We head to Bridport’s famous rum haven, DarkBear at The Bridge House Hotel, for one of the most exciting rum tasting opportunities out there – the chance to make our way through Foursquare Rum’s ECS vintage releases, from the ground-breaking 2004 straight through to the recently released 2008 (yes, including that “unicorn” of rums, the Velier Foursquare 2006). Hosted by Foursquare Rum’s UK Ambassador, Pete Holland, and joined via the wonders of the internet by the legendary Master Distiller & Master Blender, Richard Seale, we make our way through this extraordinary flight, as well as sampling some Foursquare 2008 cocktails, crafted by DarkBear’s David Smith.
There aren’t many things that could make us leave our cosy bubble in London during a pandemic. However, when Foursquare’s Pete Holland asked us if we’d be up for travelling five hours to attend the private filming of a live stream event where Barbados-based Richard Seale would be taking viewers through his Exceptional Cask Strength (ECS) vintage releases from 2004 to 2008, we instantly started Googling ways to get our arses down to Bridport safely. Needless to say, whilst too excited to sleep the night before, we also took every precaution to ensure that we were not risking the health of ourselves or others.
So, why did this invite provoke in us the near delirious anticipation of a four-year-old the night before going to Disneyland? Well, let’s just say, for dedicated Rummies like ourselves, this particular Foursquare tasting is like Christmas, a Disneyland holiday, a trip to Hamley’s, and an all-you-can-eat ice cream buffet, all wrapped up in one.
Who and What is Foursquare?
Foursquare Rum Distillery in Barbados is one of the world’s most highly respected producers of premium rum and is a distilleries that has been leading the way in changing the perception of rum in the wider spirits market. The team at Foursquare, headed up by Master Distiller & Master Blender Richard Seale, has a passion for increasing transparency within the industry, stamping out additives, education, and improving and protecting the quality of spirits, as well as releasing mind-blowing rums that have gained a global, cult-like following. All-in-all, Foursquare has done so much to change the conversation around rum over the last ten years or so, and Richard’s vintage releases have played a huge part in that.
What is DarkBear’s Ultimate Foursquare Cask-Strength Vintage Release Tasting Flight?
DarkBear’s co-owner David Smith is, like us, a self-confessed Foursquare fanatic. The bar popped up inside a cafe two-and-a-half years ago and quickly garnered a reputation for specialising in unadulterated, no sugar added, proper rum. Over the lockdown period, the duo of David Smith and Lloyd Brown moved into a permanent site at The Bridge House Hotel, where the live stream is taking place. The DarkBear’s insanely impressive collection of rum includes a shrine to Foursquare Distillery, with bottles of R.L. Seale, Doorly’s and The Real McCoy (other brands produced at the distillery) rubbing shoulders with limited edition Foursquare releases such as Principia and Patrimonio (one of our favourite releases to date).
With so many rare and limited release rums at their disposal, the pair decided to start offering once-in-a-lifetime tasting flights, starting with the ultimate Foursquare cask-strength vintage release.
The flight features: the ground-breaking 2004, which certainly changed people’s perceptions of cask-strength rum; “ISC Supreme Champion”, the 2005; the “unicorn” 2006 Velier bottling that helped bring the brand to a wider audience; the 2007 release which continued the strong run of form, taking Gold at both IWSC and ISC; and the recently released and truly exceptional 2008, which has already secured the Rum Trophy at the 2020 International Wines and Spirits Competition.
David is still on the lookout for a bottle of the inaugural 1998 to complete the ECS collection however sightings of this elusive beast have been few and far between in recent years. It is also virtually impossible to find either the 2004 or 2006 Velier, with any bottle that emerges getting snapped up for hundreds if not thousands of pounds, so the opportunity to try these together is truly once-in-a-lifetime. What’s more, this unparalleled experience (available on application, due to limited stock) currently only costs £80 for five 25ml measures of unbelievably rare, limited edition rum, which we think is a bit of a bargain (just imagine how much this would cost if this were whisky).
