Ruminsky

Feb 192019
 

Just reading the label on the Very Old Captain makes me think (rather sourly) of yesteryear’s uninformed marketing copy, Captain Morgan advertisements and the supposedly-long-debunked perception that rum is fun, a pirate’s drink, redolent of yo-ho-hos and sunny tropical beaches. Even after so many years of so many companies and writers seeking to raise the bar of quality hooch, we still get assailed by such pandering to the least common denominator and what’s perhaps more discouraging, there are many who’ll buy it on that basis alone.

Lest you think I’m just having a bad hair day, consider what the label says above and below that faux-piratical name: “Very Old” and “Artisan Crafted Dark Rum”.  Well, it’s not very old, not artisanal, crafted has very little meaning, “artisan crafted” is not what it suggests, dark is not an indicator of anything except colour (certainly not of quality or age or purity), and that leaves only one word that can be construed as true: “rum”. One wonders why it wasn’t just left at that.

Now, this is a Philippine dark rum, blended, which the company website notes as being “the equivalent of 8 years”.  Since they issue an actual 8 year old and 12 year old that are clearly stated as being such, what’s the issue with saying what this thing is without the waffling? The Philippine Daily Inquirer had an article dating back to 2015 that said it was actually five years old and no mention of a pot still was made either there or on Limtuaco’s wesbite, although the back label speaks helpfully to the matter (“We blend premium rum from molasses with pot still rum” – as if somehow the two are different things) and BespokeManBlog mentioned it the same year when writing enthusiastically about the rum. Limtuaco was clear in the blurb of the 8YO that it had some pot still action and did not do so for the VOC, so I think we can reasonably posit it’s a blend of pot and column, and the whole business of “batch” and age-equivalency can be dispensed with.

My snark on disclosure aside, what was the standard-proofed dark gold rum actually like to smell and taste and drink?

Well, somewhat better than my remarks above might imply. It nosed off the line with nail polish, some acetones and sharp flowery-fruity tones, and a lot of spices – ginger, cumin, cinnamon. This was followed by apples, green grapes and unripe peaches mixed in with vanilla and some caramel, but the truth is, it all seemed just a bit forced, not real (or maybe I was suspicious as well as snarky), lacking something of the crisp forceful snap of a true pot still product.

Palate? Sweet, with white guavas and green grapes at first. Warm and somewhat faint, which is expected at that strength, with gradually emerging notes of molasses, vanilla, masala, and peaches in syrup. It’s all very mild and laid back, little oakiness or tannins or bitterness, hardly aggressive at all, which raises additional questions.  The finish provided little of consequence, being soft and easy and gone in a flash, leaving behind rapidly fading memories of light acetones and watery fruits. And breakfast spices.

Given that our faith in the company’s background notes has been somewhat eroded, what it means is that we can’t tell if the rum is for real — and the tastes that seemed somewhat artificial and added-to have no basis in our mind’s trust, in spite of the company website’s denials that they indulge the practice.  Yet since it is positioned as something special and premium (“high-end”), I expect more disclosure from then, not less, and to tell me that it derives from blackstrap molasses and is 40% ABV is hardly a fount of information, now, is it? The fact that they make some of their spirits from neutral alcohol that’s then processed just ensures reviews like this one.

But that aside, let’s just rate the rum itself. I don’t feel it’s really anything near to the kind of high-end as they tout, and my personal opinion is one of relative indifference, sorry. I think it’s an eminently forgettable rum, largely because there’s nothing really serious to it, no depth of distinctiveness or character that would make you remember it. To its credit, that also means there’s nothing overtly traumatic about the rum either, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement. For my money, it’s not a rum that would excite serious interest and enthusiasm from the hardcore, and even serious amateurs are likely to sip it, feel okay with it, and then move on to something with a little more oomph that they might actually recall the next day. Maybe like the Screech.

(#600)(72/100)


Other Notes

  • My remarks above notwithstanding, one has to consider the audience for which it is made.  As far as I know it’s primarily for sale in Asia, where softer, smoother, sweet-profiled (and spiced up) rums are more common and liked.  
  • The score does not reflect my dissatisfaction with the labelling and marketing, only the way it tasted. 
  • The company was formed in 1852 by a Chinese immigrant to the Phillipines, Lim Tua Co, who began the business by making herb infused medicinal wines.  The family continues to run the company he started, and now makes over 30 different products, including local blends and foreign brands manufactured under license.  It has three bottling, processing and aging plants as well as many warehouses in Manila, though information on its stills and how they make their rums remains scanty.
  • As always, a big hat tip to John Go, who is my source for many Asian rums I’d not otherwise find.  Thanks, mate.
Feb 162019
 

The only rum I’ve ever tried from the Seychelles was one that was discontinued, the Takamaka Bay Overproof white, but the depth of research I did on that short article was not inconsiderable, and it formed the basis of this short biography.  That doesn’t mean that I’ve tried much of their rum, but fortunately that’s not a prerequisite for inclusion in the Makers series of essays.

Given how much press the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Reunion gets these days, what with New Grove, St Aubin, Savanna, Isautier and Rivière du Mat distilleries putting cool rums out the door, Seychelles remains somewhat overlooked.  Yet they too have a long history of local rum production, though as of this writing, there is only one distillery on the island, and that’s the Trois Frères Distillery (who make the Takamaka brand of rums), on the main island of Mahé. This distillery is of relatively recent vintage, being formed in 2002 by the d’Offay brothers, Richard and Bernard (although there are three of them, hence the name), together with their father Robert d’Offay.

Seychelles is considered to be part of Africa; the earliest recorded sighting by Europeans took place in 1502 by the Portuguese Admiral Vasco da Gama, with the earliest recorded landing in 1609 by the crew of the “Ascension” under Captain Alexander Sharpeigh during a voyage for the British East India Company. The islands became a transit point for trade between Africa and Asia and even a haven for pirates.  In 1756 the French staked their claim, and named them after Jean Moreau de Séchelles, Louis XV’s Minister of Finance. By the 1790s the British took over during the Napoleonic Wars, with full control ceded to them by France upon the surrender of Mauritius in 1810, formalised in 1814 at the Treaty of Paris. The Seychelles became a crown colony separate from Mauritius in 1903 and gained independence from Britain in 1976.

