Ruminsky

Aug 162017
 

#383

When one tastes a raft all kinds of rums from around the world and across the ages over an extended period, there is a normal tendency to look for stuff that’s a little different while still conforming to commonly-held notions of what a rum is.  After all, how many times can one try a basic rum redolent of molasses, caramel, sugar, banana and maybe raisins and citrus without getting a little bored?  Well, for sure there’s no shortage of new and interesting popskull coming on the market in the last few years, and I’m not just talking about the new agricoles, or the geriatric rarities released by the independents, but actual distillers and bottlers like Hampden, Worthy Park, Savanna…and that interesting outfit called Moscoso out of Haiti.  Drink some of their klerens, and believe me, if you’re afflicted with ennui, this’ll cure what ails ya…if it don’t put you under the table first.

Also called Barik (a creole word for “barrel”), Moscoso interested me enough to write a full profile of the company a few months back, and since that time they are aggressively seeking outlets and distribution in Europe, to say nothing of issuing all kinds of aged or unaged permutations of their booze. And my goodness, when you taste these things, the inescapable conclusion is they’re aren’t just rarin’ to take Barbancourt out back, kick the snot out of it and give ‘em a run for their money, but also casting narrowed snake’s eyes at the Velier-issued Vaval, Casimir and Sajous as if to say “Mwen nan bouda, nou zanmi”.

Perhaps they have good reason. Their 55% Traditionnel 22 was a rum that stunned and smacked the unwary with all the force of a Louisville slugger to the face, and yet I felt it had been reasonably well made, with much of that elemental joyousness that so marked out the other, better known clairins like the Sajous that have so impressed me over the last few years.  

Which is not to say you wouldn’t be a little startled by the initial smells given off by this 55% white rhino. I mean, I nosed it and drew back with widened eyes, wondering if there wasn’t some excess Jamaican dunder or balsamo-infused cachaca in there — because aside from the brine and wax and glue and shoe polish, I was also getting a barrel of rotting bananas and funk, mixed up with musky, damp wood and wet dark earth (which I’m sure you’ll concede is not normal for a rum).  It started out raw and fierce, and perhaps it needed some resting time, because after some minutes of letting it stand there (glowering sullenly around the room the whole time) additional aromas of freshly ground black pepper, cumin, masala, lemon peel and herbs became more prominent. “Meaty” is not a term used often in these pages, but here it was exactly right to describe what I was experiencing.

What elevated the rhum to something better than the nose suggested was the way it tasted. As seemed to be the case with all such Haitian whites I’ve tried, the nose was “da bomb” and the palate calmed itself down quite measurably, and a drop or two of water helped as well.  Here the sugar water and watermelon came through much less aggressively, as well as brine and olives, fresh cane sap, nougat (!!), some nuttiness and citrus (not much of that, a pinch not a handful), coming to an end with a long, somewhat dry finish which reminded me of sharp, damp sawdust of some freshly-sawn unnamed lumber in a sawmill (yeah, I worked in one once), as well as fresh grass, and sugar cane juice.

So…quite an experience.  Strong, distinct, flavourful, uncouth, odd, just on this side of bats**t crazy, and overall a pretty amazing drink – it would light up a cocktail with fireworks, I’m thinking.  On balance the nose of the original Nasyonal earned my favour, but here the taste profile carried it ahead – it was a shade more complex, tastes better integrated. Whether you buy into that premise or not depends a lot, I feel, on where in the spectrum of rum appreciation  you fall. I wouldn’t recommend it to a person now starting to branch out into white full proofs; and for those who prefer the softer, sweeter profiles of Diplomatico, Zacapa, Panamanians or dosed rums like El Dorado or Plantation, stay away.  For everyone else?  Oh yeah. Give it a try, if nothing else. And take a gander at what Mike Moscoso is making — because as he noted so elegantly up above, he’s coming for all of us.

(84/100)


Other Notes

  • This rhum is not a true agricole, the label is an accidental misprint which (at the time) Mr. Moscoso was too poor to fix and reprint. It is made from raw brown sugar liquified to 12-14% brix with 7-12 days of fermentation (using baker’s yeast). Distilled on a 12-plate creole columnar still, final distillate coming out at 65-70% ABV and reduced to 55%. It is unaged and blended from the various returns of the distillation run.
  • Points should be given to the company for issuing 200cl bottles for sale, aside from the standard full-size.  For someone on a budget who wants a taste but isn’t sure, those things are a godsend.
  • The significance of the “22” lies in the proof point.  Under the Cartier scale this translates into 55% ABV, while the more common Gay-Lussac scale equating to 55% / 110 proof is used everywhere else in the world
  • All clairins and klerens in my possession (six) were tried together, blind.
Aug 132017
 

Rumaniacs Review #051

Today we amble on over to Martinique, where Neisson is to be found: I have four of these fascinating AOC rhums to play with, and here’s the first  of them to sate the intangible palate and add to the historical record.

Neisson is, in my own opinion, one of the most singular makers of agricole rhum on Martinique, and I’ve used words like “fascinating”, “unusual” and “distinctive” to describe their remarkable products…there’s always something slightly off kilter in them, some cheerful, almost whimsical, sort of “essayons de cette façon,” or “leh we try dis” approach.  I’m not entirely convinced this makes them world beaters in every instance and iteration…but you’ll always know one when you try it, and perhaps that’s the aim all along.

Colour – Orange-Gold

Strength – 45%

Nose – Yoghurt and sour cream, sharp apple cider, fruit, and buttered green peas (I could not make this up if I tried).  It’s a nice nose, however, with just a tinge of olives in brine, some vanilla, marmalade, and bitter coffee.  How this all comes together is a mystery, but it does work…in its own way.