DarkBear’s Foursquare Cocktails
We settle into DarkBear’s cosy, subterranean den as Pete sets up the technology and David starts proceedings off with a simple yet delicious classic Bajan Corn’n’Oil (Doorly’s XO, Falernum and a dash of Angostura bitters). The two rum enthusiasts met at a gin competition of all things, and David credits Pete with starting him off on his Foursquare obsession when Pete introduced him to the 2004. Since then, they’ve stayed in touch, working and drinking together, and celebrating the world’s best rums from their respective posts.
David mixes things up by making a Rum Gimlet with 50ml Doorly’s 3yo (the new 47% ABV bottling), and 25ml of home-made lime cordial, thrown as opposed to stirred to add more air to the drink and make it lighter. When questioned on this unusual choice of making a Gimlet with rum, David says,
“It’s my favourite gin cocktail. I don’t really like tonic. My favourite cocktail is a Daiquiri so anything with a bit of lime and rum is good in my book. It’s just really simple and a good introduction to Doorly’s. You need the higher proof three-year-old though – it’s not as good with the 40% ABV. In Summer we do it with a bit of mint in there and we’ve also done it with nettle cordial in the past.”
Next up, we have a highball aimed at showcasing the delicious dried fruit notes in the Foursquare 2008. Here, David made a plum soda from scratch by reducing the fruit with brown sugar and carbonating the liquid, before adding a double measure of the 2008. Served up in a dangerously tall but elegant glass with perfectly clear ice, it’s an uncomplicated and luscious drink with a thick, dark fruit sweetness that’s kept in balance by the light carbonation. The rum’s robust strength at 60% ABV and rich, spiced fruit character add a solid backbone to this tasty highball.
As David talks through his Foursquare 2008 Old Fashioned with coconut sugar and Chuncho bitters, he explains how he and Lloyd are hoping to make use of the new venue’s open garden area over the next few months, heating and furnishing it for the incoming cold weather to create a gorgeous winter terrace where guests can enjoy cocktails in safety and comfort. Whilst DarkBear is pretty rum-heavy, with around 85% of cocktails on their new menu featuring rum, they also have a solid whisky and gin selection and look forward to creating some delicious festive drinks for all palates. Pete chimes in that he’s “never had a bad cocktail from [them]” and, with what we’ve tried so far, we’re also starting to think David and Lloyd can do no wrong.
Staring at his back-bar, David states that they “tried to make the rum selection as varied as they could but for [him], the Foursquare stuff was the best so [he] thought, ‘well let’s specialise in something as we need to set ourselves apart from the big bars in London’, so that’s what [they] did.” Saying that, there aren’t many spots in London with as fulsome a collection as he’s carefully accrued.
His next cocktail is a Richard Seale Swizzle, created for the Master Distiller himself as Gayle Seale (Foursquare’s Global Brand Ambassador) has her own cocktail – the Gayle Seale Daiquiri. He expertly swizzles 50ml Foursquare 2008 with DarkBear Fassionola syrup (a mixture of passion fruit, mango, hibiscus and cherry), lemon juice, cinnamon syrup and Angostura bitters, before garnishing with a dehydrated lemon wheel and a boozy Morello cherry. Complex and surprisingly heady with a well-crafted balance of citrus zing and rich fruitiness, it’s certainly got the potential to be a modern classic, as well as perfectly showcasing Foursquare 2008.
Our final treat comes in hot with fresh espresso, cinnamon syrup and 35ml of Foursquare 2008 topped with Cognac-infused cream that David has added to “show off those stone fruits [in the rum] and because why not, ey?!” It’s insanely decadent and 100% something we’ll be recreating at home during the winter months.
The Main Event – Foursquare Vintages at DarkBear, Live Stream with Richard Seale
As our flight of five Foursquare ECS vintage releases is placed in front of us, the main man, Richard Seale, joins us live from Barbados. Viewers tune in via Facebook Live and he walks us through how the Exceptional Cask Selection came into being.
Foursquare ECS 1998
10-year-old | Bourbon cask | Column Still | 40% ABV
The motivation came from the wine industry and its ability to do vintages, which is “odd in our spirits business where we’re obsessed about making everything the same every year.” The first vintage was the 1998, which was released in 2008. “Actually funnily enough looking back,” says Richard “it’s worked really well as there’s this huge gap between the 1998 and the 2004 to 2008 series. That’s what it should be with vintages; they give you the opportunity to reflect on what the audience is.” He elaborates,
“When you make a brand, you have a balance between shifting to meet your audience and preserving the integrity of the brand. With the vintages you do that. When you look back at the 1998, you can see a different story there. You can look back on the days of the Rum Renaissance. Those days are actually even reflective of the broader change that took place in the 20th century which was to make lighter rums, easier to drink rums. Nowadays we want a Daiquiri with the full aftertaste of an agricole or a Clairin, back then you wanted the opposite – a crisp and clean Daiquiri.