Rum was first introduced to the Seychelles in the mid 16th century by the British Navy, with actual cultivation only becoming common in the late 1800s, primarily to supplement the sugar brought in by (infrequent) ships. Unsurprisingly, a local market in fermented cane juice called baka developed out of this, which were the beginnings of grass roots rum production on primitive backyard stills.  Mostly this tended to be rhum arrangé – a mixture of local rum and a blend of herbs and spices (cinnamon, dried fruit skins, vanilla etc), with each family having its own variation.

The Trois Frères Distillery was founded in 2002 and was originally located in Providence, an industrial area in the north east of Mahé.  Richard and Bernard d’Offay are both native Seychellois who spent their childhood in South Africa before returning to Mahé in their mid-twenties with the intention of making rums.  Initially they were a tiny two-man company, tinkering with the process and brands and marketing, but very much a niche operation. Their associations with rum were older than that, though: their grandfather had endlessly experimented with his small still and various spices (caramel, vanilla), and it could be said that all the two brothers did was formalize the enterprise by incorporating it.  

The company remained small, producing no more than 2000-3000 cases a year, almost all of it being sold locally; exports, such as they were, grew slowly. As many small countries with a colonial past have found, locals saw imported stuff as good and locally made as somehow less, an attitude that persists to this day. But after eight years of incremental progress, they were successful enough and reputable enough to put in a bid to operate La Plaine St. Andre (a national heritage site; it was once a spice plantation dating back to the 1700s but had fallen into disrepair and almost completely destroyed by fire in 1990). The d’Offay family was granted a 50-year lease for the property in the south east of Mahé, and they restored it over a period of two and half years in order to set up the distillery there (the restored La Grande Maison is open to the public).

Photo (c) GotRum magazine

Oddly for a distillery, they don’t grow their own sugar cane – the lack of flat land on Mahé precluded the development of large plantations; instead, they source it from a farmer’s cooperative representing several dozen cane famers on Mahé, and anywhere between one to three tonnes of cane is delivered twice a week.  The crushing provides the cane juice which is poured into fermentation tanks, where it stays for a maximum of five days — they use their own yeast for this, not “wild”. Then it gets run through either their pot or column stills – the first pass gives a distillate between 50-60%, it’s run through a second time, and then a third, resulting in a 94% final distillate, which is then transferred to a steel tank for twelve weeks, before being poured into various American oak barrels for ageing.  Some of course is drawn off and diluted to 69% ABV for the blanc, to which is added some high ester pot still distillate for kick.

By 2013 the company was successful enough to begin targeting the export market more seriously, as the feedback from tourists to the island (and that of the minimal exports they had made to that point) was quite positive.  They retained a London based branding agency to revamp the Takamaka Bay rums’ labels and bottle designs (previously done in-house by Richard’s brother-in-law), because they knew that presentation sells, and the international rum market was rife with brands possessing centuries old street cred which represented formidable competition for a young company such as theirs. By 2015 they were sending their rums to Europe (mostly to the UK and Germany – the latter distributes to the German, Swiss, Austrian and Dutch markets), but also to the UAE, China, Mauritius, Madagascar, the Maldives, South Africa and Djibouti.

Photo (c) Seychelles News Agency

While by 2015 the company had ramped up production to 40,000 cases of rum annually, they continued to face challenges, many imposed by the Seychelles’ relatively remote location.  All raw materials – bottles, caps, labels, boxes – are imported and scheduled carefully. David Boullé, the head distiller of Takamaka Bay (he’s a cousin, and joined them in 2005), remarked in a 2016 interview with GotRum magazine that “The limited amount of sugarcane available is probably our greatest constraint to rum production. There is a law in Seychelles that no sugarcane can be grown on land that can be used for food crops, thus there is a limit to the amount of cane land available.” However they do carry out an outreach program to provide a free consultation process for anyone wanting information on sugarcane cultivation, and slowly there are more local farmers who are planting small plots of cane as way of earning some extra cash.  

The company had also considered using molasses instead of juice to produce its rums, but costs were prohibitive and supply sporadic; there is some supplement to regular production with molasses based distillate, however, which makes the rums that do have such hybridization rather similar to Guadeloupe’s non-AOC rums. They are careful not to call their rums agricoles both for this reason, and because the word is restricted to rum production from the French Caribbean islands; also, TB’s fermentation, distillation and aging methods are different, so they opted not to use the term at all.

Takamaka, then, even after nearly two decades of gradually increased production, continues to be a relatively unknown company in the larger rum consciousness (outside the few countries where it’s sold).  It’s rarely, if ever mentioned on social media. Their stable of branded bottlings remains small. Yet, those few who have tried their work tend to be positive about it, so there’s definitely potential there.  The local market is still a major source of revenue, and one hopes that one day they will make a larger splash on the festival circuit around Europe or North America, so as to boost their exports.

However, as noted above, they do labour under the restriction of resource scarcity so there is an upper limit to how much rum they can produce at a margin that allows coverage of operating costs and continual re-investment, development and increased output, while retaining the unique profile and characteristics of terroire that the Seychelles can capitalize on.  I think that sooner or later they may chose to make a virtue out of the problem, not so much by increasing production as changing it, and going for the upscale boutique and high-end market where the unicorns of cask strength and/or ultra-aged rums reside.  Were they to do that, I have a feeling they would become known a lot further, a lot faster and a lot more, than they are now.  I wish them the best of luck.