Palate – Winey, just a bit thin, quite warm.  Where’s the grassy and herbal stuff agricoles are supposed to have?  Let it wait, add a touch of water, and there it is: sugar cane sap, light vanilla and lemon ice cream, and is that some wasabi lurking in the background?  Sure it is.  Sour cream, some red grapes, red guavas wrap up the show.  Definitely not a standard agricole, so I’m going to add “intriguing” to the vocabulary as well.

Finish – Medium short, less impressive. Green grass, brine, vanilla, herbs, some oakiness (not much) and the musky brininess comes back to say a flashing goodbye.

Thoughts – Takes some getting used to.  As a personal thing, too many tequila-like notes don’t enthuse me, but once this meanders off the gradually unfolding of the rhum is remarkable, so apply some patience in assessing it as a sipping spirit.

(82/100)

Other Rumaniacs reviews of this rhum can be found in the website

Aug 102017
 

#382

Renegade rums continue to hold a peculiar sort of fascination for me, because they were the first rums made by any outfit other than the big island producers or major corporations with which I came into contact.  They made it into Canada just as I was starting my rum scribbles, and were the only ones I saw for many years. Given our current familiarity with unadulterated rums made by independents, and adding to that something of a nostalgia factor, perhaps this Port Mourant succeeds better than it should, but I guess by the end of this review you can decide for yourself.

The bio of the company that got posted earlier this week provides most of the details of Renegade itself, so I won’t rehash them here.  This rum adheres to all the usual markers of the range: distilled in 2003, bottled in 2009 at the standard 46%, sourced from casks of juice from DDL’s Port Mourant wooden still (which raises certain expectations, naturally enough), and there’s that finish in Temperanillo casks for a few months (for the curious, Temperanillo is a rather full bodied red wine made from blue-black grapes in Spain). Also, and this is important, what we have here is not a single cask bottling, but many casks married together as part of Renegade’s production philosophy, and that’s is why the outturn is 6,650 bottles, and why, just maybe, you might still be able to get one with some judicious rumhounding.

And I think that would be a good thing, because this was a rum that channeled the spirit of the Port Mourant profile without entirely bowing to it, and provided an interesting twist on a well-known rum marque. That’s no idle fancy of mine either: when I nosed it for the first time I was looking for some of those deep woody, fruity and anise notes – none appeared. In fact the first aromas were of glue, rubber, brine, lemon-pepper…and beef stock (no, really).  Then came the olives, gherkins in vinegar and more brine, leather and smoke, coffee grounds, some vague caramels, pencil shavings, vanilla, oak…but where was the fruity stuff? I mean, it was good, it was intriguing, it had character, but it did depart from the norm, too, and not everyone will like that.

    Photo (c) Master Quill

The taste of the pale-yellow rum was also quite engaging: it was clear and clean, quite dry, and seemed stronger than it actually was (perhaps because it was so relatively young, or because it presented as ‘light’ – again, not what one would normally associate with a PM). Initial tastes were of fruit – white guavas, green apples, anjou pears and papaya, plus a tiny twist of lemon – before other background flavours emerged, mostly leather, smoke, pencil shavings, musty hay, cardboard and vanilla.  With water some more fruit crept out, nothing specific (maybe a grape or two), and the impression I was left with was more brandy than rum.  Frankly, this did not resemble a Port Mourant at all.  A note should also be made of a sort of minerally, ashy thing going on throughout, faint but noticeable and thankfully it was too feeble to derail the overall experience. The finish, though oddly short, was excellent – warm, easy, with citrus and raisins, some very weak molasses, and (finally!!) a flirt of licorice.

The profile as described above is exactly why I’ve always scratched my head about Renegade. I believed then (and now) that their finishing philosophy was hit-or-miss and sometimes detracted from what I felt would be an exceptional rum if left to its own devices. I imagine Mr. Reynier would disagree since this departure from the norm was exactly what he was after, and indeed, there were aspects of the overall experience here that proved his point – this rum may have originated from a set of PM barrels as modified by Temperanillo finishing, but what went into the bottles at the other end was a fascinating synthesis that might be difficult to define or even identify as a PM rum.  Which is both a rum geek’s attraction and a newbie’s despite.

On balance, I liked it a lot for its originality and daring, perhaps not so much for the final assembly and integration — a little more ageing might have done well, maybe a little less tinkering.  Still, the wine finish, however polarizing, was worn with panache and verve, and if the rum ran headlong into the wall in its desire to show off new ways to present old workhorses, well, y’know, I can respect that – especially since the rum as tasted wasn’t half bad to me. It may have lacked the dark brooding Port Mourant cask-strength menace to which Velier accustomed us, it may be a rum made by and for whisky makers…but I honestly believe that it was too well made to ignore entirely. Then and now.

(84.5/100)


Other notes

Alex over at Master Quill, who hails from somewhat more of a whisky background than I do, knowing my liking for the brand, very kindly sent me the sample, which in turn he did not like as much as I did. His review is definitely worth a look.

 

Aug 062017
 

Renegade is – or was, in its previous incarnation – the inheritor of the rum work done by Murray McDavid, a bottler of scotch whisky established in 1996, and which acquired Bruichladdich in 2000 (Bruichladdich was itself formed in 1881, changed ownership many times until its acquisition by MM).  Renegade was formed as a separate company under this umbrella in 2006 (with a single one-pound share) and their first edition of four vintages was released the following year, with a further six in 2008 and more thereafter. Only three years of releases formed the backbone of the company’s rums (if one discounts the single bottling issued in 2012) and then the operation just wrapped up the whole show.

