the salutation “The”. In Luca’s world, it’s “The Hampden”.
From his vantage point, there’s little to no reason rums should be denied the same fervor and pomp as their malt spirit counterparts – and if it takes Sherry casks to get the job done, so be it.
Consequently, through Velier’s role as distributor of Lustau’s Sherry (Bodegas Lustau is one of the most well-known Sherry producers), he was able to secure 40 Sherry casks (PX and Oloroso… although he’s stated that Oloroso is the name of the game moving forward). Half of these Lustau Sherry casks resulted in the aged versions of Velier’s Haitian Clairins. The remaining 20 Sherry casks went into making what is now the Hampden Pagos (“Pagos” meaning “cru” in Jerez, Spain, where the Sherry casks are from). According to Luca, these pioneering Sherry-matured rums exhibit something beyond what the whisky world has demonstrated – the combination of Sherry flavours with an intense base spirit– a high congener cane-derived spirit made with pungent dunder and aged in a tropical climate. In all fairness, the intensity of esters and the tropicsis perhaps as antithetical to Scotch as a spirit could be.
Hampden Estate, though Luca would hope that before long, it would be "The Hampden Estate". (Image Source: Skurnik Wines)
Indeed, Luca Gargano declared of the Pagos: "Today Hampden opens a new frontier for all rum lovers. These official bottlings mark a historic moment for the world of spirits, comparable to the arrival of Islay's Single Malts on the market in the 1980s.”
Luca has even highlighted that the Hampden Pagos “will contribute to making Hampden the Macallan of rum”, which is itself an oddly specific goal to set. But at the same time it informs us of what Luca is hoping to achieve – the elevation of his pure single rums to the same esteem as what the most well-known whiskies have achieved.
Is that it then? Has he made his point? Far from it – his clout has gotten him something even more garish – an additional 180 casks, of which 80 butts were actual genuine Solera battle-worn casks (for 15 years at least), from The Macallan’s coopers, Huberto Domecq.
The man won’t stop until Hampden is known to the world as “The Hampden”.
That’s enough theatrics. Now let’s get down to the business, ladies and gentlemen: The Hampden Pagos.
Hampden Pagos 100% Ex-Sherry Cask, 52% ABV - Review
Colour: A deep reddish copper that appears particularly shiny. Reminds me a little of the fragrant and spicy Guizhou’s “Lao Gan Ma” Chili Oil.
A deep red color that glimmers at angles. The color of the Hampden Pagos reminded me of Lao Gan Ma Chili Oil. (Image Source: Quora)
On the nose: Surprisingly sturdy for its youth (Luca says that he got his hands on prized Sherry casks somewhere in 2018 and the Pagos was bottled roughly in 2021, making it about 3 years old, give or take), it is rich and deep but at the same time fresh and vibrant. Its aromas waft out in troves, yet there is not much of that biting heat. Initially there is a slight synthetic acetone note that comes across like varnish but this quickly simmers off to reveal more fragrant floral notes of lilies, magnolias, jasmines; all very nectar-sweet and at the same time fresh like new linens.
As you might expect, a fruit bomb of a nose. Yet, rather than the textbook overripe bananas, here there's massive, more sweet and tart stone fruits, florals and fresh linens, and a touch of varnish on the open. (Image Source: Milan Art Institute, Orchid Republic, Virginia Candle Supply, Masterclass)
More nosing reveals the fruitier notes – cranberries, blackberries, raspberries and cherries. Very ripe and bursting at the peels. The best description of this is fruit jam. Really aromatic, vibrant and unctuous. There are some gentle notes of espresso which I tend to find in anything touched by Sherry, a slight smokiness as well.
With these aromas you’d be hard pressed to ID this as a Hampden – nowhere do I find the usual hogo, overripened bananas, fusel oil, microwaved game meats. It’s very Sherry heavy.
The taste is much more familiar - cane juice, sweet flower nectar, vanilla pods, cacao nibs. This is perhaps more 50/50 Sherry and Hampden. (Image Source: Think Right Me, Better Homes and Gardens, I'm Not A Cook, tradeKorea)
On the palate: Great body, it has a nice thick, syrupy texture. The flavors continue to exhibit that delightful freshness and liveliness. Here I find something more recognizable of the Jamaican rums – a funkier tone of fermented cane, sugar cane juice, nectar, pandan, vanilla pods and cacao nibs. It somewhat reminds me of chocolate chip vanilla ice cream drizzled in honey.