Current Rums in Production

  • Takamaka Bay White Rum (43%)
  • Takamaka Bay Dark Spiced Rum (43%) Based on the d’Offay family’s original formula
  • Takamaka Bay Extra Noir (43%) Blend of 3YO aged sugarcane juice distillate and molasses distillate, plus caramel for colour.
  • Takamaka Bay St. André Rhum Vesou (40%) White rum, a blend of cane juice and molasses distillate.
  • Takamaka Bay St. André 8 year old (40%)
  • Takamaka Bay 69 Rhum Blanc (69%) Replaced the 72% Overproof

Sources

Feb 142019
 

Photo (c) Excellence Rhum

Few profiles in the rum world are as distinctive Port Mourant, deriving from DDL’s double wooden pot still in Guyana. Now, the Versailles single wooden pot still rums always struck me as bit ragged and fierce, requiring rare skill to bring to their full potential, while the Enmores are occasionally too subtle: but somehow the PM tends to find the sweet spot between them and is almost always a good dram, whether continentally or tropically aged.  I’ve consistently scored PM rums well, which may say more about me than the rum, but never mind.

Here we have another independent bottling from that still – it comes from the Excellence Collection put out by the French store Excellence Rhum (where I’ve dropped a fair bit of coin over the years). Which in turn is run by Alexandre Beudet, who started the physical store and its associated online site in 2013 and now lists close on two thousand rums of all kinds.  Since many stores like to show off their chops by issuing a limited “store edition” of their own, it’s not an illogical or uncommon step for them to take.

It’s definitely appreciated that it was released at a formidable 60.1% – as I’ve noted before, such high proof points in rums are not some fiendish plot meant to tie your glottis up in a pretzel (which is what I’ve always suspected about 151s), but a way to showcase an intense and powerful taste profile, to the max.

Certainly on the nose, that worked: hot and dry as the Sahara, it presented all the initial attributes of a pot still rum – paint, fingernail polish, rubber, acetones and rotten bananas to start, reminding me quite a bit of the Velier PM White and a lot fiercer than a gentler ultra-old rum like, oh the Norse Cask 1975. Once it relaxed I smelled brine, gherkins, sauerkraut, sweet and sour sauce, soya, vegetable soup, some compost and a lot of licorice, vanilla; and lastly, fruits that feel like they were left too long in the open sun close by Stabroek market.  Florals and spices, though these remain very much in the background. Whatever the case, “rich” would not be a word out of place to describe it.

If the aromas were rich, so was the palate: more sweet than salt, literally bursting with additional flavours – of anise, caramel, vanilla, tons of dark fruits (and some sharper, greener ones like apples).  There was also a peculiar – but far from unpleasant – hint of sawdust, cardboard, and the mustiness of dry abandoned rooms in a house too large to live in. But when all is said and done, it was the florals, licorice and darker fruits that held the heights, and this continued right down to the finish, which was long and aromatic, redolent of port-infused cigarillos, more licorice, creaminess, with a touch of rubber, acetones…and of course more fruits.

While PM rums do reasonably well with me because that’s the way my tastes bend, a caveat is that I also taste a whole lot of them, and that implies a PM rum had better be damned good to excite my serious interest and earn some undiluted fanboy favour and fervor….and a truly exemplary score.  I started into the rum with a certain indulgent, “Yeah, let’s see what we have this time” attitude, and then stuck around to appreciate what had been accomplished. This is not the best of all Port Mourants, and I think a couple of drops of water might be useful, but the fact is that any rum of its family tree which I have on the go for a few hours and several glasses, is by no means a failure. It provides all the tastes which showcase the country, the still and the bottler, and proves once again that even with all of the many variations we’ve tried, there’s still room for another one.

(#599)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • Major points for the back label design, which provides all the info we seek, but forgot to mention how many bottles we get to buy (thanks go to Fabien who pointed me in his comment below, to a link that showed 247 bottles).
    • Distilled May 2005, bottled April 2017.
    • Angel’s share 31%
    • 20% Tropical, 80% Continental Ageing
Feb 112019
 

Rumaniacs Review #091 | 0598

Overproof rums started out as killer cocktail ingredients, meant to boost anything they were put into by, I dunno, a lot. For many years they were pretty much the bruisers of the barflies — low-life, lightly-aged mixers (or occasionally unaged whites) which only islanders drank neat, largely because they had the least amount of time to waste getting hammered.  Still, as time passed and cask strength rums became more fashionable (and appreciated), the gap between the strength of a cool aged casker and an overproof shrank, to the point where a 75% bottling of a “regular” rum that’s not labelled as an overproof is not out of the realms of possibility – I know several that stop just a bit short of that.  

One of the old style overproofs is this rum from the Takamaka Bay rum company located on Mahe, the main island of the 115-island archipelago comprising the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean off East Africa. The company is of relatively recent vintage, being formed in 2002 by the d’Offay brothers, Richard and Bernard d’Offay, and sourcing sugar cane from around the island – they are, according to their website’s blog, one of the few distilleries in the world that make rum from both juice and molasses.  They have two copper pot stills and a columnnar one, and this white rum, now discontinued and replaced with the 69 Rhum Blanc, is an unaged, unfiltered column still distillate with possibly a touch of high ester rum from the pot still. I’ve read on a Czech site that the rum is triple distilled from cane juice and then diluted, which was later confirmed by Bernard d’Offay.

Colour – White

Strength – 72% ABV

Nose –  Sweet and light soda pop, like a 7-Up…with fangs. Tons of herbs here, grass, thyme, mint, light lemon zest. Sugar water.  Light fruity esters. Bananas, nutmeg, cardamom.

Palate – Fruit juice poured into my glass, clean and light.  There’s the crispness of green apples, cane juice and red cashews, melding well with the tart creamy sweetness of ginips and soursop.  Herbs remained – parsley, dill and mint. It was hot and delicately sweet, presenting with force, yet it also reminded me somewhat of a tequila, what with a background of brine and olives and a faint oily texture on the tongue

Finish – Quite good. Long, dry, spicy, fruity, redolent of bananas, red currants, blackberries, watermelon and sugar water.  

Thoughts – It’s really quite a good rum, and I’m sorry to see it’s no longer being made. Before I got a response from Takamaka Bay, I thought the column still produced this from cane juice spirit (this proved to be the case). It’s a mixer for sure, though anyone who finds it and tries it neat won’t be entirely disappointed.  It’s a fiery, flavourful white which may now no longer be made, but lives on in its slightly lesser-proofed brother…which I have a feeling I’ll be looking for quite soon.