The story I heard was that the success and positive word of mouth of the Murray McDavid limited edition rums – one of their rums was rated as among the world’s top 50 spirits in 2006 by the Malt Enthusiast – suggested that it might be possible to not only move up the ladder into stronger proofed drinks (46%, when the standard was 40%), but into higher price brackets altogether.  Too, they spotted a niche in the rum market that would leverage their distribution systems and existing customer base into a new area (high end limited editions) while perhaps even giving whisky lovers a chance to move into another spirit that was quite similar.  This tactic presaged much of what has gone on to become canon in the next decade, and while I would not say it was particularly original – Velier and Rum Nation were already on the scene, if only with minimal exposure, and the other whisky makers like A.D Rattray and Gordon & MacPhail also had such rum bottlings from time to time – such things as finishings were new at the time, and overall it certainly upped the game considerably.

So, Renegade as a brand was a departure from the MM label – they aimed upscale with beautifully etched frosted-glass bottles that were instantly recognizable, and for each of their rums there was a fancy wine finish.  Also – and again, somewhat ahead of the modern ethos, though perhaps they were simply channelling Velier (who at the time was a virtual unknown outside of Italy) their labels were masterpieces of concise information – dates of distillation and bottling, the wine casks used to finish them, the estate or plantation or company of origin of the distillate, and a note regarding its unfiltered, unadded-to status, which also was just beginning to get some attention in those years.

The man most closely identified with the rise of Renegade was Mark Reynier, one of the original founders of Murray McDavid back in 1996, who was also instrumental in acquiring Bruichladdich in 2000, by which time that distillery had been dormant for six years. After rebuilding the distillery he turned back to his ideas regarding rums, which had crystallized in the years since Murray McDavid had done their releases (also under his aegis). “We started the company as an independent bottler extension of Murray McDavid,” he wrote to me. “At the time it was relatively easy to get mature and interesting  single estate rums, many from obsolete distilleries. It was an extension of our Scotch whisky ethos, providing more interesting bottling from casks  married together to create more balance and harmony than the  somewhat simplistic single cask bottling fad that did not, we felt, recognise the characteristics of individual barrels where every barrel was bottled regardless of its quality. For this reason we rarely bottled single casks…as we found few that truly, from a professional tasters’ perspective, merited being on their own.”

What this meant was that right from the inception, the release of a few hundred bottles from a single cask was not on the agenda, and Renegade preferred to marry several casks at once, much as Rum Nation does. This gave the double benefit (to them) of being able to create the precise flavour profile they were after without the batch variation of single barrels coming into play – weaknesses in one cask evened out by the mixing with others –  as well as having a larger outturn, sometimes around 1500-2000 bottles, but occasionally as much as 4000 (or more). Note that as far as I was able to establish, the barrels were bought from the source distilleries and shipped to Bruichladdich’s premises for maturation, so none of these rums were tropically aged, which became its own trend in the age we’re currently living through.

Reception of the Renegade rum line was positive if not spectacular, which was why in 2009 the outturn increased to ten separate bottlings from nine different islands/countries.  However there were already clouds on the horizon dating back to Murray McDavid days.  According to Mr. Reynier, as existing stocks were utilized, the quality of casks available for purchase became somewhat repetitive – more of the same, so to speak – and this was one reason why the finishing took on such a central role in the Renegade line (as it was not the under MM).  They called it Additional Cask Evolution and sought, very much as FourSquare is doing right now, to enhance the work of the barrel by using other, non-bourbon casks. “We started … Additional Cask Evolution in different, more interesting [casks], to try and  bring some much needed vibrancy to the  spirit.  Poor wood policy is as much a function of the industry’s attitude to economic efficiency…or lack of resources to buy good, fresh wood — and therefore [such rum and whisky companies] excessively re-used old, tired wood.”

Finally, even after such a short period of time, obtaining interesting and good quality barrels which adhered to Renegade’s exacting philosophy became a problem, and the extra remedial work became too onerous (similar issues afflicted MM – in short, “the hassle outweighed the benefits,” as Mr. Reynier opined), and this led to no releases at all for 2010 and 2011, with a single bottling being issued in 2012 – though by this time the writing was already on the wall and it was clear that Renegade was not going to continue along this path, whether for poor sales returns, too much money tied up in warehousing, or the imminent disposition of the company. In early 2013, Bruichladdich, Renegade and Murray McDavid were acquired by Rémy Cointreau, with MM subsequently resold to UK based company Aceo Limited.  Mr. Reynier did not continue with any of these companies (see below), although he did retain the Renegade brand name.

Stripped of all the verbiage, this is a remarkably short history for any rum company, and twenty-one releases over seven years is hardly a spectacular outturn.  But I believe – with no disrespect to or lack of love for, the other names in the indie rum industry that have survived and thrived to this day – that Renegade was, in its own way, something of a pioneer, and demonstrated the way forward for the independent bottlers. Even though Samaroli, Veronelli, Fassbind, Moon Imports, Silver Seal, Velier and Rum Nation (among others) were already on the scene, and had been for many years, they stayed within a narrow geographical confine (mostly Italy) and issued single cask bottlings that attracted little attention outside the rabid cognoscenti.  Renegade was among the first of the Scottish whisky makers to throw the weight of their whisky operations and associated brand awareness behind what was seen then as a niche market — and a small one at that.  They were not the first to issue a series of rums at once, of course, but they sure elevated the profile, and certainly they were among the most consistent users of the finishing idea across the entire lineup.  Plus – and how could you deny this? – those bottles, man…they were so damned cool, y’now? “Rum Unplugged”, Mark Reynier remarked once, referring to the brand.  He sure wasn’t kidding about that.

