Ruminsky

Apr 062020
 

I should begin by warning you that this rum is sold on a very limited basis, pretty much always to favoured bars in the Philippines, and then not even by the barrel, but by the bottle from that barrel – sort of a way to say “Hey look, we can make some cool sh*t too! Wanna buy some of the other stuff we make?”. Export is clearly not on the cards…at least, not yet.

But most of it is blended with the same company’s middling rum called the Very Old Captain, which wasn’t “very” anything, not all that old, and had nothing to do with a Captain.  The reason why I review it — in spite of this kind of limited availability — is because the title pushes two of the buttons that appeal to the lizard brains of all modern rumistas — “Single cask” and “Pot Still.” And, even with its rather indifferent ageing and milkmaid-level strength, it shows that when they want to, companies over there can in fact do more than just issue nonsense like the Don Papa 7 year old, or play with labels the way Tanduay did with their “1854”.

Limtuaco makes some supposedly decent rums, mostly column still, from molasses. The Captain mentioned above is one, and there’s 8 and 12 year olds that look quite interesting, but all the background reading I’ve done on the company (which has been around since 1852) says that they have a pot still, and they use it – not for really strong and stern bastards of power and originality in their own right, but to make more flavourful rum that they then use to blend with everything else…sort of like a locally made DOK wannabe.

Still, if we expect dunder and funk and sweaty fruits oozing out of the glass when we pour it, well, that’s not going to happen. In point of fact, it noses with a standard profile, if a weak one.  It has some briny notes, an olive or two, mostly reminding one of sucking a maggi cube; and some really faint rubber action, some acetones, nail polish, baking spices, sorrel drink, even a bit of molasses and ginger.  Which is nice, but the fruits that would balance off the firmer notes are missing.

That said, I liked the nose somewhat better than how it tasted. It presented as dusty and dry, and very very light – it didn’t glide or flow across the tongue, it breathed on it (and not for long, either). There was a panoply of easy-going fruitiness here – guavas, watermelon, papaya, a red grape or two and another olive, and overall the strength did not permit anything more forceful and distinct to emerge.  The finish continued this downward spiral by being practically nonexistent – it was sweet it was thin, it was watery, there were some pears and papaya sprinkled with salt, and it was over before you could say “where’s the pot still?” in Togalog.

And that’s pretty much the problem.  A pot still, that simple batch apparatus so beloved of Rum Geekdom, is supposed to give off some distinct flavours, at any strength.  Too little of that was in evidence here, and the ageing – however minimal – did not seem to have had much of an effect. In fact, I was told that the ex-bourbon casks were not that great to begin with (and really well-used), and the colour derived from an over-enthusiastic hand with the e150.

But if nothing else, what this over-the-counter, oddly-distributed, standard-proofed rum-for-blending-only shows, is that there is some potential here, and that Limtuaco really should try to do better with what they have to work with. I honestly didn’t think it was a complete wipeout — it was just not a stellar product, and if they ever got better barrels, put some decent ageing on it and dispensed with the caramel colouring, then we wouldn’t be confusing it with a cheaply-made and indifferent booze sold by the gallon on some small tourist-trap local island.  Then we might think it’s a real rum…one worthy of searching for, and buying.

(#715)(77/100)

Apr 012020
 

Introduction

If ever there was a hook, a cachet, a point of distinctiveness, something that set apart an independent bottler’s rums from the crowd of baying pretenders, surely the SMWS has nailed it. Here is a bottler of primarily whiskies, that does no advertising, issues barely any rums, and yet whose rum-cred can be said to be up there with any of the Big Names. And this is in spite of their relative obscurity and rarity, and their cost. Their rums are never available on supermarket racks, only on the shelves of its own Members’ Rooms, its partners or online — plus, you have to be a member to get one, and pay for the privilege then too.  Quality-wise, I can’t speak to their whiskies, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say the rums are on a level with the mastodons of our world – but their reputation even so is nothing to sneeze at.

That reputation rests partly on the distinctiveness of the tall green bottles which embrace the various rums – in my experience only Velier has anything near to this kind of  presentation and then only with the main lines of the Habitations, the Demeraras and the Caronis. Then there is the Society’s marketing masterstroke of never saying which distillery produced the liquid inside, just a number, which drives newbs into transports of ecstatic confusion as they dive in to the lore of the Society and start to do their research.  And lastly, perhaps most tellingly, are their bottle labels, which have not only gotten more informative (within the limits of the distillery obscuration noted above) – but also more amusing. I challenge anyone to tell me what some of their evocative titles mean, and yet, who can blame them for such a method to their madness? For, once seen and laughed at – or even agreed with – who could possibly forget?

That said, for an independent bottler as renowned as the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society (hereinafter referred to as the SMWS, or the “Society”), it is peculiar how little is known about it in the rum world. Oh, whisky fans certainly know of it, and I have several friends in the rumisphere who are members, but general rumfolks?  Less. And yet, it’s not an old and proud production house dating back from the quiet halcyon days of Before, from the days of Scottish bottlers of the 1950s, or Italians in the 1960s or the rum torpor of the 1970s when Bacardi ruled all with a light-rum mailed fist. It was formed, quietly and without fuss, in 1983 and based on many of the same desires and reasons that inform the modern marketplace for indies.

Beginnings

Phillip “Pip” Hills (c) SMWS

As with many such organizations we have covered in the Makers series, the Society began as an idea in the mind of one man, Phillip “Pip” Hills, a tax consultant. Raised in Grangemouth close by Falkirk, he grew up knowing pretty much only blended whisky, which he didn’t really care for. This was in the 1970s, at which point scotch whisky was in the same doldrums as persisted in rum until the mid 2000s – blends were everything, cask strength the exception, and each brand went for long term taste stability.  Fortunately for his taste buds, two of his friends had a farm way up north, next to a gentleman who would on occasion buy quarter casks of Glenfarclas from George Grant, and passed samples (supposedly filtered through a towel, goes one – disputed – anecdote) around generously — and those tastes from the cask that Hills tried were so entrancing for him and his own friends with whom he shared it (or to whom he spoke to about it), that they pooled their resources, and had him get in touch with Grant. He was lucky enough to fill in the spot of one of their “regulars” who had had the misfortune to pass way without passing on his annual cask allocation, and managed to buy that quarter cask for £2,500.

Clearly those people who came together in Edinburgh to get their share of that first cask didn’t stay silent, because subsequently, complete strangers would stop Hills and ask him to participate in his next purchase. This was sufficient for him to go back to Grants for two more casks, and the network effect of the participants over the next years was sufficiently strong for Hills to realize he was onto something. He felt that these whiskies were way better than the bottled blends, and if this expanding group of middle-class professional folks which comprised the buying circle – the syndicate – were turning into such aficionados, then perhaps selling single cask bottles on a more formal, paying basis was a good idea.  

To do that he required an entry into the commercial whisky world, and as luck would have it, a fellow climbing enthusiast introduced him to Russel Sharp, also a climber, who at the time was head chemist at Chivas, responsible for quality. Sharp gave him a primer on the difference of the cask whiskies from bottled fare, and remarked that even if he (Hills) were to try doing this kind of semi-private bottling, legal issues such as trademarks would prevent him from using distilleries’ names on the labels. Though, he didn’t feel there was a market for it, as did all other contacts within the “regular” whisky world with whom Hills later got in touch. 

Photo (c) OldLeith.com – The Vaults, when JG Thompson owned it.