“The beauty of the 1998 was to have a rum that was flavourful but very sweet and moreish. We did it at 40% ABV because in that era the standard was 37.5% ABV and rum was a cheap spirit. 40% – we look back in horror now but then 40% was better than 37.5%! Also, 1998 was 100% Column Still and you might look back in horror but that’s what people wanted. They wanted sweet and soft. If you bring in Pot Still, you’re going to bring in some acidity and some complexity but there are no free lunches. Jump to 2004, it’s a very different audience. 2004 to 2008 there’s an evolution as well but not as big a jump. The vintages reflect what they should reflect – changing times and changing perceptions.”
Foursquare ECS 2004
10-year-old | Ex-Bourbon cask | Pot & Column Still | 40% ABV
Sadly, we haven’t (yet) tried the 1998 but our first sip on the ground-breaking 2004 is within reach. Foursquare 2004 was the first cask-strength release and really began to change people’s perceptions of what a cask-strength rum could be. The nose is intense and complexly Bajan, with dried prunes and dates, oak, nutmeg and warm spice, vanilla, a lick of smoke, cola bottle sweets, gummy bears, warm spotted dick, green apple, grassy notes, and a tiny hint of wood varnish. Sipping, the initial ABV burn trickles into spice, warmed by deep, rich oak notes and familiar dark chocolate, vanilla, raisins and sultanas. We can’t seem to shake the idea of gummy bears/cola bottle sweets, yet as we return to the glass, these morph into quince jam, crab apple compote and dried apricot.
“2004 was a mega hit for us”, says Richard. “One of the things that made me smile when we were doing 2004 and how big a hit it was, was that I knew that for 2005, I had a bigger library to select from.
“2004 was a hit beyond our expectations but when I knew 2004 was a big hit, I knew 2005 would be too. Had no clue in hell that it would win that award though.”
Foursquare ECS 2005
11-year-old | Ex-Bourbon cask | Pot & Column Still | 59% ABV
Richard is of course referring to Foursquare ECS 2005 was crowned “ISC Supreme Champion Spirit 2018” – the first time a rum had won that ultimate prize in the history of the competition. Pete explains that in order to win the “Supreme Champion” award, the heads of all the different spirits panels within that competition had to agree – no small thing, especially when only one of them is an expert rum judge. Richard expands on this point,
“No disrespect to rum expert judges but the thing about being a rum expert judge is that you have your own natural preferences that come to the fore. I do love throwing the rum to experts but not necessarily rum experts because it’s kind of blind at two levels. I do the ISC and the IWSC because I respect them but they’re two very different competitions. The ISC tends to be rummie judges and the IWSC tends to be experts but not rummie judges. But the Supreme Champion award ISC is from not rummie judges as it’s from everyone else and I do like when we do well in an expert but not necessarily rum audience. I’ve always done that.
“Over the years of developing rums, many of the people I’ve consulted with aren’t in rum […] People like the Master of Wine we do some business with. I always get him to taste rum and he sort of looks at me and goes ‘Why are you making me try rum? I know nothing about rum. Why are you asking me my opinion’ but I go, ‘No no, I want your opinion’.”
On the nose, Foursquare ECS 2005 is deeper, thicker and sweeter than the 2004, with fat sultanas, plump raisins, cinnamon donuts, toffee, black fruit pastilles, banana foam sweets, ripe banana, lime zest, ginger, nutmeg, white pepper, vanilla, red grape and milk chocolate. On the palate, this is a gorgeously robing, almost syrupy number (remember, this is Foursquare we’re talking about so there’s no added sugar, this is purely textural). It’s full of fragrant vanilla with prickles of ginger, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and freshly milled pepper, held up by dark cherry, bitter plum, singed orange peel, lime peel, ripe grapes and cold caramel. The length is infinite and the buttery texture does an impressive job of supporting the 59% ABV.