(84/100)

Feb 082019
 

Velier has always had this way of sneaking in something obscure among all their major series of rums — some smaller or very individual bottling that doesn’t so much fly under the radar as not excite quite the same rabid fly-off-the-shelves obsessiveness as, for example, the old Demeraras or Caronis.  So there are those Basseterres from 1995 and 1997, for example, or the Courcelles from 1972, or that 1954 RASC army rum I’m still searching for.

Another may well be the Very Old Royal Navy rum released in 2017.  At the time, it got quite a lot of press (and Wes and Simon were the lucky guys who got to write about it first), yet it disappeared from our mental rum-map fairly quickly, and nowadays you’ll look hard on the social media fora to find mention of it.  Its place in the sun has been taken by the Habitation whites, or Foursquare collaborations, or the National Rums of Jamaica quartet, or whatever else emerges every month from Luca’s fertile imagination. Still – I submit that it may be a forgotten steal even at its price, and when I tried it, it impressed me quite a bit.

The specs are mentioned on the label, but let’s just quickly run through the data anyway. This is a full proof rum bottled at the old standard “proof” – “Navy” strength, or 57.18%.  The word Navy hearkens back not only to this ABV, but to the fact that it tries to recreate the original blend of island rums that was issued to the British fleet back in the day – given the change in the blend over the centuries it’s probably fruitless to try, but points for the effort nevertheless. So, inside of it we have the following components:  Guyanese rum, more than 15 years old, aged in Europe (said to be Enmore but I have my doubts); Jamaica pot still rum, fully tropical-aged, more than 12 years old (Worthy Park plus a few others); and a tropically aged Caroni more than twenty years old. Now, the label also notes an average age of 17.42 years, which suggests a somewhat higher proportion of the Caroni, and the continental ageing of the Demerara points to a rather lesser influence from that part of the blend.  I’d expect to have dominant notes of Caroni, some Jamaican funk hiding behind that, and the Demerara part bringing up the rear to round things off.

The nose suggested that this wasn’t far off. Mild for the strength, warm and aromatic, the first notes were deep petrol-infused salt caramel ice cream (yeah, I know how that sounds).  Combining with that were some rotten fruit aromas (mangoes and bananas going off), brine and olives that carried the flag for the Jamaicans, with sharp bitter woody hints lurking around; and, after a while, fainter wooden and licorice notes from the Mudlanders (I’d suggest Port Mourant but could be the Versailles, not sure).  I also detected brown sugar, molasses and a sort of light sherry smell coiling around the entire thing, together with smoke, leather, wood, honey and some cream tarts. Quite honestly, there was so much going on here that it took the better part of an hour to get through it all. It may be a navy grog, but definitely is a sipper’s delight from the sheer olfactory badassery.

That complexity was also evident on the palate, which started warm, sweet and darkly bitter, like rich chocolate, and remained dry throughout.  With coffee grounds and pickles in vinegar. The Caroni side of things was there (diesel, rubber, wax, all the usual markers) but somewhat less than their predominance on the nose, and this was a good thing, since it allowed the Demerara flavours to get in on the action – dark fruit, plums, wood, raisins, licorice, flambeed bananas, cloves and cinnamon.  Even the Jamaicans took a back seat, though the funk persisted, just without force. Overall, it tasted a little creamy, with flowers and honey that can be sensed but not quite come to grips with. And the finish? Totally solid, long and lasting, black tea, anise, plums, blackberries to which was added licorice, brown sugar, and caramel drizzle over vanilla ice cream.

Wow.  It’s tough to know what to make of this, there’s so much action in the tasting experience that it could be accused with some justification, of being too busy, what with three distinct and well known profiles vying for your attention.  But I know I liked it, a lot, though also feeling that the Caroni dominance at the inception could have been toned down a shade. Overall? A worthy addition to the canon. It gives the “official” thousand-buck Black Tot a real run for its money while leaving all the other pretenders in the dust.

I say that with some irony, because Navy rums of whatever stripe are a dime a dozen, and one of the more recognized monikers in the rumworld.  A sense of ho-hum permeates the more common offerings (they’re considered medium class tipple by many), assuming they’re even made at the proper strength or have the proper combination of Caribbean components. And those blends are endlessly tinkered with – even Pusser’s, who make much of their possession of the “true” Navy rum recipe (which is a blend of several nations’ grog) recently changed the recipe of the 15 YO and Navy rum to being principally Guyanese rum, and still issued that at below par strength.  So having another one on the market doesn’t exactly shiver the timbers of the rumiverse.

But speaking for myself, I now regret not having bought a bottle back in 2017; at the time I was buying a bunch of others, including the 70th anniversary collection, and it didn’t rate that high for me.  Once I got into it, once I relaxed, let the combined flavours wash over nose and tongue, I couldn’t stop writing. It starts slow, builds up a head of steam, and then simply charges through your defenses to give an experience like few others.  It’s a terrific rum, and even if it wasn’t called “navy” and was just itself, it would still retain a special place both in my tasting memory, and on my shelf.

(#597)(88/100)


Other Notes

  • While it’s not stated on the label, and remains unconfirmed by Velier directly, one website noted the blend as comprising Caroni, Port Mourant and Hampden.  While the source was unattributed, it’s probably correct based on the tasting.
  • Other reviews you might like to read are The Fat Rum Pirate (4 out of 5 stars) and The Rum Shop Boy (85/100)
  • Nico from Coeur de Chauffe pointed me to the 2017 Whisky Live presentation video where Luca spoke about this rum (in French, see the 15:50 mark) and noted its Jamaican components as mostly Worthy Park 2005, with a touch of New Yarmouth and Hampden.  The other pieces are Enmore 1990, and Caroni 1996.  I still have my issues with the Enmore 1990, since at that time the Versailles single wooden pot still was there and the woody notes of the profile remind me more of that than the wooden coffey still with the Enmore name.