So, I cannot make the case for any kind of incredible reputation or groundbreaking rum philosophy which the company garnered for itself.  They exited the business, and many of their bottles rested unsold in Alberta shops for many years, unknown and unappreciated – I picked up several just by driving around, and I’m sure that they can still be picked up to this day by the enterprising rumhound. And yet, and yet….the rums they made remain curiously alive in the memories of those who tried them (I’m one of those weird beings), and may even, I can hope, grow in reputation in the future…if they can still be found. They were larger than usual outturns of a now almost forgotten, largely unreviewed independent bottlers’ philosophy, and deserve a look – whatever one’s final opinion might be – for perhaps that reason alone.


Postscript:

Mr. Reynier’s conclusion in the nineties when he was working with Murray McDavid, was that for full control of the quality of distillation and wood meant one had to had to have a distillery — he was referring to whisky, and has since extended his thinking on the subject, to encompass rums. He thought about the matter ever since, searching for a suitable rum distillery project, but never finding the proper one, and concluded he would have to start from scratch. That project came to fruition in Grenada, where for the last two years he has been involved in propagating seven different varieties of cane on Grenada, with a new, modern distillery on the cards, which is expected to go operational by December 2018. This will be called the New Renegade Rum Distillery, and so (if you’ll forgive my little bon mot), the brand which was thought to have bought the farm has in fact been resurrected and established another one.  The plan is, with Graham Williams of Westerhall, to release an interesting new range of independently bottled rums from this Grenadian base, under a revitalised Westerhall label.

Other notes

My source for much of this essay is Mr. Reynier and online web pages.  But perhaps I should take the time to tip my hat – twice – to all those employees of the company who were involved in making this brand but who are so rarely acknowledged.

Compliments to Marco Freyr , whose MM/Renegade biography and bottle list was my first stop. Just as Serge Valentin is the gold standard for tasting notes, Marco is the man for historical detail.

Bottlings

2007

2008

2009

2012

  • Guyana, Diamond Distillery, 11 YO (2001 – 2012), Tempranillo finish (1800 bottles)

References

 

Aug 022017
 

#381

Novo Fogo is the first cachaça I’ve ever tried that went off the reservation and hammered me in the face even at a relatively staid 40%.  It was so different from the regular run of sugar-water-plus-local-wood flavours to which I had become accustomed in my (as yet) brief acquaintanceship with the Brazilian national spirit, that I literally pulled my face back from the glass, muttered a disbelieving “wtf?” and spent another five minutes closely perusing the label to make sure I had not been taken for a ride.  But no, it had been an unopened bottle, it had some tasting notes on the label not a million miles removed from what I was sensing, and it all seemed quite legit…except that it was about as subtle as a bitchslap from Ser Gregor Clegane on a bad hair day. And I mean that in a good way.

The producer of this interesting cachaça is a company called Agroecologia Marumbi SA, from Morretes PR (Parana) which is located in the south of Brazil, not Minas Gerais where supposedly the best and most traditional cachacas are made.  Novo Fogo (“New Fire” in Portuguese) is derived from sugar cane grown without herbicides or pesticides, and the organic nature of the operations is a major point of pride and quality, according to the distillery founder Fulgencio Viruel who started the operation in 2004. The cane is manually harvested and taken to an onsite press that extracts the pure juice, with the leftover bagasse recycled as fuel and fertilizer. Fermentation takes around 24 hours using wild yeast and the 7%-9% wine is then passed through a copper pot still (another point of departure, since most of the well known cachacas are done on column stills), and then rested – not aged – for one year in a stainless steel vat before being bottled without any filtration or additions.  So there. Aged variations exist, but I didn’t get a chance to try any.  Given the impact this one had on me, I should really try some more.

I say impact not so much because of great beauty of construction or masterful subtlety of assembly, but because the thing is startlingly good for a standard strength Brazilian table tipple, if perhaps somewhat at right angles to others I had tried before – it’s something like a concussive Delicana’s Jequitiba, or an amped-up Thoquino.  Nothing demonstrated this more clearly than the initial nose (the very first note in my battered notebook was “Damn – this thing is serious!”) where I immediately sensed an intense vegetal aroma of rotting fruits, bananas, overripe red wiri-wiri peppers in vinegar (but without the heat). It was followed up by strong, distinct brine and olives, salt, wax, sugar cane sap and lemon zest, and frankly, what it reminded me more than anything else was a Clairin Sajous, if perhaps not as powerful.

Thankfully it did not sample as sharp as the aroma suggested and that might make it somewhat more approachable than those who took flight from the Sajous and its cousins (assuming one’s tastes bend that way, mind you – and that’s not a given).  It was quite heated, firm and crisp, rather rich and solid, with a more characteristic sugar water taste coming forward now, not entirely displacing the wax and salt and olives which persisted quite strongly (along with the peppers).  More lemon zest was here, some black pepper, apples, vegetals and some fleshy fruit like overripe pineapples.  The balance was a bit off – the brine and olives never really let go, which made the fruitiness recede somewhat and reduced my enjoyment, but overall it was an pretty good cachaça — if one keeps in mind my predilection for clairins, which this one closely resembled.  Finally, it closed off, rapidly, leaving behind nothing much more than the memories of swank, fresh mown grass and that lemon-pepper salt which my wife complains I overuse in what little cooking I can be persuaded to do.

Now, I’ve read online notes that talk about the easy entry, how it is smooth and soft, and then wax rhapsodic about its various competing flavours (the last of which I believe), but I stand here telling you that it’s not really as easy as all that: this thing is a dirty, off-kilter little dragon that seems to be just waiting for an opportunity to jump down your throat and toast your chest to medium-rare – but it’ll do it with finesse, with some style. It’s quite a fire-breathing, smoke-exhaling cachaça, and is in my limited experience the most original and interesting spirit of that kind I have tried to date. Admittedly I have an obnoxious love for obscure and powerful tastes that borders on the masochistic, so I liked the fact that here there was a rum — charged-up, drinkable, original and in its own way, quite remarkable — made in that same vein. It’s worth trying it, I believe, just to see where the whole experience goes, to spend a lot of time figuring out…and, perhaps, just perhaps, to savour.