The syndicate — including Hills, actor Russel Hunter, contractor David Alison, playwright W Gordon Smith and architect Ben Tindall — was incorporated into the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Ltd in 1983, with Gordon Smith, who wanted the position, installed as Chairman of the Board, even though Hills made it clear it was a co-operative sort of undertaking since all had equal shares. The Society had the mixed blessing of being able to buy the premises of J.G. Thomson (a wine merchant) called “The Vaults” which were to be vacated as Thomson moved to Glasgow (the top two floors were condemned).  It was acquired by contributions from these members of the syndicate, but as it required major repairs and upgrades, by the time restoration was done they had all lost their investment – however, by then the Society was doing very well via its membership dues and bottle sales, so it’s a fair bet nobody lost their shirts, and the SMWS continues to operate from that base to this day (note: for further background reading on the The Vaults, see here; and for JG Thompson’s history, here.)

Having premises, a registered society, members and a mandate, Hills now required product, and went around to the distillers of the day to source casks for the Society releases. This was a time when many distilleries – Port Ellen, Glenugie, St. Magdalene and Brora are some examples – were closing and others were in dire financial straits, so there was no shortage of excellent casks to chose from. But he also found, not entirely surprisingly, that operating distillers at that time saw themselves as only expert selectors, suppliers of quality ingredients to make trademarked blends of consistent profile, rather than individualized whiskies with their own special distinctiveness and quality — which is very similar to the way Caribbean rum makers, until very recently, rarely saw their own rums as unique, or their estates’ production as selling points, in their own right. This then allowed Hills to go around and buy casks which did not match the profiles for the blends the distilleries participated in, did not know how to market, and wanted to get rid of.  And, perhaps as important, to get them for reasonable prices based on liters of pure alcohol per year aged, not in any way related to the cask, its type or provenance, or the quality of the whisky itself (a situation which would seem utterly insane today, for any quality spirit).

Release 1.1 with handwritten details by P. Hills

Product in hand — 1.1, the first one, was a Glenfarclas 1975 8 YO sherry cask and there were also 2.1 (a Speysider) and 3.1 (an Islay) — bottling came next. Fortunately, there was a small bottling plant in Commercial Street (a few corners away) which agreed to do the necessaries. It was decided to preserve an old fashioned, antique ethos to the appearance, and so green bottles were selected (these were common in the 1950s but being phased out by the time the Society was formed, and so also available at a much more reasonable cost). All four of the initial outturns were provided, then, in March of 1983; regular expressions were planned to be released monthly thereafter, and that has been going on almost without interruption ever since.

Hills and the first members were prepared to market the enterprise, figuring the quality of what the Society was offering in exchange for membership would more than speak for itself – but as it turned out, he got help: one of his business partners knew the food and wine correspondent for The Scotsman newspaper and it was suggested that a whisky tasting be organized for him and his journalist friends (although the focus of their writing, for the most part, had been wine). Hills mentions this tasting with fondness as a seminal event, possibly the first of its kind, and certainly Mr. Wilson wrote a sterling encomium of the drams he had tried, not just after that first tasting in 1984, but again a year later. I do not doubt that the word of mouth engendered by those well-connected media personages, and Wilson’s pair of articles, must have more than paid for the cost of the tastings.

 

That first session turned out to be such a success that the format was copied for the initial get together of the Tasting Committee, held in the kitchen of Hills’s house in Edinburgh, and he rather ruefully admits that it was a “motley bunch”. On paper, there was nothing wrong about getting together a set of people who worked with words and knew whisky – the committee included a historian, a professor of Celtic Studies, a professor from LSE among others – but the vocabulary simply wasn’t there (that took time to be developed – another similarity this story shares with rums) and so the quirky characteristic of the Society, that of metaphorical descriptions, was born that evening. That said, in the years that followed, Hills often wrote his own tasting notes, and the insouciant descriptions of all their bottlings has continued down to the present time, becoming part of both the lore and the cachet of the SMWS. And when you’ve got a wordsmith of the stature of David Mamet confessing that these descriptors gave him a bigger kick than the whisky…well, then you know you have something there.

Growth

Unsurprisingly, there were problems. One of the first was alluded to before and was an issue right from the start: distilleries refused to give permission to use their names, fearing trademark infringement and the dilution of their own brand by some fly-by-night cut-rate newbie on the scene who would sell substandard whisky and make them look bad.  We see the same thing today with Rum Nation or That Boutique-y Rum Co. and the Compagnie des Indes, who occasionally chuck a “Secret Distillery” moniker on their labels (even though we all know it’s Heisenberg distillate, ha ha). That’s where the concept of numbering came into play – each distillery was assigned a number and as more casks from the same distillery were bought, a period separator provided the detail.  So, when one drinks from a bottle numbered 111.3 (assuming it’s available), then that’s a Lagavulin, and their third cask purchase. Inevitably, it was a great marketing tactic as well, and it even became something of an underground mark of erudition to know which was which, and what the numbers meant, and that too became something of a trademark of the Society, redounding to their benefit.

An early meeting of the Tasting Committee (c) SMWS

Another issue was one that afflicts many fast growing enterprises: the inability of management to keep things under control, easier in a smaller concern than the sort of large operation the SMWS was rapidly becoming. Initially, as was natural, everyone knew everyone else and there was a familial, almost clubby atmosphere to the whole thing – the “fun” that was so important to Hills. This became impossible as membership grew. A year after 1.1 was released, the society already had well over 500 members and was bottling from Distillery #10.  By the end of 1984 this was up to #16, and 1000 members – and the 10,000th member was signed up a mere four years later, by which time the distilleries number over fifty.

The Board composition changed – Smith ended up resigning after a couple of years as his management style clashed with the other members, to be replaced by Mr. John Lamotte who was no more successful: like his predecessor, he was more into social advancement and a staid, stuffy gentleman’s club style, rather than simply letting things be as a gathering of cheerfully like-minded friends and irreverent aficionados. Hills, seeing that if his own vision was to prevail, finally took over the Chairmanship in the late 1980s, and stayed there until 1995.

Aside from his ideas about the social raison-d’être of the Society, two aspects of his tenure were, for him, non-negotiable. One was that of releasing blended whiskies of their own, which he refused (at the time) to countenance. “There was an element on the Board which just wanted it to make money and provide them with a place in Scotland’s dull whisky establishment,” Hill wrote to me in 2020, with just a twinge of remembered impatience. “I opposed both blended whiskies and vatted malts on the grounds that […] it would have diluted the Society’s message – which in those days was much harder for folk to grasp, since nobody else had done what we were doing.”

Label and bottle designs remained relatively consistent from 1983-2006

Another inviolable rule of the Society which Hills refused to budge on was the advertising, which to him meant – none. He fought many battles with the Board to prevent it…but that did not preclude canny publicity-seeking and brilliant PR, such as the previously noted tasting with journalists. Another coup of this kind was cold-calling Jancis Robinson, a notoriously unimpressible wine writer for the Sunday Times Magazine who finally agreed to meet him, perhaps to just shut him up – he flew to London with five whiskies in a suitcase and she must have really liked what she drank, enough to write a full Sunday feature. In the years that followed, he took author and journalist Paul Levy on a tour of the Speyside distilleries (in a vintage 1937 diesel Lagonda no less) for a spread in the Wall Street Journal; and there was that five-page article in Playboy by David Mamet, among others. 

All these efforts raised the profile of the Society and membership not only rocketed up (10k by 1988, remember) but expanded beyond the UK – the French, Japanese and US branches were begun in 1993, followed in the subsequent decades by Canada, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Germany and many others – clearly, the formula was a winning one and had an enormously wide geographical spread.  I am unclear as to the exact financial and operational relationships such branches have with the mothership, but as Hills remarked, when the Society expanded into other countries, it raised costs. 