 

Feb 042019
 

Last October, I ran into Pete Holland of the Floating Rum Shack at the Berlin Rum Fest (literally – I tripped and nearly fell into his shelf of rums, and he saved them by interposing himself so they would not be damaged, even if I was).  Although we, as long-existing rum bloggers, knew of each other — all of us know each other in the Oasis — we had only met once before, so I bee-lined over to see what he was doing. It turned out he was stewarding the line of rums from the cheekily named “That Boutique-y Rum Company” (hereinafter referred to as TBRC) a division of Atom Brands, which in turn runs the Master of Malt online spirits shop (and which also self releases and self reviews the Cornelius Ampleforth rum, if you recall). Pete steadied me, indicated the whole range on display, and asked what I wanted to try.

I looked at all the familiar countries, ignoring most, looking for the unusual, not the standard – something the brand has done that takes us into new territory to awe and enthuse (the way Foursquare has done with the ECS, L’Espirt is doing with its 2019 whites, Rum Nation did with the Supreme Lords, and Velier did with…well, just about everything).  These days, I want something weird, off-kilter, new, exciting, different – and still tasty.

Alongside the Bajan, Mudland, Jamaican and other suspects (all of which had arresting and brightly-drawn, brightly-coloured labels that took Bristol Spirits’ colour scheme out back and whupped it), there was one from Travellers (Belize) and Bellevue (Guadeloupe)…this looked promising.  But after five minutes of chatting, I was having difficulty making a decision so, I asked him: “If you had one rum out of this entire selection you’d want me to try, which one would it be?”

Now you could tell that Pete, who is a consultant for the company, not an ambassador, really liked pretty much everything, which is why he kept his glass on the go the entire time from different bottles (under the pretext of helping out the bright-eyed but inexperienced rum chums swirling around the booth). “Yes mon, me drinkin’ de same rum dat me showin’ you, so it gotta be good,” you could easily imagining him saying as he avoided braining passers-by with his tasting glass using graceful moves of the arm, never spilling a drop.  So I was curious what his own favourite was, shorn of the need to sell anything to me.

He hesitated, seeing the trap, but then grinned, sipped again, and then pointed at a bottle off to the side, sharing the same colour scheme as the Enmore and the Bellevue. It was from O Reizinho, a Madeiran outfit of which I knew nothing except that it was from Madeira (which, as an aside, is an EU-recognized agricole producer). “That one.”  And without losing his glass in the one hand, he proceeded to pour me a shot with the other, hefty enough to render me catatonic, then stood back to observe the results (much the way The Sage had done years back when I had tried my first clairin, the Sajous).

Strictly speaking, the rum is not that strong – “only” 49.7%, which is a couple of whiskers away from standard. It was made in Madeira, which intrigued me, as I really enjoyed the Engenho Novo rums made by Hinton and Rum Nation; and it was a pot still rum, an unaged rum, and a “white,” all pluses in my book.  And anyway, how could you not want to sample a rum named “The Kinglet”? I know I did, and not just because of his recommendation.

It didn’t disappoint, starting out with a firm aroma of salt and wax, very powerful.  Earth mustiness, cardboard, loam, olives, bags of salt. Like a clairin, but softer. Fresh and deep, edging “crisp” by a whisker, and while the herbal notes of dill and grass and fresh sugar cane sap were there, they were not so much dominant as coexistent with the other notes mentioned before. A really outstanding set of aromas, I thought, with an excellent balancing act carried off in fine style.

And the taste, the mouthfeel – wow, really nice.  Warm, sweet, dry and fruity, with raspberries, bananas, pineapple, papaya, salt olives all dancing their way across the tongue, without any sharp nastiness to spoil the enjoyment: I like rums north of 60%, of course, but there was no fault to be found in the strength that was chosen here because even at that low power, it thrummed across the palate and still managed to provide a clear demo of all the proper notes.  Excellent sipping dram as long as you’re okay with a not-so-furious amalgamation of sweet-brine-soya-miso-soup admixture. If it faltered some, it was on the finish – and for the same reason the nose and palate were so good, i.e., the muted strength. That didn’t invalidate it (to me), and it was pleasant, sweet, soft, warm, firm and fruity, with just a little edge carrying over to complete the experience.

O Reizinho means “Little King” or “Kinglet” depending on whose translator you use, and is a small distillery perched on a hillside on Madeira’s east coast by Santa Cruz.  It is run by Joao Pedro Ferreira, who returned from a sojourn in South Africa some years back to go into the rum business with his father. They source cane locally, crushing it in one pass only (no messing around with a 2nd pass or adding water) and then let it stand in a week-long fermentation period.  Then it’s run through a wood-fired steam-injected pot still, which on a good day can provide a dozen runs. So French island nomenclature notwithstanding, this is an agricole spirit, and it adheres to all the markers of the cane juice rhums, while providing its own special filip to the style.

Initially, to get things going for the first release, TBRC bought some of those rums from a broker (Main Rum) the way so many new and old independents did and do.  But this one was bought direct from O Reizinho, and the intention in the future is to continue to do so, and to go with both aged and unaged products from this tiny distillery.  If they keep bottling — and TBRC keeps issuing — juice as fine as this, then all I can say is that the future is a bright one for them both, and I look forward to trying as much as I can from TBRC’s extended range of rums generally, and O Reizinho specifically.  They’ve enthused me that much with just this one rum.