(83/100)


Other notes

This review is quite late to the party since Novo Fogo has been available in the States for years (the first review I found dates back to 2011). And, as ever one step ahead of me, Josh Miller at Inuakena had run it through his 14-sample Cachaça Challenge back in early 2015 and rated it….wait for it…as his #1.

Jul 292017
 

In July 2017 the French rum wesbsite Coeur de Chauffe, as part of the Agricole 2017 world tour, issued a two part post where members of the rum and blogging community were invited to submit some brief words regarding their experiences with the French Island agricoles.  Well, most people wrote a couple of generally positive sentences, waved goodbye and moved on, but I felt that perhaps more could be said — and wrote, as is my wont, a complete essay where I tried to summarize my feelings about and experiences with this fascinating subset of the rumworld.

The French language Agricole Tour 2017 Part 1 can be found here, and the essays by myself and Sascha Junket in Part 2, is here.  The paragraphs below represent the original English language version of my section.


Sooner or later, every rum lover comes to agricoles the way every film fan eventually arrives at Ozu. Although better known and always appreciated by the French due to their originating on the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, these quietly amazing rums have only started to become more widely available, and more praised, in the last ten years or so.

Partly this situation arose because of the domination of molasses based rums over the centuries.  Those rums were and are made more easily and more cheaply, have a quality of their own, and have commanded the attention of the rumiverse up until now.  Agricoles are made different, taste different and are priced different…but are also among the best rums currently being made, and can take their place at the forefront of any top-end lineup, not just because of their intriguing and tasty flavours, but because they have escaped the opprobrium of misleading labels, convenient number statements and adulteration which is the stain on far too many traditional rums.  They have always been pure, unmessed-with, traditionally-made rums and are appreciated for precisely that reason.

Others have written in greater depth about these unique rums – the Cocktail Wonk’s deep dive is a case in  point – so I won’t go into the details here beyond some basic facts.  Agricole rums – or rhums, as they are termed – are made from freshly pressed cane juice which goes to the still within 48 hours of harvesting the cane.  They are made in column stills and have a light, herbal, almost grassy flavour that often comes as a shock to those more used to, and comfortable with, the relatively darker, fruitier profiles of the Jamaicans, Bajans, Guyanese and other English-speaking islands; and they are clearer and crisper than the light and floral Spanish rons like those from Cuba or Latin America. 

Agricoles are commonly associated with the French islands in the Caribbean, but what the name describes is more a method of production than a geographical point of origin, and by that standard, no discussion of the type can be complete without noting the Brazilian cachacas, which are a subset of the genre, distinguished by their being aged in local woods (e.g. Balsamo, Jequitiba or Umburana), which give them a distinct (and occasionally off-putting) taste profile that many non-Brazilians have difficulty coming to grips with. One should also note that makers from around the world are increasingly making rums from freshly pressed cane juice – Laodi from Vietnam is a case in point, and there is also Ron Aldea from the Canary islands, and several US micro distillers, among others.

Like traditional rums made from molasses, agricoles are aged, in various kinds of barrels – white oak, ex-bourbon, Limousin oak, cognac casks, the Brazilians as noted and so on – but unlike most of the molasses brigade, they have a very high quality even when made as “white”.  Such colourless rhums are, however, not usually filtered – as is the case with various bland mixing agents like the Bacardi Superior or the Prichard’s Crystal – and mostly unaged and issued directly off the still.  Haiti is the poster boy for such rhums, which are called clairins there and they are pungent, fierce and joyously off the reservation.  Lovers of softer fare shy away from such rhums, but connoisseurs have been snapping them up in increasing volumes for years now, ever since Velier came out with the three clairins from Sajous, Vaval and Casimir back in 2014.

My own experience with agricoles began in 2010 when one of the first rums I bought was the Clement Tres Vieux from Martinique, just about the top of their line;  I wasn’t entirely sold on it, yet it had an aroma and taste that was surprisingly evocative, even if I did not feel it dethroned the other rums I liked more to that point in my education. Over time I managed to try two Barbancourts from Haiti, a couple of Karukeras from Guadeloupe, and a Rum Nation and Renegade independent production.  My opinion began to change.  I appreciated their flavours more, enjoyed the lightness and complexity of the assembly, saw that they pointed to a different style of rhum to what I had been used to, one that was off the main road, yes, but with treasures heretofore unimagined.

I became a true agricolista in 2012, when an amazing 37 year old rhum from Guadeloupe was presented to me for a sampling in Berlin’s famed Rum Depot.  The Courcelles 1972 was a rhum simply off the scale (and even if there were reasons to believe it was not a true agricole, I persist in thinking of it as one), and it led to other discoveries in the years that followed – the clairins from Haiti, the Liberation series from Capovilla (the 2012 Integrale might be among the very best five year old rums ever made, by anyone, anywhere). Getting more impressed – or should that be obsessed? — with each new rhum I tried, I began actively seeking rhums from those distilleries from Martinique and Guadeloupe which have become more widely known and appreciated in the last years – J.M., HSE, Trois Rivieres, St. James, Depaz, Dillon, Bellevue, Damoiseau, J. Bally, Longueteau, Neisson are a few, the independent bottlers are gearing up big time, and I’m just getting started.