Sourcing and stocking barrels, bottling and mailing — the entire logistical foodchain — became harder as the whisky world changed around them. Hills stayed on but understood his creation had perhaps outstripped him and wasn’t as interesting as it had once been, and the price demanded by RBS in 1995, for additional funds to keep the organization afloat, was more responsible financial management (meaning, it was implied, “not you”) and a concomitant loss of control…he called it quits and resigned in August of that year. Since then he’s been writing and indulging his own interests, but emerged from a sort of self-imposed obscurity to be part of the SMWS’s 35th Anniversary celebrations in 2018 (he relates an anecdote about the doorman to The Vaults asking him for his membership ID but alas, neglects to say what the reaction was when he said it was Number 001).

Maturity

Even without him, however, the SMWS continued and went from strength to strength. They purchased two more venues in London (2000) and Edinburgh (2004), funded by a share scheme from members; Japanese whiskies were introduced for the first time in 2002 and, without Hills there to block it, the first vatted malt was released the following year. The biggest thing to hit the Society came in 2004: in a move that surprised many, the SMWS was acquired by (or sold to) Glenmorangie. The exact rationale was never stated outright, but it is likely that as it grew perhaps money became a more overriding concern and “fun” conclusively retreated. Glenmorangie allowed a larger selection of whiskies to be released, for one, and with LVMH (the parent company) having rather deeper pockets, some of the financial issues the company evidently continued to have, could be addressed.

What was the cause of these issues that might have precipitated the sale? Having to some extent created – or at least participated in – the modern renaissance of individualized single-cask Scotch whiskies released at full proof, they may have been overtaken by other independents, or distilleries themselves, who didn’t require membership to sell such products and priced them more cheaply. The expansion overseas was another factor, and the logistical difficulties of buying more whiskies to satisfy this demand was surely a third. 

What this pointed to was that the Society had become less a membership club than a true independent bottler of international scope. However, this required being nimble and agile in an increasingly competitive marketplace for single cask whiskies if one wanted to retain relevance. It is therefore probably no coincidence that the earlier “standard” green bottles were replaced by the first generation of uniquely-shaped now-iconic tall green ones in 2008, possibly in an effort to lend more pizzazz and originality to their outturns and distinguish them from others made by all the competitors (I can assure you, that succeeded). That same year “Unfiltered” magazine debuted.

New Bottles & Label Design in 2017 (c) SMWS

But by 2015 Glenmorangie had other things on its mind, and their own dedicated whisky brands they wanted to concentrate on, and so the SMWS was sold on again to a group of private investors, thirty in all, some of whom were Society members themselves. The return of members to the management had a number of immediate impacts: reassurance of the rank and file membership that corporate interests were not affecting the brand, and that members themselves were at the helm; a web presence; and, perhaps more importantly, a professional warehousing scheme – the society had become a stockist of some note and instead of simply buying already-aged casks they liked, partnered up with many of the distilleries and were able to buy new make spirit, put them in their own casks, practice rigorous wood management and in all ways expand their potential outturn (as an ancillary note, it would also require a very long term outlook for their maturing stocks). In 2017 they also did another redesign of the bottles – they kept the shape and colour but tinkered with the label, making them, again, a bit more bold and energetic.

Today’s Society

These changes did not come without a price.  Older members groused that the “brand” had become less than what it had been and recalled, as most will (and as Hills had) the good old days, that it was no longer fun, no longer that private, small, chummy and collegial atmosphere which had so characterized its first years. 

An older version of the logo

Also, many new and more sophisticated drinkers of whisky — who, like rummies, are now able to revel in a selection of product that a generation ago was both unthinkable and unavailable — complained about a drop in quality and an increase in prices, forgetting or ignoring how far whisky as a commercial drink had come in that generation. Some even grumbled (or at least remarked on) that the expansion of the Society into other spirits like armagnac, cognac, gin and (heaven forbid!!) rum has been emblematic of its loss of focus. 

By 2020, the SMWS was and remains the largest membership club for whiskies – or any spirits, for that matter – in the world. They boast some 28,000 members in 24 countries, release whisky bottlings from over 140 distilleries — and if the speed at which their current outturns sell out is any indication, then no matter how many people resign in protest or bitterly denounce their pricing and marketing strategies, there is no question in my mind that in their own way, they have changed the whisky world irrevocably with their green bottles, and have a legion of purchasers for just about every one of them. 

I should know – because while my own belief is that they spent years mucking about with that obscure Scottish tipple before coming to the True Faith of rum (did I say I was a wee bit biased? I might have), I’m a member also, and have not regretted it, if only because it allows me to lay hands on at least some of those fifty or so rums they’ve put out the door, and to write long historical essays like this one, as well as the reviews for the ones I’ve had.  And I have to admit, had a lot of fun doing it.

The Rums

Possibly the most significant change to their whisky-only ethos Phillip Hills had so long championed and defended, came just before, and during Glenmorangie’s tenure as the owners, and that was the expansion of the lineup to include not only rum, but cognac, rye, bourbon, gin and armagnac and (in a decision that probably caused him a sleepless night or two) blended malt whisky as of 2017. 

The first rums I can find any trace of were released as far back as 2001, and the strange thing is that nobody at the SMWS seems to be able to recall anything about them (other than that they existed). The Society has no online master list of everything they’ve ever issued (“I think your record keeping is much better than the Society’s!” noted Richard Goslan rather wryly, when looking at my own rum list) and photos and anecdotes are all I have.

The first rums – I believe these to be R1.1, R2.1 and R3.1

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised but they were from three Big Guns of rum: Jamaica (Monymusk), Barbados (WIRD) and Guyana (Port Mourant) – I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest they were Releases R1.1 for the Monymusk, R2.1 for the Port Mourant and R3.1 for the WIRD, largely because, even though the bottles don’t look to be numbered, what else could they be?  (Note: Troyk890 on Reddit’s /r/rum comment to this post, suggested not, and gave reasons – he felt they may have been special editions) Nothing else preceded them and for many years nothing came after, until a Trinidadian bottling from Providence Estate (which is not Caroni) releases in 2006. Who pioneered the move within the Society, to deal with rum, is a mystery. The source of the casks is unknown. Rum Nation might have found a rum barrel or two mouldering in Scottish distilleries years ago and bought them, but that was an exceptional case, and those days are over – so most likely Scheer or some European broker was involved, which squares with the process most others independents go through.

In any event, the initial issues of rums in 2001 appear to be nothing more than essays in the craft, and excited probably zero interest, much as Velier’s initial offerings from the Age of their Demeraras did.  People just weren’t ready for them, and whisky lovers didn’t take rum seriously – it pains me to admit, but they had a point (back then, anyway).  Even Serge Valentin, that doyen of the crisply miniscule tasting note, only took note of rum in 2010 himself. So three rums from 2001, a couple from around 2006 and then dead silence until 2012 when eight rums were offered for sale.  I have no evidence that diversification and the desire for potential additional revenue streams were behind that decision – that was the year people started to pay rather more attention to rums, you might recall – but to me it seems reasonable, even if the effort died for another four years while Glenmorangie negotiated the sale and the boys in Scotland scratched their sporrans wondering what to do with that annoyingly non-specific but very tasty drink from the Caribbean.

All funning aside, 2016 was the year we can see rums really become a part of the SMWS pantheon. The amount of distilleries got expanded to ten, from all the traditional locales like Guyana, Jamaica, Panama, Nicaragua, Trinidad and Barbados.  One wonders why St. Lucia is not part of the lineup, or, for that matter anything from Antigua, Mauritius, Reunion, Japan, Asia or Australia, but we must accept that rum is a vanishingly small part of the SMWS’s knowledge base and they are, remember, primarily a whisky bottler.  I’m not saying we should be pulingly grateful, but maybe a shade understanding. They don’t have anyone like us working for them (yet).

A few of The Caner’s Collection of SMWS rums….