(#596)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Batch 1 of this rum is 487 bottles
  • Just for the record, I really enjoyed the brightly coloured, lighthearted design of the labels, which are a nice counterpoint to the minimalist “facts-only” labels currently in vogue. The artist is from the outfit Jim’ll Paint It (FB Link)(Website)- ATOM brands came up with the brief, then Jim brought it to life.  In his work he reminds me somewhat of Jeff Carlisle, who did “Another Night at the Warp Core Cafe.
Feb 022019
 

Rumaniacs Review #090 | 0595

We’re all familiar with the regular roundup of major Appleton rums like the Reserve, the 12 YO, the 15 YO, 21 YO and 30 (old version or new), as well as their halo rum du jour, the 50 YO. But the company also had and has distinct and not so well known brands for sale locally (or niche export markets), such as Edwin Charley, Coruba, Conquering Lion, JBW Estate and Cocomania.  And as the years turned, the company outlived some of its own brands – for example the previously well-known One Dagger, Two Dagger and Three Dagger rums which went out in the 1950s.  Another casualty of the times was the C.J. Wray Dry White Rum, which was launched in 1991 as a broadside to Bacardi; at the time there weren’t many light whites out there and the Superior was the market leader, so Wray & Nephew decided to take lessons from the very successful premium vodka campaign of Absolut (against Smirnoff) and launched their own, supposedly upscale, alternative.

But by the early-to-mid 2000s, the Dry was discontinued.  The reasons remain obscure: perhaps on the export market, it couldn’t compete with the vastly more popular poor man’s friend and bartender’s staple, the 63% overproof, being itself a meek and mild 40%.  Perhaps there was some consolidation going on and it was felt that the Appleton White was enough.  Maybe it just wasn’t deemed good enough by the rum drinkers of the day, or the margins made it an iffy proposition if it couldn’t sell in quantity.

Technical details are murky. All right, they’re practically non-existent. I think it’s a filtered column still rum, diluted down to standard strength, but lack definitive proof – that’s just my experience and taste buds talking, so if you know better, drop a line.  No notes on ageing – however, in spite of one reference I dug up which noted it as unaged, I think it probably was, just a bit.

Colour – White

Strength – 40%

Nose – Light, mild and sweet.   Dry?  Not for this guy’s schnozz.  Initial aromas narrow in on vanilla, nougat, white toblerone and almonds, with a little salt and citrus peel to liven up the party.  It’s very soft (no surprise), gentle, and warm, and going just by the nose, is perfectly acceptable to have neat, though I saw some fans posting back in 2008 who were itching to try it in a daquiri.

Palate – Not as interesting as the nose, really, but every bit as nice.  Tinned cherries and pineapples in syrup was the first thought that ocurred to me as I sipped it; a trace of salt and brine, with perhaps half an olive, vanilla, almonds, and – if you crease your brow, sweat a bit and concentrate – citrus, raisins, cinnamon and maybe a shaving of fresh ginger.

Finish – Short, mellow, slightly fruity, a little herbal.  Nothing to write home about.

Thoughts – For a low-end white, it’s actually quite an interesting drink.  Sales must have been low, margins too scrawny, reactions too muted, and it was put down as an act of mercy (or so the storyteller in me supposes).  That’s too bad because while the profile does suggest that it was doctored (entirely a personal opinion – it lacks something of the punch and edge of a clean and unmessed-with rum, though this may simply be over-enthusiastic filtration), it’s a neat little rumlet if your expectations are kept low and you like easy.  Maybe, had it been left in place to gather a head of steam, it might have found some legs — these days, good luck finding any outside an estate sale or an old salt’s collection.

(80/100)

 

Jan 312019
 

More than four years ago I wrote about the Rhum Vieux Millésimé 1998 10 YO made by Dzama and concluded that I was pretty stoked to see what else the brand had in the larder.  It’s taken a long time for me to make good on that desire, so here we have something lower down on the totem pole from the same company, and I thought it was a good effort, for all its youth and in spite of the niggly questions it raised.

Let’s refresh the memory first: for the geographically challenged, Madagascar is that huge island off the south east coast of Africa; and the Dzama rums are made by Vidzar, formed in 1980 due to the efforts of Mr. Lucien Fohine, who noted that the small sugar factory on the tiny island of Nosy Be produced a distillate that had distinctive flavours which persisted into the final distilled products…mostly low level rum for local consumption, to that point. He concluded it came from the ylang-ylang plant (also known as the macassar oil plant, or the perfume tree) whose roots intermingled with that of the cane.

He formed a company Vidzar (a contraction of Vieux Rhum de Dzamandzar), which initially concerned itself with whisky bottling. It was located close to the sugar cane fields of Nosy Be, near to a village called Dzamadzar, but a few years later, as their operations expanded, they transferred production to Antananarivo (the capital, in the center of the island) The company, which now claims a majority of rum market share in Madagascar, makes a range of rums, including the Dzama Club, 3 YO and 6 YO, the Millésimé 1998 10 Year Old, Dzama 15 and 25 year old rums and a Cuvée Noire. Most of these are untried by the vast majority of rum drinkers, and remain relatively unknown, though many have won prizes between 2010 and 2015, in Miami, Paris, Berlin and Madrid.

All that said, there isn’t much on the company website about the technical details regarding the 3 year old we’re looking at today. It’s a column still rum, unadded-to, aged in oak barrels, and my sample clocked in at 52%, which I think is an amazing strength for a rum so young – most producers tend to stick with the tried-and-true 40-43% (for tax and export purposes) when starting out, but not these guys.

Now, the theory is that the oils and perfumes of the various botanicals to be found on Madagascar (vanilla, cloves, pepper are often cited) leach from their roots into the soil and are intermixed with the cane plants’ own root systems, into their stems, and thence to the ultimate distillate. I’m no chemist or botanist, but one could just as easily wonder why similar processes aren’t observed on the spice island (Grenada) for example, so I reserve judgement on that score.  

Be that as it may, the nose is quietly rich for a rum aged a mere three years – not Velier-Demerara-go-for-the-brass-ring rich, just more than one would expect going in. This nose was initially redolent of creamy feta cheese, brine, red olives and cashew notes, and had a nice line of rotting bananas and funk coiling about in the background which provided an underpinning of real character.  It also gave off subtler aromas of candied oranges, pears and other light fruits, just not enough to take over and make it a fruit bomb. But towards the end there was a more dominant element of toffee, coffee grounds and vanilla which I thought pleasant but overdone, especially since it was delivered with some real force.