In short, from a sort of passing interest, agricoles have now taken their place — and not just in my estimation — among the best rums in the world.  There is variety and failure here, sure, just as they are in traditional (or industrial) rums, and perhaps it is not surprising that my journey mirrored that of the fans worldwide as well.  Nothing shows this more clearly than the popularity of the agricoles in the various European and other rum festivals, where they are commanding increasing attention and appreciation by the public.  It is no accident that the agricole world tour organized by Jerry Gitany and Benoit Bail – a sort of combination of masterclasses and grand exposition of many agricoles which toured the festival circuit in 2016 and now in 2017 – drew large crowds and many positive comments from the online community.

Agricoles are not a fashionable current trend, nor are they only now emerging from the shadows of obscurity: they have always been there, quietly and exactingly made.  What has changed is that over the last decade the explosion of social media and committed bloggers have brought them to a new, wider audience.  For the foreseeable future traditional molasses-based rums will continue to command the heights (and the wallets of the global purchasing public) – based on price and availability and all-round quality that’s unavoidable.  But just as any list of the classics of the film world would never be complete without Besson, Ozu, or Bergman (to name just three), no serious connoisseur or simple lover of rum would ever consider their journey to be complete without, at some point, sampling, appreciating and understanding the variety which agricoles add to the sum total of the universe of rum.

***

Jul 262017
 

#380

The independent bottler Secret Treasures is no longer the same company it started out as, and this particular and delectable Guadeloupe rum was selected by the Swiss concern Fassbind before they sold off the brand to Haromex in 2005.  So although Haromex is now making a new line of rums under the ST label (like the St Lucia Vendome and John Dore still rums I’ve looked at before), this rhum predates them and is part of the original line up.  Guadeloupe is, of course, somewhat general a term so let me expand on that by saying the rhum originates from the Gardel Distillerie located in the north-east of Grand Terre in the commune of Le Moule.  Gardel, owned by Générale Sucrière, a major player in the global sugar refining industry, is one of two distilleries in Le Moule (the other is Damoiseau) and earns some of its distinction by being the sole refinery on the main island.  I don’t think Gardel makes any rhums of its own but sell rum stock to brokers and others – however, there is maddeningly little information available and I’ve got some queries out there which may make me amend this portion of the post in future.

Some basic facts on the rhum then, just to set the scene: it was from the Gardel distillery, distilled 1992 and bottled August 2003 from three casks which provided 1,401 bottles (this was #327).  It was issued at a relatively unadventurous 42% which would have been fairly standard at that time, and one can only wonder what it has been doing for the last fourteen years and why nobody ever bought the thing.  Since I had and retain a sneaking appreciation for Secret Treasures ever since I had their excellent Enmore 1989, there were no battles with my conscience to buy a few more from their range.  Note that it is labelled as a “rum” (not rhum) and I have no absolute confirmation whether it was truly cane-juice derived, or where exactly it was aged (even Reference-rhum, that online French-language encyclopedia of rum brands, says “molasses” with a question mark under its entry).

In any event, whatever its ultimate source or point of ageing, I thought it was a zippy and sprightly rhum of initially crisp clarity and cleanliness.  Coloured orange-amber, it nosed in surprisingly bright and clear fashion, immediately giving up aromas of honey, flowers and 7-Up (seriously!); over a period of minutes a more solid briny background emerged, accompanied by perfectly ripe fleshy fruits – peaches, apricots, sultanas and raspberries.  Not particularly fierce or savage – it was too laid back and standard strength for that – but a very enjoyable nosing experience, the sort of easy going yet sufficiently assertive profile to have one curiously going deeper into it just to see where the rabbit hole led.

Aside from a certain lightness to the profile, the palate provided a soft series of tastes, which were fruity, floral, musky and delicate all at the same time.  It was hard to know what to make of it – initially there were flowers, fudge, salty caramel, coconut, and vanilla, counterpointed with lemon zest, green apples, grapes and peaches.  After a while additional flavours evolved: maple syrup, aromatic tobacco and vague coffee.  Some of the crispness of the nose faded into the background here, and overall it did not present the sort of complexity that would advance it to the top shelf, but it was distinct enough to grab the attention, and at the very least it was intriguing, and for sure quite pleasant to drink.  Perhaps the finish was the weakest part, being short and easy and light, mostly reminding one of caramel, light fruits, and raisins, which goes some way to making me wondering whether it was a true cane juice distillate (it lacked the distinctive herbal grassiness of such a product), or from molasses.  One thing was clear though – it was nicely made, and wore its middle age well, without any kind of raw edge or jagged sharpness that distinguishes extremely young bottom-tier rums.

So: trying this clean and playful Guadeloupe rhum in tandem with the L’Esprit Bellevue 58% 8-year-old and the Longueteau 6-year-old VSOP, I felt the last two rhums were remarkably similar, though I liked the soft honey and maple-syrup notes of the Secret Treasures just a little more, and the L’Esprit better than both, which just goes to show that ageing isn’t everything, especially in the world of agricoles (remember the spectacular Chantal Comte 1980?).  Be that as it may, there’s nothing at all bad about the ST Gardel 1992 rhum, and in fact it makes me really interested to try the 1989 variation, just to see how it stacks up. These days Fassbind is long gone from the scene and Haromex is making changes to the labels and the line up – but for those of you who come across some of the original bottler’s expressions dating back from the eighties and nineties, you could do a lot worse than pick one of them up, if for no reason than the pure and simple enjoyment of a well-aged rhum, well made, almost forgotten, and tasting just fine.