Anyway, as of 2020, there are some 51 rums in the master list (see below for my best effort), with more to come. There is no schedule for the Society, and remember, one has to be a member to buy them when they do come out. That membership fee might have only been £23 a year back in 1983 but it’s more now, plus the cost of the bottle itself – few new entrants into the rumworld are likely to spend that much money for something so erratically released, from a company whose specialty is not even rums. 

My own opinion is that there is great potential here for the Society if people ever get bored with its whiskies; and even the rarity of the rums gives them a certain reputation and elicits grumbles of thwarted desire. We need more, not less, and affordably priced, easily available.  If the SMWS ever went big time into this corner of the spirits worlds, I think there’s no telling how large that market for its rums would become or where it could end up. Although I have to admit, like with Mr. Hills, I started off by treating them as enormously enjoyable fun drinks, and wrote each of my initial reviews in that vein: if they were to become just like every other indie out there, some of that might conceivably be lost…and that’s even with the insouciant and enjoyable naming of their bottles, and those amusing tasting notes.


Sources


Other Notes

  • An article this long will invariably have some errors of omission, or inadvertent (hopefully minimal) factual inaccuracies – those are entirely my responsibility, and where pointed out, I’ll make corrections. 
  • I have focused most of this bio on the activities of Mr. Hills as a lynchpin, but that should not diminish the contributions of the many others who were involved in the Society — directly, indirectly, peripherally or in-between — over the years: the original Syndicate of founders, the farmer named “Stan,” John Lamotte, Anna Dana, Denise Nielson, Adrian Darke, Richard Gordon, Ritchie Calder and many others.

Rum Master List (as of March 2020)

Distillery R1 – Jamaica / Monymusk

  • R 1.1  1976-2001  25 YO 73.1% <Unnamed> *assumed*
  • R 1.2  <Unknown>
  • R 1.3  1991-2012  21 YO 67.4% “Take Your Time Not Being Lazy”
  • R 1.4  1991-2012  21 YO 66.2% “Gets your juices flowing”
  • R 1.5  2007-2019  12 YO 62.8% “A Little Extravagant

Distillery R2 – Guyana / DDL (Various Stills)

  • R 2.1 1989-2001  12 YO 66.7% <Unnamed> *assumed*
  • R 2.2  1991-2012  21 YO 71.4% “Too Much of a Good Thing”
  • R 2.3  1991-2012  21 YO 69.5% “Visiting a Gothic Art Gallery” (PM)
  • R 2.4  Xxxx-Xxxx  22 YO 67.8% “Sweeney Todd in a Victorian Kitchen”
  • R 2.5  Xxxx-Xxxx  22 YO 67.8% “Parfait Amour”
  • R 2.6  2003-2017 14 YO 51.3% “Banana Flambee”
  • R 2.7  2004-2017 13 YO 63.4% “Pleasing and Teasing
  • R 2.8  2003-2018 15 YO 58.3% “Out of Our Comfort Zone”
  • R 2.9  2018-2019 11 YO 62.0% “Demerara Deliciousness”

Distillery R3 – Barbados / WIRD

Distillery R4 – Trinidad / Providence Estate

  • R 4.1  1990-2006  16 YO 50.9% <Unnamed> *assumed*

Distillery R5 – Jamaica / Longpond

Distillery R6 – Barbados / Foursquare

  • R 6.1  2002-2016  14 YO 57.3% “Caribbean Spice At The Races”
  • R 6.2  2002-2016  14 YO 56.8% My Thai Spice in Bimshire”

Distillery R7 – Jamaica / Hampden Estate

  • R 7.1  2000-2016  16 YO 54.0% “Welcome to Jamrock”
  • R 7.2  2000-2016  16 YO 52.8% “Jamaica Me Crazy”

Distillery R8 – Nicaragua / Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua (Flor de Caña)

  • R 8.1  1998-2016  18 YO 57.5% “Sneaking a Tot into Woodworking Class”
  • R 8.2  1998-2016  18 YO 57.5% “The Hunt Master Before Lunch”
  • R 8.3  2014-2016  12 YO 55.0% “Everyone’s a Fruit and a Nutcase”
  • R 8.4  2014-2019  12 YO 57.5% “Campfire in Nicaragua”
  • R 8.5  2014-2017  13 YO 68.4% “Sheer Opulence”
  • R 8.6  1998-2017  19 YO 68.9% “Nicaragua WD40 Dunderfunk”
  • R 8.7  2014-2020  14 YO 67.5% “The Volcanic Spirit”

Distillery R9 – Panama / Varelas Hermanos

  • R 9.1  2004-2017  13 YO 61.8% “Music for the Rockers of Rum”
  • R 9.2  2004-2017  13 YO 62.0% “Paddington Bear’s First Sip”
  • R 9.3  2006-2017  11 YO 60.8% “Caramel Custard Doughnut”
  • R 9.4  2004-2017  13 YO 62.1% “Chocolate Chili Combo”
  • R 9.5  2008-2017    9 YO 64.4% “Stem Ginger and Treacle Tart”
  • R 9.6  2004-2019  15 YO 61.6% “Sugar Sweet Sunshine”
  • R 9.7  2004-2019  15 YO 62.0% “Patacones with Pikliz”

Distillery R10 – Trinidad / Trinidad Distillers (Angostura)

  • R 10.1  1991-2016  25 YO 63.4% “Carnival Concerto”
  • R 10.2  1991-2017 26 YO 61.3% “Three Spice Creme Brulee”

Distillery R11 – Jamaica / Worthy Park

  • R 11.1  2010-2017  7 YO 57.5% “Spicy Sweet Goodness”
  • R 11.2  2010-2017  7 YO 66.3% “Absolutely Fabulous”
  • R 11.3  2010-2017  7 YO 57.5% “Creme Brulee Flambee”
  • R 11.4  2010-2017  6 YO 66.1% “Tasty Treat”
  • R 11.5  2010-2017  7 YO 66.1% “Flaming Rum Bananas”
  • R 11.6  2010-2017  7 YO 66.2% “Just Add Sunshine”
  • R 11.7  2010-2017  6 YO 66.4% “Feeling Irie”

Distillery R12 – Belize / Travellers

  • R 12.1  2007-2017  10 YO 66.2% “Morello Cherry Delight” 
  • R 12.2  2007-2018  11 YO 65.7% “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of”

Distillery R13 – Trinidad / Caroni

  • R 13.1  1998-2018  20 YO 62.3% “Deep dark and Brooding”

 

Mar 292020
 

Let’s dispense with the origin story right away. Call me jaundiced, but after doing this for over ten years, I not only roll my eyes when I read about rum heritage and pirates and prohibition heroes and (in this case) rum-running schooners, but fight a near-overwhelming urge to fall asleep. The facts are as follows: this is a rum named after a boat; it is made by Bermudez in the Dominican Republic; launched in 2012; it is claimed to be 18 years true ageing (a statement that is something of a bone of contention); it is a light, standard-strength Latin-style ron, imported to the US by the spirits division (35 Maple Street) of a direct-to-trade wine merchant (The Other Guys Inc) owned by a spirits company that itself had started with wine (3 Badge Beverage Company). 

Kirk & Sweeney have always maintained, as have those who talked to Bermudez, that the rum is aged a full X years (12, 18 or 23). The two points that make people uneasy with that statement are the labels, where it says, as in this case, “18 Years” and not “18 Years Old,” (thereby skirting any possible accusations of of misrepresentation) and the price, which is deemed by many to be simply too cheap for a rum that old. Moreover, the profile doesn’t seem to be quite … there, and if it needs help from what are clearly discernible additions, you can see why the suspicions fester.