Though it teetered right on the edge of being too hot, it presented a solid if sharp drink, an amalgam of salt and sweet…and a lot of brown sugar and vanilla  There were bananas, strawberries, cherries, and some of that tart and creamy sensation you get from an unsweetened fruit smoothie made from, oh, firm yellow mangoes and pineapple.  The vanilla remained, the coffee disappeared, and amusingly, I could actually taste sweet green peas. Much of the saltiness and nuttiness of the nose was gone, though still noticeable, and it did not unbalance the fruity aspects.  The finish was where it failed, I thought – it was medium long, somewhat spicy, just rather mild, with closing notes of fruits, vanilla, salted caramel, coconut shavings, and a little citrus.

Well, what to make of this? The nose was decent, the palate was nearly as good, a reasonable drink even by itself….particularly if you like the hints of spices. Does that mean natural or other spices have been added?  They say no, and hydrometer tests show no obscuration… but I can’t help but wonder.  Rums this young tend to be rather sharp and retain competing notes that saw across the palate, better off in mixed drinks than to have neat; the Dzama 3 YO was sippable and had the edge toned down, and for that to happen at that strength raises the eyebrow.  However, in the absence of more information, I’ll leave it there for now as a note for those who want to know.

That first Dzama I tried, the 1998 10 YO, had what at first sight seemed like an utterly standard profile that then expanded into something quite unconventional and interesting. The 3 year old is not on that level. The vanilla is a shade too dominant, and while fortunately having enough other taste elements in there to move beyond that, it remains ultimately straightforward.  But it is, nevertheless, a good drink for what it says it is, and demonstrates that a rum doesn’t have to be the latest Velier, Worthy Park or Foursquare juice, or from some independent’s minuscule outturn, to be a rum worth checking out.

(#594)(80/100)


Other Notes

Wes was much more disapproving of the spiced profile in his review.  It’s his hydrometer test I referenced.

Jan 282019
 

Speaking in general terms, my personal drift away from Latin- or South American rums over the last few years derives from the feeling that they’re a little too laid back, and lack pizzazz.  They’re not bad, just placid and easy going and gentle, and when you add to that the disclosure issues, you can perhaps understand why I’ve moved on to more interesting profiles.

Far too many producers from the region do too much unadventurous blending (Canalero), don’t actually have a true solera in play (Dictador), have a thing for light column still products which may or may not be tarted up (Panama Red), and are resting on the laurels of old houses and family recipes (Maya) whose provenance can hardly be established beyond a shadow of doubt (Mombacho or Hechicera).  Moreover, there is too often a puzzling lack of easily-available background regarding such rums (more than just marketing materials) which is out of step with the times.

Still, I have to be careful to not paint with too wide a brush – there are many good rums from the region and I’m not displeased with all of them. In a curious turnabout, my favourites are not always released by from or by Latin American companies — at least, not directly — but by independents who take the original distillate from a broker and then release it as is.  This avoids some of the pitfalls of indeterminate blending, additives, dilution and source, because you can pretty much count on a small indie outfit to tell you everything they themselves know about what they stuffed into their bottle.

That’s not to say that in this case the Compagnie is a poster child for such disclosure – the distillery on this one is noted as being “Secret”, for example. But I suspect that Florent was a bit tongue in cheek here, since any reasonably knowledgeable anorak can surmise that the 11 YO rum being reviewed here is a Flor de Cana distillate, column still, and aged in Europe.

Compared to the Mombacho 1989 that was being tried alongside it (and about which I still know too little), the nose was much more interesting – perhaps this was because the Compagnie didn’t mess around with a soft 43%, but went full bore at 69.1% for their favoured clients, the Danes (this rum is for the Danish market). Yet for all the strength, it presented as almost delicate — light, fruity (pears, guavas, watermelon., papaya), with a nice citrus tang running through it. When it opened up some more, I also smelled apples, pears, honey, cherries in syrup, and a pleasant deeper scent of aromatic tobacco, oak and smoke, and a touch of vanilla at the back end.

The palate was also very robust (to say the least). It was sharp, but not raw – some of the rougher edges had been toned down somewhat – and gave off rich tastes of honey, stewed apples, more sweet tobacco and smoke, all of it dripping with vanilla. Those light fruits evident on the nose were somewhat overpowered by the strength, yet one could still pick out some cherries and peaches and apples, leading into a very long and highly enjoyable finish with closing notes of gherkins, brine, cereals, vanilla, and a last flirt of light sweet fruits.

Perhaps it was a mistake to try that supposed 19 YO Mombacho together with this independent offering from France.  On the face of it they’re similar, both from Nicaragua and both aged a fair bit — but it’s in the details (and the sampling) that the differences snap more clearly into focus, and show how the independents deserve, and are given, quite a bit more trust than some low-key company which is long on hyperbole and short on actual facts.

As noted above, neither company says from which distillery its rums hail, though of course I’m sure they’re Flor de Cana products, both of them.  We don’t know where Mombacho ages its barrels; CDI can safely be assumed to be Europe. The CDI is stronger, is more intense and simply tastes better, versus the much softer and easier (therefore relatively unchallenging) Mombacho, even if it lacks the latter’s finish in armagnac casks. Beyond that, we get rather more from the Compagnie – barrel number, date of distillation and bottling, true age, plus a little extra – the faith, built up over many years of limited bottlings, that we’re getting what they tell us we are, and the confidence that it’s true. That alone allowed me to relax and enjoy the rum much more than might otherwise have been the case.

(#593)(84.5/100)


Other notes

  • Controls this time around were the aforementioned Mombacho, the Black Adder 12YO, and another Nicaraguan from CDI, aged for seventeen years.  I dipped in and out of the sample cabinet for the comparators mentioned in the first paragraph — not to re-evaluate them, just to get a sense of their profiles as opposed to this one.
  • Distilled December 2004, bottled April 2016, 242 bottle-outturn
  • We should not read too much into the “Secret” appellation for the rum’s source.  Sometimes, companies have a clause in their bulk rum sales contracts that forbids a third party re-bottler (i.e., an independent) from mentioning the distillery of origin.
Jan 222019
 

Haiti is unique as a nation because it is where the only successful slave revolt in the world took place, at the turn of the 18th century. Sadly, it is now the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and successive dictatorships, foreign interference and natural disasters have left the place in shambles.