(84.5/100)


Other notes:

The Gardel plant, also known as Sainte-Marie, is the only sugar plant which still operating in Guadeloupe. It was founded in 1870 and its first owner was Benjamin François Benony Saint-Alarey, who chose to pay homage to his paternal grandmother in his naming of the factory. In 1994, the sugar sector in Guadeloupe underwent major restructuring, leading to the closure of all sugar factories on the island except Gardel which is currently composed of an agricultural part with a 1000 hectares and an industrial area. It produces nearly 100,000 tons of sugar per year. Information about the distillery is much more scant, unfortunately, though there’s a curious note by Ed Hamilton on the original Ministry of Rum forum, that it was closed by 1994…and the label for Renegade Guadeloupe 1998 mentions both a column still, and 1992 as the last date of any distillation.

Jul 232017
 

#379

Much as I had with the Longueteau Grand Réserve, a ten year old agricole from Basse-Terre (Guadeloupe), I felt the 42% strength on the six year old VSOP was perhaps too timid and too wispy for a rhum which could have been more had it been made stronger.  Longueteau, a distillery which has been in operation since 1895 and produces the Karukera and Longueteau lines of rhums, seems to eschew fierce and powerful expressions and is quite content to keep on issuing standard strength work, but since their quality is nothing to sneeze at and is readily approachable by the larger body of rum aficionados, perhaps they have hit on a preferred strength and just stick with it.

In any case, the orange amber coloured rhum presented very nicely indeed on the nose, beginning with a light sort of fruit basket left in the sun too long but just missing being overripe.  There was vanilla ice cream and the vague saltiness of rye bread and that spread known as kraüter-quark in Germany, with dill and parsley adding some interesting herbal notes.  Like most agricoles it was delicate and crisp at the same time, and while there was certainly some sugar cane sap and grassiness it, this stayed very much in the background.  After opening up over several minutes more, one could discern olives in nutmeg, brine, watermelon and peaches, light and clear, firm and delicate all at once.

The nose was certainly very pleasant – however much one had to work at it – but on the palate the 42% became somewhat more problematic since it really was too light and easy….though one could say “playful” as well, and still be on the mark.  Oddly, a drop of water (and another ten minutes of opening up) solved that problem nicely, allowing clear, if faint, acetone and fried banana flavours to emerge.  These merged well with some smoke and oaken tannins, more vanilla and a smorgasbord of fruits to come forward – papaya, watermelon, sugar water, pears and white guavas – to which, over time, were added herbs, and some pickled gherkins, leading up to a short, dry finish mostly redolent of soya, brine, dark bread and (again) vanilla and a grape or two. 

Overall the rhum was a very pleasant one, if perhaps just too gentle.  Many will enjoy it for precisely those attributes, since it doesn’t assault the senses but prefers to stroke them with a silken wire of flavour, and draws back from any kind of serious challenge or analysis. A cocktail geek can probably make an interesting concoction with it, but for my money this is a tasty, twittering little rumlet, which, with a few extra proof points, might be even better, and in its current iteration, can be had by itself without any additional embellishment.  It’s both complex enough within its limitations, and unassertive enough for the peaceniks, to give perfect satisfaction on that level,  and in any case, yes, I did like it: whatever my reservations, I also consider it a soundly enjoyable sundowner that adds to the sum total of the delicious variations which agricoles provide.

(84/100)

Other notes

  • Some distillery notes are provided in the review of the Grand Réserve.
  • The company website says aged in oak casks that once held brandy; other sources say ex-cognac barrels.
Jul 192017
 

#378

No matter how many other estates or companies make and market Jamaican rum, it’s a fair bet that when it comes to recognition, Appleton has cornered the market in their own land, much like DDL has in Guyana, or how FourSquare is currently dominating Barbados.  Recently I ran a few Appletons past each other (it’s one of the few decent rums one can get in the rum wasteland that is Toronto), and while the 21 year old, Master Blender’s Legacy and 30 year old are not on sale there, the rebranded “Rare Blend” 12 year old was.

Re-tasting the rum after a gap of some eight years was eye-opening.  My first encounter with it as a reviewer was back in 2009 and the short, unscored essay #5 came out in January 2010.  Things have changed in the intervening years – my palate developed, tasting became more nuanced, preferences underwent alterations…and from the other side, the rum and the bottle were worked over.  It was not the same rum I tried back then, nor like older versions from the 1980s and 1970s.  But what was not so evident to me then and which is clear to me now, is that the Appleton 12 year old rum in all its iterations over the years, is one of the core rums of the island and the style, a sort of permanent marker that almost defines “Jamaica rum”.  If one ever asks me in the future, what rum from there should one get first, or which rum should serve as a cornerstone of the Jamaican shelf, I’m going to point at it and say, “That one.”

This is because of its overall solidity of its assembly.  Consider how the nose presented, warm, just short of sharp, well constructed and pleasantly complex – it started with molasses, bananas, cream cheese, brine and dates, some citrus, cinnamon and apples just starting to go.  It provided a little oak (not much), and some tar, anise, vanilla and brown sugar, all very tightly and distinctly constructed – an excellent representation of everything Appleton stumbles a little on with their younger iterations, and which they amp up — not always as successfully — in the older ones.