This is not to say that there isn’t some interesting stuff to be found. Take the nose, for example.  It smells of salted caramel, vanilla ice cream, brown sugar, a bit of molasses, and is warm, quite light, with maybe a dash of mint and basil thrown in.  But taken together, what it has is the smell of a milk shake, and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of startling originality – not exactly what 18 years of ageing would give you, pleasant as it is. It’s soft and easy, that’s all.  No thinking required.

On the palate this continues, and to the shortcomings of a rather straightforward series of tastes – more vanilla, molasses, salted caramel, almonds, cream cheese, a touch of leather and yes, more ice cream – is added the strength, 40% ABV, and just too much sweetness, which is simply not enough to make any of the flavours pop and sparkle. It’s a thin juice, over-sweet, over-vanilla-ed, a slumgullion, and the short and unexceptional finish which just repeats the same notes, does more to bore than impress.  We could perhaps permit the K&S 12 year to pass muster on that basis – for something half again as old, such indulgence is not available, sorry.

Now, that’s my considered opinion. But that said, the rum has had fervent adherents who really stand by its charms, though it is unclear whether that’s because they don’t have a decent base of comparison, or simply prefer and are used to light rums. Chris Nell of Drinkhacker gave it a solid A- in 2015. Kara Newman awarded 93 points in an undated Wine Enthusiast mini-review, and Influenster gave it 4½ stars out of 5 which was also the general opinion of the many comments on that tasting note. Flaviar aggregated it at 8.5/10. Eric Zadona of EZdrinking probably nailed it when he remarked in an unscored 2017 review, that it would appeal to the Zacapa-loving crowd. The two best reviews available online – none of today’s crop of regulars have bothered – come from Diving & Chilling, in an lengthy unscored essay that touched on all the high (and low) points and disliked it, and Dave Russell of Rum Gallery who did the same in his crisp style, and loved it (9.5 points). And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that group-sourced scoring website Rum Ratings, where the majority of the 143 posters rated it 8 or 9 points.

It may have fallen out of favour with today’s more educated and vocal rum drinkers, what with the increased popularity of the Caribbean full proofs from the estates and distilleries, and the European independents. If it sells briskly in the US (from whence most of the positive commentary originates), perhaps it’s because it sells in the US, and part of the reason for that may be that they are so starved for choice that if it looks cool and tastes halfway decent (which this does), it’ll move. So, summing up, if what you’re after is a cool looking bottle within which are ensconced light, unaggressive flavours, you’ve come to the right place.  Step up and pays your money because so as long as you like rums like the Dictador, Diplomatico, Zacapa, Opthimus 18 or El Dorado 12, then you will be quite pleased with what you’re getting here.

(#714)(79/100)


Other Notes

Because the case of its doubted age is not proven with certainty, I have elected to continue using the “Years Old” descriptor in the title…but I use it with reservations.

Mar 252020
 

Rumaniacs Review #112 | 0713

Bought at an auction for curiosity and an interest in old rhums, it was dated in the listing to the seventies, and because of its association with two other (Bardinet) bottles from Martinique, it was also deemed to be from there (the info was provided by the seller, so it strikes me as reasonable). 

The address given on the label is now a modern building which houses a Hermes shop, and one of the only clues that an online search provides is a 1906 listing from the Milan International Exhibition, which notes Verhes of Pantin (which is in Paris) as dealing with liqueurs; they used to make some low-proofed cocktails-in-a-bottle under the brand name Paquita. It doesn’t seem to exist any more.  Probably a merchant bottler than, or a shop with a few personalized bottlings and creations of its own. (The other name on the label, L. Ruel of Poitiers, is a printing establishment dating back to 1854 and still in business today).

Colour – Amber

Strength – 40%

Nose – There’s a robust wine-like aroma to the whole experience here. Dark re or black grapes, very ripe, plus cherries. I think its provenance in the French islands is likely accurate because the crisp snap of green apples and subtlety of light fruits points that way.  But if so, pre-AOC (of course) – there’s bags of dark fruit going off, and a sort of counterpoint of rottenness that reminds me of both grappa and (please bear with me) the musky sharpness of burning mosquito coil.

Palate – It’s faint and thin (par for the course for a standard strength rhum) and crisper and clearer…cleaner is as good a word as any. Tastes of tart white fruits and apples, ginnip, soursop and sour cream. I liked the softer tones that came in after a while – flambeed bananas, blancmange, red wine, iodine and something sulkier and unripe balancing it off. But still too weak to seriously appeal

Finish – Warm, dry, wine-y, some grapes and fruits, unexceptional in every way.

Thoughts – Overall, it’s like a rich and deeply-fruity modern agricole, and if it was made today I’d say it was from Guadeloupe.  Impossible to tell now, though, which is highly frustrating for any who like deep diving into these things. We’re going to see lots more of such obscure bottlings soon, as records get lost or destroyed, and the owners’ descendants or inheritors or lawyers sell them off. 

(80/100)

Mar 232020
 

Photo (c) Excellencerhum since mine turned out to be useless

If I had a single regret about tasting this exceptional cask strength millésime rum from Trois Rivieres which was distilled in August 2006 and bottled eight years later, it’s that I neglected the opportunity to find and try the single cask version of the same vintage.  That one was bottled at 43% while the cask strength I was trying here was more than ten points higher, and it would have been fascinating to see how they ranked against each other.

Yet even without that comparison, there’s no doubt when you put together a range of variously aged agricoles (as I had the opportunity to), the Trois Rivieres Millésime 2006 is going to be right up there in the rankings when the dust settles and the arguments are over. Not just because of its strength, which is spoiling-for-a-fight-strong 55.5% ABV, but because of excellence of its assembly. Trois Rivières has made one of the best indie agricole bottlings ever (the Chantal Comte 1980), and here, for themselves, they have done something almost as good.

The Trois Rivières Brut de fût Millésime 2006 (which is its official name) is relatively unusual: it’s aged in new American oak barrels, not Limousin, and bottled at cask strength, not the more common 43-48%. And that gives it a solidity that elevates it somewhat over the standards we’ve become used to. Let’s start, as always, with the nose — it just becomes more assertive, and more clearly defined…although it seems somehow gentler (which is quite a neat trick when you think about it). It is redolent of caramel and vanilla first off, and then adds green apples, tart yoghurt, pears, white guavas, watermelon and papaya, and behind all that is a delectable series of herbs – rosemary, dill, even a hint of basil and aromatic pipe tobacco.

That’s all fine, but agricole aromas are usually a cut above the norm anyway – I’d have been disappointed if I was displeased. What really distinguishes the 2006 – the year was apparently a very good one – is the palate.  It’s a smorgasbord of macerated fruit (apricots, papaya, pineapple and apples), some light but clear florals, crushed hazelnuts, honey … and marshmallows. It all comes together in a delectable combo of sweet, crisp and mellow tastes that almost demands to be had neat — and all this time, the profile continues to be rock-solid rather than sharp or clawing, going right down the line to the fruity, tart, citrus-y finish with its last fine dusting of coffee grounds, crushed nuts and vanilla.

How they developed and assembled it in such a way that the high ABV was completely tamed and smoothened out without losing any of its force, is a mystery.  The balance and complexity harmonize well, it’s tailor made for a late night sip and it encourages rhum appreciation. It’s unlike the rhum we looked at last week, even an opposite: the La Mauny was a low-rent starter rhum made to accompany cheerful and noisily boisterous back-alley socializing, while the 2006 demands somewhat more reflection and is, perhaps, better for that purpose. But to cut a long summary short, I’m just and simply impressed, and maybe I should stop writing, go out there, buy another one, and share it with my domino-playing squaddies. Because I’m pretty sure they’d quaff this one by the glassful.