That any businesses manage to survive in such an environment is a testament to their resilience, their determination, their ingenuity….and the quality of what they put out the door. The country has become the leading world producer of vetiver (a root plant used to make essential oils and fragrances), exports agricultural products and is a tourist destination, yet perhaps it is for rum that its exports are best known, and none more so than those of Barbancourt, formed in 1862 and still run by the descendants of the founder.

Until the mid 20th century, Barbancourt was something of a cottage industry, selling primarily to the local market.  In 1949 they relocated the sugar cane fields of the Domaine Barbancourt in the plaine du Cul-de-Sac region in the south east, and by 1952 ramped up production, increased exports and transformed the brand into a major producer of quality rum, a distinction it has held ever since.  

The rhum, based on sugar cane juice not molasses, used to be double-distilled, using pot stills in a process similar to that used to produce cognac (Dupré Barbancourt came from the cognac-producing region of Charente which was undoubtedly his inspiration); however, nowadays they use a more efficient (if less character-driven) three-column continuous distillation system, where the first column strips the solid matter from the wash and the second and third columns serve to concentrate the resultant spirit…so what is coming to the market now is not what once was made by the company.

Haiti has no shortage of other rhum producing companies – but smaller outfits like Moscoso Distillers or LaRue Distillery are much less well-known and export relatively little, (and back-country clairins are in a different class altogether)…and this makes Barbancourt the de facto rum standard bearer for the half island, and one of the reasons I chose it for this series. This is not to dismiss the efforts of all the others, or the the artisanal quality of the clairins that Velier has brought to world attention since 2014 — just to note that they all, to some extent, live in the shadow of Barbancourt; which in turn, somewhat like Mount Gay, seems in danger of being forgotten as a poster boy for Haiti, now that the pure artisanal rum movement gathers a head of steam.

The current label of the 8YO

Barbancourt’s rhums are not issued at full proof: they prefer a relatively tame 40-43%, and every possible price point and strength is not catered to.  The company has a relatively small stable of products: the Blanc, the 3-star 4 Year Old, the 5-star 8 Year Old and the flagship 15 year old (Veronelli’s masterful 25 year old is a Barbancourt rhum, but not issued by them).  Though if one wanted to get some, then independent bottlers like Berry Bros., Bristol Spirits, Duncan Taylor, Cadenhead, Samaroli, Plantation and Compagnie des Indes (among others) do produce stronger and more exacting limited offerings for the enthusiasts.

Yet even with those few rhums they make, whatever the competition, and whether one calls it a true agricole or not, the rhums coming from Barbancourt remain high on the quality ladder and no rumshelf could possibly be called complete without at least one of them.  After trying and retrying all three major releases, my own conclusion was that at the intersection of quality and price, the one that most successfully charts a middle course between the older and the younger expressions is the 5-star 8 year old (I looked at it last way back in 2010, as well as one earlier version from back in the 1970s) which remains one of the workhorses of the company and the island, an excellent mid-level rum that almost defines Barbancourt.

It does display, however, somewhat of a schizophrenic profile. Take the nose, for example – it almost seems like a cross between a molasses based rum and an agricole.  While it certainly possesses the light, herbal aroma of a cane-juice distillate, it also smells of a light kind of brown sugar and molasses mixed up with some bananas and vanilla (it was aged in French oak on Haiti, which may account for the latter). There’s also a sly briny background, combined with a pleasant hints of nougat and well polished leather, plus the subdued acidity of green apples, grapes and cumin.  Not all that intense at 43%, but excellent as an all-rounder for sure.

What the nose promises, the palate delivers, and yet that peculiar dichotomy continues.  It’s soft given the strength, initially tasting of caramel, toblerone, almonds and vague molasses and vanilla (again).  Brine and olives. Spices – cumin, cinnamon, plus raisins, a certain delicate grassiness and maybe a plum or two (fruitiness is there, just understated).  Nope, it doesn’t feel like a completely cane juice distillate, or, at best, if feels like an amalgam leading neither one way or the other, and the close sums all that up.  It’s medium long, with salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, a bit of raisins and plums, a fine line of citrus, a little cinnamon dusting, and a last reminder of oaky bitterness in a relatively good,  dry finish.

What makes the Barbancourt 8 YO so interesting — even unique — is the way the makers played with the conventions and steered a center line that draws in lovers of other regions while not entirely abandoning the French island antecedents. It reminds me more of a Guadeloupe rhum than an out-and-out agricole from Martinique, with perhaps a pinch of Bajan thrown in.  However, it’s in no way heavy enough to invite direct comparisons to any Demerara or Jamaican product.

So, does it fail as a Key Rum because of its indeterminate nature, or because it lacks the fierce pungency of a clairin, the full grassy nature of a true agricole?

Not at all, and not to me.  It’s a completely solid rhum with its own clear profile, that succeeds at being drinkable and enjoyable on all levels, without being visibly exceptional in any specific way and sold at a price point that makes it affordable to the greater rum public out there. Many reviewers and most drinkers have come across it at least once in their journey (much more so than those who have tried clairins) and few have anything bad to say about it.  It’s been made for decades, is well known and well regarded — not just because it’s from Haiti, but because it also has a great price to value ratio. There’s a lot of talk about “gateway” rums, cheaper and sometimes-adulterated rums that are good enough to enjoy and savour, that lead to more and better down the road. It’s usually applied to the Zacapas, Zayas, Diplos and younger rums of this world, but if you ever want to get more serious about aged agricoles, then the Barbancourt 8 YO may actually be one of those that actually deserves the title, and remains, even after all these years, a damned fine place to start your investigations.

(#592)(84/100)


Other Notes

In a curious coincidence, a post on reddit that did a brief review of this rhum went up just a few days before this was published. There are some good links contained within the commentary.