I completely understand those who take a "just say no" approach to spirit-flavoured beers. There are some truly dire examples out there: bad base beer, loaded with sugar and artificial flavourings, and covered in alcopop-style kiddie branding. Not what anyone who actually likes beer wants from a beer. Today I'm looking at a couple of British ales that take more of a mature stance to spirit additions, both employing that important commodity of the Empire: rum.
Marks & Spencer Wiltshire Rum Beer is a dark shade of amber, pouring fizzily with just a subtle aroma. I was relieved not to have my senses assaulted by jarring sweeteners and flavourings; instead it smells gently floral with perfume and a hint of sticky toffee pudding. On tasting the first flavour that jumps out is honey: that herbs-and-lavender on sugar of the dark unctuous variety. Past that there's actual beer -- you get the toast and green veg of a solid, dependable English strong ale. Yes, it is sweet, but nothing sickly, cloying or any way reminiscent of the pseudo-alcopop genre. In fact, there doesn't appear to have been any additional sugar or flavourings according to the ingredients listing, just rum and the base beer Wadworth 6X. My only criticism is it's too gassy, to the point where the abrasive bubbles get in the way of the mellow flavours. Oh, and the price too, of course, but that's to be expected from M&S.
I can't remember what I paid for it, or where, but there's definitely no criticism on the carbonation front for Innis & Gunn Rum Cask. You get a lovely tight layer of foam and a fairly gentle fizz to carry the flavours. Unfortunately the flavours being carried aren't great. From the outset it smells both sticky (the same cloying buttery vanilla yuck that is the brand's hallmark) and vinegary. Now, my bottle was a few weeks past the best-before, but it's not like it's bottle conditioned or anything. I think the sharp sourness may be a feature rather than a bug.
It's certainly present on the flavour. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it helps clean the beer up, putting a bit of an edge on the overpowering oak taste. There's a bit of cardboard at the back, and that I can perhaps put down to the bottle's age. What I don't get at all, though, is rum. Looking at the box I see that the contracters have given it thirty days in fresh American oak and then another thirty in a rum cask. No surprise, then, that the fresh oak won, trampling over any molasses or caramel or spices or any other traces that there was once rum here. If Innis & Gunn is your kind of thing then you may enjoy this barely-changed brand extension, but it's definitely not for me.
I've surprised myself by picking the beer directly flavoured with rum over the barrel-aged one. What it perhaps shows is that the quality of the base beer counts far more than the post-fermentation processes, quality that Wadworth 6X possesses but Innis & Gunn doesn't.