(#712)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • There are two variations of this Millésime: the 2006 Private Vintage (45%) and the 2006 Single Cask (43%). Entrhums out of Belgium sampled them here (French). Seems like I’m not the only one to really like Trois Rivières.
  • My personal opinion is that this is not quite as good as the TR 1986, but a smidgen better than the TR 1975
Mar 192020
 

Staying with some of the lesser-known agricoles I’ve delayed writing about for far too long, let’s talk about La Mauny for a bit. This is one of the larger establishments on Martinque, and now owned by Campari, which bought both it and Trois Rivieres in late 2019, ending nearly three hundred years of (various) families’ or witless conglomerates’ control over it. That history is a bit lengthy, so I’ll put it at the bottom and dive right in to the main schtick.

The La Mauny distillery remains one of the largest in Martinique, both for its planted cane area and for its production. Each year, it grinds around 30,000 tonnes of sugar cane , more than half cut by hand, to produce three million liters of agricultural rum. The Heritage 1749 – that date refers to the estate’s founding – is, for all its grandiose titling, something of an entry level rhum, not one of the heavily aged, much-fussed-over badasses that establishes a candidacy for a rhum-halo. It’s 40% ABV, column distilled from cane juice, aged between one and two years in French oak and then given three months in porto casks for a bit of finishing.

Whatever the porto influence was, it didn’t make itself known on the nose, at least not noticeably. The whole thing was relatively mild, and displayed very musky, earthy, loamy initial scents at the beginning…gradually there were replaced with vanilla, caramel, and deep dark fruits, mostly plums and overripe prunes.  The crisp and light grassiness of the sort of agricole rhum with which we are more familiar, was almost entirely absent at this stage, but I had to admit…it surprised me (and that doesn’t happen all that often these days).

Okay so, on to palate.  Straw yellow in the glass, it was softer and less intense, which, for a forty percenter, was both good and bad.  Here the grassy and herbal notes took on more prominence, as did citrus, some tart unsweetened yoghurt, honey and cane juice. The youth was evident in the slight sharpness and lack of real roundness – the two years of ageing had some effect, just not enough to sand off everything that rasped, and additional hints of red grapes, wine and nuttiness showed the porton had done its thing about as well as could be expected. As for the finish, meh – short, slightly sweet, lemon meringue pie, some vanilla, a flower petal or two…and a dark wet earthy aftertaste, very mild, very faint, that took me back to the nose.

To be honest, it’s not really very interesting.  The Porto finish saves it somewhat from being a bore and a dismissive “it’s just another rum” remark.  But even so, I doubt it’ll ever be asked for by name in some upscale joint or to fill out the edges of a home bar. To me, it’s very much like that King of Diamonds rum DDL used to make: a cheap working man’s blue-collar friend, meant to be had in the village or a cheap back-alley cafe with ice, laughter, dominos…and to wash down rough conversations about life, not meandering discussions about the esoteric meanings of Balzac or Baudelaire. That might be a little esoteric for an explanation of how I perceive this young rhum, but it encapsulates what I think of it perfectly.

(#711)(80/100)


History

La Mauny was founded in 1749 when Ferdinand Poulain, count of Mauny (in northern France), acquired the estate via an advantageous marriage to the daughter of a local planter, and established a refinery there. In 1820, with Martinique becoming more important to France after the loss of St Domingue (Haiti), La Mauny invested in a still and began agricole production.  Unfortunately, consistency of ownership proved elusive – a pattern that would not significantly change for the next centuries – and the estate passed through several hands over the succeeding generations because of poor management, financial or production difficulties, or familial squabbles. At various times the Code and Lapiquonne families held ownership, and although the family of Tasher de la Pagerie, whose daughter Josephine married Napoleon, expressed an interest, negotiations fell through.

In 1923 La Mauny was sold to Théodore and Georges Bellonnie who enlarged and brought in new facilities such as a distillation column, new grinding mills and a steam engine. The distillery expanded hugely thanks to increased output and good marketing strategies and La Mauny rhums began to be exported around 1950. In 1970, after the Bellonnie brothers had both passed away, the Bordeaux traders and old-Martinique family of Bourdillon teamed up with Théodore Bellonnie’s widow and created the BBS Group.  The company grew strongly, launching on the French market in 1977. Jean Pierre Bourdillon, who ran the new group, undertook to modernize La Mauny. He began by reorganizing the fields in order to make them accessible to mechanical harvesting and built a new distillery in 1984 (with a fourth mill, a three column still and a new boiler) a few hundred meters from the old one, increasing the cane crushing capacity and buying the equipment of the Saint James distillery in Acaiou, unused since 1958.

The musical chairs of acquisition and disposal, however, were not over. In 1994, Martini and Rossi sold BBS the Trois Rivieres Distillery, where the enormously popular Duquesne rum was also made (note that in 1953, the Marraud de Grottes family who owned Duquesne, bought Trois Rivieres, not the other way round – they then sold to M&R). BBS kept Duquesne and the Trois Rivieres distillery going until 2003, when they closed it and sent its column stills to La Mauny, where TR rhum continues to be made. 

The BBS Group was subsequently bought by the Reunion sugar refining company Quartier Francais in 2007, but they let it go again in 2010 to Tereos (previously Beghin-Say) – all these companies dealt mostly in sugar, but had nothing to do with the spirits industry.  Tereos sold the BBS division and its brands in 2011 to la Martiniquaise, whose speciality was spirits and where the fit was better. But this created a problem, since La Martiniquaise already owned the Saint James, Dillon and Old Nick brands and producing estates, and getting ownership of BBS would give them control more than 60% of rhums produced in the French Islands.  The Competition Authority therefore mandated that La Martinquaise divest part of their portfolio, which they did by selling on BBS to the Cyrille Chevrillon Group (who again, had absolutely nothing to do with rhum – they were into pharmaceuticals, insurance, flowers and printing, for example). The story stops (for now) in 2019, when the Campari Group announced the acquisition of the Trois Rivières, Duquesne and La Mauny brands, for $ 60 million, which is where things lie for the moment.

Sources:


Other Notes

Admittedly, this is something of an obscure rhum and the only other review I found was from that undiscovered treasure of a Japanese site, Sarichiii, run by one of the few ladies in the rum blogosphere.  There is a single notation in Rum Ratings with a score of 3/10, which I’ll include for completeness, but not because I think it’s a review.

Mar 162020
 

With all those distilleries dotting the landscape of Martinique, one could be forgiven for thinking there’s rather little to chose among the agricoles they make aside from canny marketing. I used to think so myself, until I began to amass an ever-increasing series of tasting notes and memories on these rhums from the myriad estates, and realized that there are indeed noticeable points of difference between any one and any other.  And that’s not just between the distilleries, but among the various expressions issued from the same one, as well. 

Saint James is a good example of this, with their pot still white being a world away from their 7 year old; there are the various Neisson or Bally releases, and another is La Favorite, with their dissimilar pair of the Cuvée Privilège and Cuvée Spéciale. All the others follow similar trajectories of quality and variation

But these are perhaps bad examples. They are good rums, prestige rums, aged a bunch, known as special. At the same time, down by the docks, at the layman’s end of the spectrum for everyday hooch, lurks the La Favorite Coeur Ambrė — a cousin to their Rhum Vieux we looked at some years back and similar to most entry-level offerings usually ignored by the cognoscenti but snapped up by the unpretentious and had just so.

The Ambrė is cheap, it lacks any sort of serious pedigree (18 months ageing, 45% ABV), and you’d think there’s nothing to distinguish the humble Martinique-made, AOC-compliant rhum from any other bottom-feeding prole-supplying ambre out on the market made by the other maisons on the island. 