The real key to capturing the rum’s essence is is the taste. How it feels in the mouth, how it develops over time. The palate is not particularly different from what one sensed on the nose, and I don’t think that was the intention – what it did was consolidate the gains made earlier, and build gently upon them, to provide a sipping experience that is a great lead-in to new drinkers wanting something upscale, without disappointing the hard core whose taste buds are more exacting.  It was smooth and velvety, the characteristic Jamaican funk present and accounted for (without actually becoming overbearing).  Salty caramel ice cream, stewed apples, citrus, cinnamon, gherkins in brine, vanilla and tannins for a little edge (perhaps a shade too much, but I wasn’t complaining).  After some time one could sense the background of rotting bananas, some herbals and perhaps a whiff of dill. The finish, while short, was warm and mellow, and gave up a last whiff of dates, caramel, more brine, and overall I’d say the rum was not overly complex, but the balance between the various components simply could not be faulted.  That’s what makes it a good all-round mid-tier rum.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that the 12 is a fantastic 95-pointer on par with or better other exceptional Jamaicans which I have scored high in the past.  It’s not.  It lacks their individuality, their uniqueness, their one-barrel dynamism and exacting natures, so no, it’s not that.  What makes it special and by itself almost be able to serve as a stand-in for a whole country’s rums, is that it encapsulates just about everything one likes about the island at once without shining at any one thing in particular or pissing anyone off in general.  It’s a rum for Goldilocks’s little bear – it’s not too hot and not too passive; not too massively funky, yet not too dialled-down either; no one aroma or taste dominates, yet the final product is of a remarkably high standard overall, self-evidently, almost emphatically, Jamaican.  Best of all, it’s affordable for what it provides, and I consider it one of the best price-to-quality rums currently extant.  In short, while it may not be the best rum ever made in Jamaica, it remains a quiet classic on its own terms, and one of the key rums in any rum lover’s cabinet.

(84/100)

Jul 162017
 

#377

Bottled in 2004 at a lukewarm 43%, Bristol Spirits have somehow transcended the living room strength of this classic 30 year old rum and produced one of the best Jamaicans of its kind.  Even under some time pressure, I still had that glass on the go for two full hours, smelling it over and over, tasting it in the tiniest of sips again and again, comparing, retasting, rechecking, making more and more notes, and in the fullproof company of Guyanese and Jamaicans I was trying alongside it, it was a standout of no mean proportions.  We simply do not see rums of this kind any longer – we can with some effort get 15-20 year olds, we may be able to source a few rums in their twenties, but when was the last time you were fortunate enough to try a thirty year old rum?

Bristol Spirits are no stranger to old stocks, of course.  There was the masterful Port Mourant 1980 and that sublime Caroni 1974, to name but two.  These days, they’ve sort of settled into a groove with more sober-minded middle-aged rums, and while I would never say that what they produce now is not up to scratch — what they put out the door is both imaginative and interesting — none of them have that aura of gravitas mixed up with a ballsy “looky here!” middle-finger-to-the-establishment braggadocio…or yes, the restrained majesty, which three decades of ageing confers on this rum.

Because it was clear that every aspect of that age was wrung out and lovingly extracted from the single originating barrel.  No attempt was made to hold a thing back, and this was evident right away on the aroma, which dumbfounded me by being much more complex and even pungent for what – let’s face it – is not the world’s most badass rum strength.  It was just so deep. It started out with the richness of burnt leaves and charred canefields after the ritual firing, smouldering in a tropical twilight; caramel, toffee, nutty nougat, almonds, burnt brown sugar, tied together with oak and slightly bitter tannins that did not detract but enhanced. What fruits there were — raisins, prunes, plums for the most part — kept a cool kind of distance which supported the aromas noted above without supplanting them, and around them all was a weird amalgam of melons, squash and citrus zest that I was at a loss to pin down at first…but trust me, it worked. Anyone who loves rums (and not just Jamaicans) would go ape for this thing.

The taste was similarly top-notch, and while I would be hard-pressed to tell you the profile screamed “funk” or “dunder” or “Jamaican”, I must also tell you that what was presented had so much to offer that the rum skated past such concerns. It started out with traditional dark caramel, a little glue and warm dark fruit – raisins, black cake, tamarind – and then went for broke.  Over two hours it developed tastes of honey, cherries, flowers, charred wood, ashes and hot damp earth after a rain, underlain with a sort of laid back but crisp flavours of green apples, lemon zest and nuts, and finished off with a surprisingly long fade redolent of raspberries and ripe cherries and vanilla.  Quite frankly, one of the reasons I kept at it for so long was simply that I found myself more and more impressed with it as time went on: to the very end it never stopped developing.

As with many really good rums – and yes, I call this one of them – there’s more to it than simple tasting notes.  The mark of a rum / rhum / ron which transcends its provenance and age and goes for something special, is one that either makes one ponder the rumiverse while drinking it, or one that brings up clear associated memories in the mind of the reviewer – to some extent both were the case here. It was not clearly and distinctively a Jamaican rum, and I wondered how the distinctive profile of the island was so muted here….was it the long ageing in Europe, the original barrel, a peculiarity of the distillate, or the still itself? And as time went on I stopped worrying about it, and was drawn back into my memories of my youth in the Caribbean, the scent of burning canefields, fresh pressed cane juice on shaved ice sold by a snow-cone vendor outside Bourda, and the first taste of a local hooch in a beergarden down the coast served neat with a bowl of ice.  Such things are in themselves irrelevant, but also part and parcel of what makes this rum, to me, quite special, the more so since it happens so rarely.

So, yeah, I’m a drooling fanboy (was it that obvious?).  But how could I not be? You have to experience the emphatic boom trapped within the otherwise standard proof to understand my enthusiasm.  Muted yes; quiet yes; not as intense – of course.  One cannot outrun one’s shadow and get out from under 43%.  But just smell the thing, taste the thing, savour the thing — like some of the Compagnie’s rums, it makes a great case for Continental ageing. You could almost imagine some half-crazed, giggling bottler, half-in and half-out the barrel with a tiny teaspoon and clean white cloth, trying to get the very last drop out just to make sure that nothing was wasted.  Given what was achieved here, assuredly none of it was. It’s just half a shot shy of great.

(90/100)


Other notes

There is no data on the originating estate.  I’m guessing here, but believe it’s either a Longpond or a Monymusk, just on the taste.  If anyone has more info, feel free to correct me on this one.

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