Foursquare 2006 Velier
10-year-old | 3 years Ex-Bourbon cask, 7 years ex-Cognac cask | Pot Still | 62% ABV
We continue our journey through the flight as Richard tells us about this first collaboration with the inimitable Luca Gargano of independent bottler (or dependant bottler, as Luca calls himself) Velier. With only 2,400 bottles ever made and this expression placed on a well-deserved pedestal by the rum community soon after its release in 2016, Foursquare 2006 Velier is possibly one of the most coveted rums in the world and this is truly a rare sighting.
“With 2004 we did it at 59%, and you’ll laugh, because we wanted to do cask strength but didn’t quite want to scare everyone off with 60% so thought ‘let’s do it at 59%’, which was a little less scary”, Richard says, smiling. This release was to a very different, narrow audience of Luca’s (uber rum nerds who could handle a high alcohol strength), so it could be bottled at 62% ABV.
We get a rare glimpse of self-doubt as Richard tells us how he had always wanted to name his rums but “didn’t have the confidence yet, so [they] were boring and gave it a vintage.” He says, “I chickened out of naming the first Velier but it wasn’t really connected to the ECS vintages.” His respect for Luca is always palpable whenever he is brought up and today is no exception, when discussing Velier’s role in the success of the 2006.
“One of the things [Luca] brings to the table is the ability to go in front of the right audience. It would have been very easy for me to have bottled Foursquare 2006, sold it through the wrong importer and it [to have gotten] stuck on the shelves all over the place. You have to put the rum in front of the right audience.”
With that being said, we can hold out no longer and – after a cautious beginning due to the ABV – bury our nose into our glass of Foursquare 2006 Velier. Darker in colour with a reddish hue, possibly due to the influence of the ex-Cognac cask, the concentrated appearance translates into an amped up nose. And what a nose it is, with tonnes of oak and spice as well as a hefty fruitiness. Further nosing reveals a freshly opened bag of raisins, blackcurrant jelly, the wrappers of blackcurrant Chewit sweets, Danish pastry, maple pecan pastry, almonds, a memory of frangipane, spiced fruit cake, fruit scones, vanilla sponge cake still warm front the oven, fruit skins, cinnamon, citrus peel, banana, apricot, cigar box, roasted cherry pips, dark cherry, coffee grounds, dark chocolate, white pepper and a good deal of ripe and dried dark fruit, but with the full frontal jamminess held back. As we lose ourselves further in the rum, we realise that we haven’t experienced any kind of mental ABV kick in the face. Instead, even with our snout firmly wedged within the bulb of our tasting glass, there’s a creaminess to it (don’t ask us how a smell is creamy).
We take a sip and give in to the seduction of a teasingly oily, sexy mouthfeel. Something dark and dirty, like petroleum and worn tyres on a hot day, comes through followed by black liquorice sweet packets, tobacco, blackcurrants Soothers, menthol, oak woodiness and spice. Buttery, creamy overtones of custard, crème brûlée and butterscotch meld with blueberries, apricots, plums, raisins, honey and black grapes. More sipping throws out bitter chocolate, olives, coffee grounds, paprika, walnut skin and roasted almonds. In short, it’s astounding. We could go on, but that would just be cruel as, unless you get yourself down to DarkBear, you’re unlikely to try this true gem of a rum.
12-year-old | Ex-Bourbon cask | Pot & Column Still | 59% ABV
We reluctantly move away from the Foursquare 2006 Velier, but luckily a tried-and-tested favourite, Foursquare ECS 2007, awaits us. As we reacquaint ourselves with the sweet and woody nose, filled with raisins, sultanas, ginger cake, vanilla, banana skin, spice and desiccated coconut, followed by a dry, hot and spicy first sip rounding out with raisins, toasted nuts, banana and ginger, Richard answers questions from the live stream viewers.