Well…yes. But don’t rush too quickly past this young rhum from la Favorite just yet, because I think that for what it is, it’s not half bad. Just take a sniff at it: the nose is sharp and a bit unrefined, yet remarkably clear for something so young – it has some herbs, some citrus, it’s a shade musty and dry, and also presents a nice amalgam of vanilla, cereals, rye bread and gruyere.

You are, admittedly, met with something of a blast of the pepper shaker when you taste it. Stay with it and it evens out nicely – there’s sweet and salt, crushed almonds and walnuts, musty rooms in need of dusting, straw baskets, and fresh cut lumber/  Quite a bit for something so young, I’d say, and that’s not even all – you get some herbals, grass, florals and light oakiness as well. Plus a twist of lemon zest. All of this concludes with a sharp and unrefined finish of grass, green apples and grapes, some bitter chocolate – it’s too ragged and jagged, though, which shows its youth and kind of messes up the good stuff that came before.

Overall, it needs some further ageing to be appreciated as a drink in its own right and since La Favorite has a few others up the value chain, they make no bones about relegating it as low-end  cocktail fodder. But I submit that it does possess a certain crisp liveliness, an unanticipated quality which its price and appearance don’t entirely convey. Admittedly, there aren’t a whole lot of tastes running around begging to be noticed, and the complexity is pedestrian at best. What I like is that it never pretends to be other than what it is, and those notes that were discernible are reasonably well-defined, mesh decently, and provide an interesting experience. For an agricole rhum less than two years old and costing in the forty-buck range, that’s hardly a disqualifier. In fact, I think it’s something of an achievement.

(#710)(80/100)


A quick history:

La Favorite is a small family owned distillery in Martinique which has an annual rum production of around 600,000 litres. The original sugar plantation was initially called “La Jambette” for a small adjacent river, and was renamed La Favorite in 1851 when Charles Henry acquired it, and subsequently installed a distillation apparatus and began making rhum; anecdotes refer to the islanders calling it their favourite rhum, or Napoleon himself remarking it was his, but who knows. The company ran into financial difficulties in 1875 (maybe this was due to the establishment of the French 3rd Republic, and the defeat of the monarchists whom the planters supported, but that’s outside the scope of this brief bio).  

Somehow the plantation limped along until 1891 when a hurricane did so much damage that the whole operation was shut down for nearly twenty years. Production recommenced in the early 20th century (1905 per the website, though other sources say 1909) when Henri Dormoy bought the company from Mr. Henry and added a railway line through the plantation.  The boost given by the first world war allowed La Favorite to become truly commercially viable and it has been chugging along ever since, still using steam powered distillery apparatus, hand-glueing the labels to the bottles, and manually applying the wax over the top. Since 2000 when Henri’s own son Andre (who had bought the shares of the distillery from the other family members) died, his son Paul Dormoy has run the show there, and was joined in turn by his own son Franck in 2006, making it one of the few family owned establishments remaining on the island.

Mar 122020
 

The Cor Cor “Green”, cousin to the molasses-based “Red” (both are actually white – the colours refer to their labels’ hues) is an order of magnitude more expensive than its scarlet labelled relative, largely because it is made from cane juice, not molasses, and therefore rather more seasonal in production.  The question is, how does the cane juice white compare when run up against its intriguing (if off-beat) molasses-based white. Both are, after all, made by the same master blender who wanted to apply an awamori sensibility to making rum.

Tasting the Red and Green side by side, then, is an instructive experience, akin to doing a flight of white Habitation Veliers. Given that everything else is constant – sugar cane, the pot still distillation apparatus, the resting in steel tanks (neither is “aged” in the classical sense), the lack of any additives or filtration – then the only thing that should make a difference in the taste is the molasses versus cane juice, and the length and method of the fermentation cycle.

But even that is quite enough to make a clear difference, I assure you.  The Green is most definitely not the Red, and is discernibly an agricole style cane juice rum with all this implies, filtered through the mind of the Japanese culture and love for their own spirits.  However, let it also be noted that it is not a standard agricole by any means…and therein lies both its attraction to the curious, and potentially its downfall to the masses.

To illustrate the point, consider how it noses: it’s intriguing and pleasantly flinty, and has the initial tang of mineral water into which have been dunked some salt and olives, a sort of poor man’s martini.  There is a background of sweet and light florals and white fruit, and if you stick with it, also something more maritime – seaweed and iodine, I suggest. It’s mild, which is a function of the living room strength at which it’s issued (40% ABV), and the memory you’ll carry away from smelling it, is of the sea: brine and iodine and herbaceousness, only partially balanced off by sweeter and lighter components.

The taste is where the resemblance to a French island agricole comes more clearly into focus. Sweet sugar water, fresh-cut grass, citrus peel, some eucalyptus and gherkins in pimento vinegar, and a very nicely balanced series of light fruit notes – papaya, guavas, pears, watermelon.  As I said above, it’s different from the Red (to be expected – the sources are Montague and Capulet, after all) yet some minor family resemblance is noticeable; and although the rum tastes a little watery, the finish lasts so long and it coats the mouth and tongue so well, it allows it to skate past such concerns, leaving behind the fond memories of miso soup, pimento, apple cider and some citrus…and, of course, an olive or two.

Even though the Green was offbeat in its own way, I liked it more than the Red. It’s not really a true agricole (comes off a pot still, for example, produced with a different distillation philosophy) and lacks something of that feral nature of those whites bottled in the Caribbean that have spoiled me.  Clairins and blancs are a take-no-prisoners bunch of badass 50% rowdies, and I like them precisely for that air of untamed wild joy with which they gallop and spur across the palate — and the Green is not at that level.

So, it’s unusual, and decent, and complies with some of the notes we want and look for in a cane juice rum.  It’ll excite some interest in the regular rum world for sure. But to my mind it’s not yet aggressive enough, strong enough, good enough, in a way that would make a bitchin’ daiquiri or a ti-punch, or cause a drinker to wake up, sit up, and say wtf in Japanese. Not yet. Though admittedly, if they stick with it and continue developing juice like this, then they’re getting close to making a rum that does precisely that.

(#709)(82/100)


Other Notes

The label is a stylized map of South Borodino island (the Russians named it so in the 19th century after the ship Borodino surveyed it – the Japanese name is Minamidaito) where the distillery is, overlaid with a poem I’ll quote here without comment:

Bats, dancing in the night sky
Suspended magic, falling in drops
These are the things
That make men and women covet love
This is the magic of rum,
a sugarcane love potion

Mar 092020
 

In a time of exploding visibility of masterful ladies in the rum world – Joy Spence, Maggie Campbell, Trudiann Branker, Karen Hoskins, Dianne Medrano, and so many others – it’s good to also remember Chantal Comte, who bottled her first rum in 1983 (it was a Depaz, and possibly even this one, though I’m still tracking that down), who has fiercely and doggedly stuck with her first love of the French islands’ rums in all the years from then to now.  She is, in my opinion, along with Tristan Prodhomme, one of the undiscovered treasures of the indie bottling scene. 

Yet her rhums remain peculiarly elusive: it’s rare to find a review of anything the woman has released, let alone any of the older bottlings, and this in spite of the fact that the quality of her wares is beyond dispute.  A few years ago a newspaperman in Trinidad wrote about a secret handshake that united the underground lovers of Luca’s Caronis, but the statement really should be applied to hers – and most especially for the one she herself considers her favourite, the Depaz 1975, which is almost as good as the utterly spectacular Trois Rivieres 1980 I was fortunate enough to find all those years ago..

