Welcome back to Neat & Greet, a series in which Eater Boston contributor Ándrea Pentabona taps into the vast knowledge of Brother Cleve: cocktail legend, musician, and man about town. In each edition, the duo sips an unadulterated spirit at a Boston-area bar while discussing liquor, bartending, and more.
151 is quite a way to start an evening. But when you’re drinking with Brother Cleve and have the opportunity to hang out with the smart dudes who run the bar at The Townshend in Quincy, then you have to suck it up. Literally.
Lemon Hart Demerara Rum, and specifically the 151, is the source of much discussion and lament in the craft bartending world. The newest incarnation of the spirit just hit the United States market a couple of months ago, and I got the chance to try it that very same day. It’s always tough to remember something you’ve tasted — especially if it was years ago — when you have something else in front of you, and I found myself wishing I could taste it side-by-side with the previous form of the rum.
The night I met up with Cleve in Quincy, we basically hit the jackpot (which is generally what drinking with Cleve is like). Palmer Matthews, bar manager at The Townshend, happened to have some kicking around from a private collection. And, as luck would have it, we got the rare chance to taste some of the first, and highly coveted, original as well. (Both previous bottlings are part of a private collection and not available at the bar.) Cleve and Matthews were able to regale me with the history of this remarkable rum as we sipped.
Lemon Hart 151 was the premiere Demerara rum — Demerara referring to the river in Guyana where a Dutch colony began the sugarcane industry that still exists today. This rum is widely accepted by the bartending community as a necessary tool to make many of the tiki classics accurately. In 2010, after many transitions among parent companies, Lemon Hart lost its US distribution.
Enter Ed Hamilton — enthusiast, connoisseur, importer, and Minister of Rum. He brought Lemon Hart back in 2011. The first bottles that hit the market were the old packaging with the yellow, 1970s-looking label. Eventually, this switched over to a new, more elegant red label. Hamilton and Martin Cate (of Smuggler’s Cove fame) tasted them side by side, recording the tasting on video. They came to the conclusion that while there are definitely differences, overall the heart and soul of the rum is still there. Cleve, Matthews, and I don’t disagree. Adding the third iteration to the tasting, which is being produced by El Dorado and bottled in Canada, was definitely a treat.
The original Lemon Hart is a very special rum. It’s remarkable how balanced it is at 151 proof. We got a lot of apple and some almost cassis-like notes with a ton of nuance that makes you understand at first sip why it was so indispensable in so many tiki classics. Cleve stressed that it is not a stretch when you hear that classics like a Zombie or Jet Pilot aren’t the same without it. Not to be forgotten is that this original expression we tasted had been hanging out in a bottle for close to two decades. It had been exposed to all sorts of temperatures and conditions that can affect this particular liquid in a unique way, possibly changing the flavor.
On the circa 2011 bottling, we got a lot more toffee and nuttiness, and while there was obviously heat on the previous rum, the alcohol is much more in your face with this second incarnation. Jumping into the third 151 of the evening, we determined that the most recent Lemon Hart overproof rum is definitely a closer echo of the original. While we still got some of the deeper flavors from the second rum, it expressed itself in more of a raisin-y note as opposed to a heavy nuttiness. This drank hotter, which could be attributed to the fact the bottle was recently opened, unlike the other two, which have been open for years. We all experienced a lot more fruity lightness to the third rum that harks back to the original. Overall, we are excited to have this tool back in our rum arsenal.
Since we were tasting 151s, we had to throw Hamilton’s 151 Demerara into the mix. We quickly agreed that while the original Lemon Hart 151 was still the king, Hamilton’s rum comes in at a close second. Definitely much more subtle and sip-worthy than the second Lemon Hart and tuned in a little more to the balance we were looking for than the most recent Lemon Hart.
Because we had already gone this far down the 151 rabbit hole, Matthews pulled out the new Plantation O.F.T.D. Our palates may have been slightly compromised by this point in the evening; however, this rum drank fairly fruity and much lighter and subtler than its 138 proof suggests.
Finally we tried the Privateer Navy Yard, a beautiful local rum that comes in at 102 proof and is distilled by an amazing team headed up by the incomparable Maggie Campbell. The rum drank with a balanced flavor profile of vanilla, honey, and fig, with subtle smoke backing it up — certainly a contender in terms of achieving the balance of the original Lemon Hart, which it became clear through the course of the evening is still the benchmark for an outstanding overproof rum. And drinking these spirits with Cleve and the astute team at The Townshend was a fitting celebration of a spirit so entwined with Boston history.
Photos by Ándrea Pentabona. Neat & Greet logo by Emily Phares.