Richer base notes of pineapple cubes, banana slices, coconut milk, and fruit jam. (Image Source: Savory Nothings, Newsmartz, Small Footprint Family, Virginia Candle Supply)
Little notes of pineapple, bananas and coconut milk show up albeit far more gentle than usual much more bombastic sugarcane affiliates. This is followed by the same fruit jam that was so characteristic on the nose – strawberries and blackberries here. It should be noted that the palate carries much more heat than was let on by the nose.
A nice, clean finish with a long drawn out warmth that continues to carry forth the honey, nectar and fruit jam notes from the palate. Slight oaky notes to make the mouth pucker but overall very enjoyable. (Image Source: Women's Health, myGarden, Virginia Candle Supply)
The finish: Clean and crisp, the heat lingers long after the flavours dissipate. Still very sweet and jammy – a continuation of the honey, nectar and fruit jam here. All very rich but delicate– it isn’t cloying. Some astringency from the tannins show up late on the finish as well as a slight oaky quality.
I would be pretty surprised if anyone who tasted this blind could tell this was from The Hampden. Perhaps that’s where youth takes its toll – this was much more sherry cask than Jamaican rum. While delightful and great to sip, I don’t think the use of Sherry casks with Hampden’s rum has quite reached its full potential (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Hell, it would be pretty outrageous to call it a day and say that the supposed new era of rums has reached its peak on its inaugural showing. The flavors were very likeable and yet it fell short on complexity – something I believe some more age could do a good deal of good for it.
Kinda feels like this - it sticks out for sure, but really y'know it's just memorable for that singular really over-the-top feature. (Image Source: Pinterest)
This is headed in an interesting direction that is worth keeping your eyes on – unquestionably! The stone fruits flavors from Sherry gave the otherwise heavy hitter of a tropical fruit bomb another repertoire of flavors that I could see marry well together. Tropical fruits tend to be more sugary, perfumery and scream nectar, whereas stone fruits tend to be richer, with more acidity and tartness. It’s Yin and Yang, I suppose.
This combination coupled with the creaminess of the body could indeed be a winning profile for a whole slew of new rum styles.
Yet, despite its potential, I hesitate to say that Hampden’s best works/future necessarily lies in casks of Sherry (seasoning). Here’s why: Hampden is so loved for its textbook unmistakable profile – the hogo that you would be hard pressed to forget, mis-identify, or find anywhere else outside of Jamaica. By borrowing flavors from Sherry casks, yet another big unmistakable flavonoid is tossed into the mix. How does that saying go? Oh yes- too many cooks spoil the broth. Its profile is completely altered so much so that I dare say you’d be comparing apples to oranges if you put a Sherried Hampden next to the best of the Hampden’s pre-Sherry era.
I found it very enjoyable especially for a person who likes fruit bombs. While I would have hoped for more complexity it felt more like a tussle in which the Sherry cask won out and there wasn't much of the classic Hampden notes.
Yet overall, a valiant effort and I will watch with great anticipation on how this will shape the rum-verse.
They are wildly different beasts. Could they both be stellar? Yes. But would a Sherried Hampden truly take the Jamaican benchmark to a whole other level? I'm not yet a believer.
Oooh that italics ~ What will it take! (Image Source: The Macallan)
I think The Macallan succeeded in plying the use of Sherry casks because whiskies are nowhere near the level of rums with their high ester count. So when you add flavours as big as those borrowed from Sherry casks, you combine really solid base notes (we’re talking the best of whiskies here), with really strong high notes from the Sherry cask. Eh, toss in some good oak. It works.
Now, what about the other pungent elephant in the whisky room of flavors- peat? Although a strong flavor as well, a combination of peat and Sherry tends to lend notes of smoked stone fruit. That sounds positively delightful. But adding stone fruits on to tropical fruits? It’s good but probably too one-dimensional. There’s more variety and assortment amidst the fruits, but overall it’s just one giant fruit basket, if you get what I mean.
Remember, this is only the beginning. (Image Source: Velier)
Again, will this expand the Jamaican treasure's repertoire, versatility and compound its clout? Yes, without a doubt, yes.
Will this single stroke be the piece-de-resistance that will finally make it "The Hampden"? I certainly look forward to be proven wrong. But the man has done phenomenal things, I would not bet against him. This game-altering move is also certainly going to further build on the rum-verse by opening up a whole new dimension. And while we're on that, why should this be limited to Hampden (and the Clairins)? We should be terribly excited for other rums to undergo this supposedly glorious transformation. And also, even Luca himself admits the future is Oloroso - this was a mix of PX/Oloroso - perhaps we're not even at Chapter, maybe the "P" in Pagos is really Prologue.
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