I have a bit of a love hate relationship when it comes to El Dorado. It’s a brand from a distiller with incredible pedigree. The company behind the brand is Demerara Distillers Ltd. Their history is long and fascinating. In the 1700's there were more than 300 distilleries in Guyana. Over time the vast majority of them closed. In some cases the stills wouldn’t be demolished, but moved to a different distillery instead. Those stills finally ended up at the only rum distillery left in Guyana. It’s reminiscent of a distilling museum. I wrote a little about it here, but if you really want to take a deep dive you should read Marco Freyer’s excellent article. It will take time, as it’s long, but there is nobody who has written in more detail about them.
Their El Dorado line is well known. Multiple expressions of different ages, with the 12, 15 and 21 year versions being talked about the most in rum groups. They are all interesting blends of rum from the various stills they posses. Their age statements represent the minimum age of the liquid, which provides consumers with confidence in buying something that’s value for money. Next to that, they have released a multitude of expressions aimed at rum enthusiasts. First through Luca Gargano’s Velier. Those bottles have become so mythical and wanted that people are paying thousands for them. When the collaboration with Luca ended, they started bottling them under their own El Dorado Rare Collection brand. They also sell a ton of bulk rum which ends up being released by independent bottlers after being aged in Europe. Then there are the “navy” rums that usually contain at least part Demerara rum. DDL’s rum is everywhere, which is good imo!
The thing that’s thrown a bit of a shadow over DDL in enthusiast circles is the rumour that they are adding sugar to their rums. A rumour which DDL has always denied. However, several rum consumers have been performing hydrometer tests for years. These tests reveal if there has been a density change in the liquid, which could be the result of additives being present. Fat Rum Pirate measured El Dorado 15 at 31 g/L of additives. Those results coupled with the level of sweetness on the palate give a very strong hint that sweeteners are being added in one form or the other.
Let me take you back many years to a very fortunate moment where I was sitting at a bar with Shaun Caleb, master distiller of DDL. He happened to be in Toronto to market a few new El Dorado expressions and I was tipped off by someone at the bar. “Do you want to drink some rum with Shaun Caleb?”. I was practically out the door before answering the message. After being introduced to him, we sat down together to taste and chat. He told me about the expressions and some of the production methods. It was great, as he’s obviously incredibly knowledgeable and happens to be a very kind person as well. At some point I asked him why they add sugar to their rums. He said:”we don’t add sugar, we age with caramel in the barrel”. This answer puzzled me a little, but my knowledge level wasn’t where it is now, so I left it at that. What he did mention is that this long standing practice would be phased out over time, first with the younger expressions, followed by the older ones.
Fast forward to late last year, when there was a public video presentation and Q&A with DDL. The subject of added sugar came up again and Shaun’s answer was the same as what he told me years ago.
Why his answer puzzled me is that caramel typically isn’t sweet. This while El Dorado 12/15/21/25 are very sweet rums. When you get your hands on some E150a, which is caramel used for colouring of spirits, you’ll find out that its flavour is very commonly found in DDL rums, but also that it’s not sweet. I experimented with it in this video. So where does the sweetness come from?
I thought it was about time to test where they are with their “phasing out” procedure and compare the new El Dorado 15 to the old. Will it be less sweet?
Old El Dorado 15
The wood is strong. I’m also getting toffee, vanilla, coconut, walnuts, raisins and molasses. Smells like an old barn full of straw and wood. Nice.
New El Dorado 15
Wood again, although slightly less prominent. Coconut, caramel, nutmeg, molasses, light newspaper and raisins.
The nose of the new is a tad heavier but they are very similar.
Old El Dorado 15
Wood and caramel are very strong. I’m also finding raisins and vanilla. It’s on the sweet side and gentle (even for 40%). Caramel is strong again on the finish, with a hint of licorice. It remains sweet all the way through.
New El Dorado 15
Wood and caramel return, flanked by mint, vanilla, toffee, coconut and raisins. There is a light sweetness and tons of wood spice that’s missing in the old. Finish is a bit longer and spicier with a hint of tobacco.
These two are very similar on the nose. The real difference is on the palate and it has to do with added sweeteners in my opinion. When drinking the old El Dorado 15, the liquid seems to immediately put a film of sweetness all over your tongue. Making it a more velvet experience, but also a toned down one. That doesn’t happen with the new El Dorado 15. It simply brings less sweetness, more flavour and is wood spice forward. Something you’d expect from a rum that’s been aged in Guyana for 15 years.
Caramel flavour is strong in both, so that clearly is still an important element in the production process. Which could mean that they haven’t stopped ageing with caramel in the barrel, if that story is true to begin with. What they did change is the added sugar level. I don’t do hydrometer tests, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the new 15 has very little to no added sugar. This is a massive improvement in my opinion. It takes the sugary blanket away and reveals more layers of flavours that have been developed during 15 years of ageing.
People from Maison Ferrand like to defend their added sugar practices by saying it enhances the flavour profile. If you’d like to challenge that theory, then go out and buy yourself an old and a new El Dorado 15 and see for yourself. It’s a matter of ease of drinking versus more flavour. I will always take the latter. If you feel something is too difficult to drink, add some water…..don’t add sugar.
This new 15 is a good improvement on the old. You do wonder why they wouldn’t communicate to the world that the blend has been improved and is less sweet. Likely because they’ve never admitted to adding sweeteners to their rums in the first place. It remains a bit of a dessert drink for me, due to the strong caramel flavour. But with the lowered sweetness it is now a rum I’d buy and recommend occasionally.
Old El Dorado 15 – 70
New El Dorado 15 – 78
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