The full and rather unwieldy title of the rum today is the Chantal Comte Rhum Agricole 1975 Extra Vieux de la Plantation de la Montagne Pelée, but let that not dissuade you.  Consider it a column-still, cane-juice rhum aged around eight years, sourced from Depaz when it was still André Depaz’s property and the man was – astoundingly enough in today’s market – having real difficulty selling his aged stock. Ms. Comte, who was born in Morocco but had strong Martinique familial connections, had interned in the wine world, and was also mentored by Depaz and Paul Hayot (of Clement) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Martinique was suffering from overstock and poor sales.. And having access at low cost to such ignored and unknown stocks allowed her to really pick some amazing rums, of this is one.

Still, if we disregard the bottle and just do the pour, the mud-brown liquid does not, at the inception, inspire. That misleading first impression lasts about as long as it takes the nose to take the first sniff. Because it’s thick, it’s fruity, it’s juicy and it feels solid enough to get your teeth into.  The whole thing is a smorgasbord of fruits – ripe pineapple and mangoes for sure, pears, white guavas and papaya (all the light hits of the agricole pantheon)…but also more dark fruits than we usually associate with rhums – black grapes, kiwi fruits, rich plums, dates. No tartness here, though a whiff of citrus peel pervades the background, just a combined fruit smoothie in harmonious combination with a trace of molasses, cereal and chocolate brownies

And that’s not all: the palate is equally complex and well-crafted, and at 45% – usually a middling strength which can be too soft or delicate or thin if done indifferently or badly – it expands the tableaux of observable notes. It melds the soft smell of old leather satchels with pears, herbs, spices, coffee grounds and a touch of brine, and if you hang around long enough the light acidity of citrus peel and tartness of sour cream coil behind and lend some texture and depth.  Which is to say nothing of the delicate grassiness and softer caramel hints that you can almost, but not quite, taste – they are sensed rather than experienced, and just enhance the supple, smooth drinking experience. I would have preferred the finish to be a little longer and perhaps a shade more emphatic, but overall, the closing notes of prunes, apricots, ginger, 5-spice and light sugar water was quite enough to give the rhum a lovely, low-key send off. 

Clearing away the dishes – this is not a rum that revels in strength and furious points of power.  It lacks decisive and clearly discernible tastes like funk or woodsiness. What it does do, and well, is subtly combine the component profiles while at all times allowing the drinker to pick up some element that pleases, and identify it precisely within the amalgam. It’s interesting that Ms. Comte remarked once that she felt a product (rums) so complex and of such quality could not – should not! – possibly be overlooked or despised the way it was, just around the same time as Luca Gargano was coming to similar conclusions over at Saint James: one gets the impression she’s followed that principle ever since, of not worrying about singular taste profiles, but more pleasing symphonic harmonies.

Anyway, the Depaz 1975 is, at end, a rum that reminds us what a long journey agricoles have made since back in the 1980s when it came out.  It starts off by seeming quite ordinary, an agricole like many others we’ve tried — then it gathers force and power, it gets better with every passing sip, and by the time you’re done it will take its place as one of those rums you can’t imagine yourself forgetting. Deservedly so, in my opinion, for here is one of a series of bottlings which raised the bar for the French Caribbean islands, indie bottlings and La Maison de Chantal, and forced everyone to sit up and pay attention. We have never forgotten, and they have never looked back, and that’s all as it should be.

(#708)(89/100)


Other Notes

  • Many thanks to Sascha Junkert and Johnny Drejer for their forbearance – they both know why 🙂
  • Outturn unknown, exact age unknown – I think it’s around 8-10 years old.  A query is pending.
Mar 052020
 

Given Japan has several rums which have made these pages (Ryoma, Ogasawara, Nine Leaves, Helios, Seven Seas), by now most should be aware that just about all of them source their molasses out of the southern islands of Okinawa, if not actually based there themselves. The Grace distillery, who make the Cor Cor line of rums, conforms to that informal rule, yet is unusual in two ways – first, it is still very much a manual operation, somewhat surprising for a nation with a massive technological infrastructure; and it produces rums from both molasses (the red labelled rum we’re looking at today) and cane juice (the green labelled one). 

Cor Cor as a title has no deep transliterative meaning — it is derived from English (the opposite is true for games maker Atari, as a counter-example) and uses the first letters of the words “coral” (the island where it’s made is formed from a coral reef) and “corona” (which the island resembles). Grace Distillery itself was formed in 2004 in a building that used to be a small airport terminal, on the tiny Okinawan island of Minamidaito, and use a steel pot still, and do not practice ageing – another point of departure. Instead, their rum is rested in inert tanks and after a suitable period determined by their master blender, it’s bottled at 40%, as-is, unfiltered, uncoloured, un-added-to.

Some of my research shed some interesting light on the profile of the rum, but I think I’ll leave that for the end: suffice it to say that this was both normal with respect to other Japanese rums, and abnormal with respect to what we in the west are used to. The nose was sweet, light and faintly briny, with a metallic medicinal hint to it.  I knew there was more to come, and so set it aside and came back to it over time, and picked out black pepper, vegetable soup, biryani spices, seaweed. And, later, also dry cereal, butter, olives and flowers. Frankly, I found it a little confusing – it was nice and a ways better than the rank meatiness of the Seven Seas which had shuddered and put away – but nosed at a tangent from the norm of “regular” rums I’ve had more often.  

Palate – oh, much nicer.  Dry dusty citrus-infused sugar water, peas, salty cashews. There was a dusting of salt and cooking spices and miso soup, with lemon grass and sour cream somewhere in there.  I liked the development better, because what had been confusing about the nose gelled into a better harmony. Still a little off-base, mind you…but in a nice way. I particularly enjoyed the herbal and iodine background (not overdone, more a hint than a bludgeon) which set off the light fruit and brine in a way that complemented, not distracted.  Finish was long and dry, sugary and watery, redolent of delicate flowers and fruit. It was surprisingly durable, for a rum at 40%.

The Cor Cor Red was more generous on the palate than the nose, and as with many Japanese rums I’ve tried, it’s quite distinctive. The tastes were somewhat offbase when smelled, yet came together nicely when tasted.  Most of what we might deem “traditional notes” — like nougat, or toffee, caramel, molasses, wine, dark fruits, that kind of thing — were absent; and while their (now closed) website rather honestly remarked back in 2017 that it was not for everyone, I would merely suggest that this real enjoyment is probably more for someone (a) interested in Asian rums (b) looking for something new and (c) who is cognizant of local cuisine and spirits profiles, which infuse the makers’ designs here. One of the reasons the rum tastes as it does, is because the master blender used to work for one of the awamori makers on Okinawa (it is a spirit akin to Shochu), and wanted to apply the methods of make to rum as well.  No doubt some of the taste profile he preferred bled over into the final product as well.

The Cor Cor duo raised its head in the 2017 and 2018 rum festival circuit, and aside from a quick review by Wes in the UK – he commented that it was a pair of rums that engendered quite some discussion – it has since sunk almost completely from public consciousness.  I have to give it a cautious endorsement just because it’s so damned interesting, even if I couldn’t entirely find it in my heart to love it. Years from now Japan may colonize the rumisphere, the same way they have made themselves space in the whisky world. For now, this probably won’t get them there, however intriguing it might be to me personally.

(#707)(80/100)


Other Notes

  • I reached to to several friends in Japan for background: thanks in particular to Yoshi-san, who managed to get in touch with Grace directly on the question of the still and the master blender.
  • Grace also releases a Cor Cor Premium and Koruroru 25 rum variations, but I have never seen them for purchase.
  • Yuko Kinjo is the CEO and founder of Grace Rum. She was introduced to rum whilst sitting in a friend’s bar in the early 2000s, and asked herself “Why not make rum right here, a unique spirit made completely of local ingredients?” Cor Cor Rum is made only of sustainable local sugarcane and is a joint effort between Kinjo-san and the Minamidaito Island Chamber of Commerce.