He mentions always wanting to do a Marsala cask rum and getting beaten to the release by Worthy Park, prompting a query about whether he’d work with any types of cask. He responds,
“What we’re trying to do with wood is to use something that’s part of the heritage. We wouldn’t touch anything that isn’t part of the heritage. For example we will never do a Brazilian hardwood […] There’s no historic link at all, it’s actually a marker of a separate drinking culture so to blur that line for me makes no sense. For me, it’s not about the contents but the cask. The contents of course is the seasoning but the idea is that you want to get a really good cask, a really good seasoned cask. We buy casks from Chile from some of the world’s best winemaker. They’re French oak and some of the best French Oak casks in the world. We search them out not so much for the wine in them as we’ll actually steam them, then put young rum in them first to season with rum, then we’ll do the main maturation with them. It’s all about the wood. That’s why we wouldn’t do tequila as tequila is famous for the distillate not the cask. We search out Cognac casks as Cognac is famous for their fabulous casks. We do choose the cask carefully, it’s not intended as random. That’s why we invest the time in the cask […] We use casks for years and years and years.”
12-year-old | Ex-Bourbon cask | Pot & Column Still | 60% ABV
We move on to our final rum of the flight – and one of our favourite recent releases – Foursquare ECS 2008. We had the good fortune to try this some months ago when visiting Pete and fell a little bit in love with it (as is often the case with Foursquare releases). The nose is warm and full with Vimto, almond slivers, cinnamon, nutmeg, red cherries, raspberries, blackcurrants, blackberries, pineapple, rambutan, papaya, honeydew melon, orange, orange zest, dry wood and a touch of acetone. Sipping, a luscious, buttery texture secures the stage for cinnamon, heaps of cherries and juicy raisins to dance on. Further tasting reveals some new leather and tobacco pouch, along with pepper, ginger and dry warm spices. Vanilla, cocoa and dried fruit are left in the mouth as a delightful afterglow that lasts for ages.
What’s next at Foursquare?
We sit back in our comfy armchair at DarkBear and listen to Richard confirm that there are plans afoot to do a Foursquare ECS 2009 and that “Redoutable is being bottled as we speak”.
He goes on to tell a story about the Habitation Velier Foursquare 2015 White Pure Single Rum.
“Luca wanted to do both aged and unaged rum as he wanted to see where the rum comes from. As he puts it, ‘If you have a prospective girlfriend or boyfriend, you want to meet their parents’. That’s Luca.” Richard didn’t want to sell him unaged rum as for Richard, if it’s premium, it has to go into a cask. “I told him ‘I’m not selling you white rum.’ Then Luca sent me the bottles, the labels, the boxes etc and was like ‘Please please please! If you loved me you’d really do this for me!’” Richard tells us that in the end, he was sampling a new set of Cognac casks from a different supplier, tasted one at three-months and decided to give Luca one of these casks.
“It was young enough so that you could see the parentage but I [felt] better it’s been in a cask for four months. It had a bit of gravitas that is not just off the still and put in a bottle. That’s where the white came from. That’s why when you look at it it has a slight tinge of colour.
“Would we do it again? Part of me says ‘no, that’s Luca’. But…this year, we made two batches of high ester rum [from cane juice]. Now there’s a part of me that goes ‘why not!? Why not release a couple of hundred bottles?!’ The first batch is gone and already blended in barrels but the second batch is sitting in two stainless steel casks. You never know. I might bottle it white or might do the same thing and put it in a cask for three or four months. It’s from cane juice but it’s not agricole. It’s high ester but not Jamaican. How’s that for a bit of provocativeness?!”
He ends jovially with the affectionate admittance that “I know if I send a sample to Luca, I’m screwed – there will be no saying ‘no’ to that!”
With Richard logged off and our DarkBear’s Ultimate Cask-Strength Vintage Release Tasting Flight complete, all that remains is to impose on the DarkBear team’s faultless hospitality until the 10pm curfew, oggling the rum collection and quaffing a few more excellent cocktails. It’s been a truly exceptional experience and one we would heartily recommend to any rum lover. As these editions of the Foursquare vintage bottlings get rarer and rarer, the price of the tasting will doubtlessly rise (although will totes still be worth it), so we’d recommend emailing DarkBear and securing your spot sharpish. As the new bar is located within the beautiful boutique hideaway The Bridge House Hotel, you’d be able to make the most of David and Lloyd’s hospitality before stumbling upstairs for a restful slumber. What more could you ask for?!
DarkBear, 115 East Street, Bridport, Dorset, DT6 3LB