May 222019
 

Let me run you past the tasting notes of this lower-proofed, higher-aged companion rum to the Laodi White I wrote about last time. It was an amber-coloured 42% which was aged, according to the rep at the 2019 rhumfest in Paris, for 5 years in French oak…so it seemed like it would be relatively tame and mild, taking into account the milquetoast strength and a barely-enough aging regimen (at least, compared to its unaged 56% blanc bro’).

But it wasn’t. To begin with, the nose – well, that was quite a nose, a Cyrano de Bergerac of rum noses.  It was big, it was odd, it was startling and overall rather impossible to ignore. It smelled of old bookcases and old books in a disused manor-house library, of glue holding tattered paper together, of dark furniture and its varnish, and of a gone-to-seed aristocrat smoking an aromatic cigar while wearing a pair of brand new leather brogues still reeking of polish.  It was a rum that was so peculiar that it encouraged equally peculiar phrasing just to describe it properly…at least at the inception. And after a while it did settle down to somewhat more traditional notes, and then we got a basketful of dark, ripe fruits – prunes, plums and apricots set off by the brighter and chirpier red currants and pomegranates, behind which lurked a faint aroma of coffee and unsweetened chocolate and a very pleasant nutty hint.

It smelled light and delicate, and dark and heavy, all at the same time, and one could only wonder what the thing could possibly taste like after such an entrance.  “Flavourful” is one word that could be used without apology. The dustiness of age receded into memory and a nicely solid rum emerged and snapped into focus. It tasted of caramel, toffee, blancmange, white chocolate, almonds, coffee, vanilla, breakfast spices, cinnamon – all the expected hits, I guess you could say.  But it took a step up once the fruits come marching in, because then there was a balanced offset of tart fruits to the firm and thick tastes that came before: prunes and plums, as well as guavas, overripe mangoes, peaches in syrup, green peas (not a fruit, I know) – and a much stronger shading of coffee grounds, as if this thing was channelling Dictador or something.  It never quit went went away, that coffee taste, even on the finish, which was well balanced but far too short, ending with a final exhale, a last shuddering sigh, of fruit and caramel and vanilla, and then was gone.

So, all in all, a surprisingly aromatic rum from Laodi. Just to recap very briefly, this is a Laos-located, Japanese-run distillery on the Thai border, who are perhaps more known for their flavoured low-proof “marriage” rums (coming in coffee, plum, coconut, passion fruit and sugar cane varieties); they use a vaccuum-distillation machine to produce a rhum from cane juice at 47% or so and then rest it in stainless steel tanks for up to five years for the Brown rhum.

Yet they do not use actual barrels in their production process. “Ageing in oak barrels requires means that we do not have,” said Mr. Ikuzo Inoue to Damien Sagnier in a 2017 interview, and so, in an interesting departure from the norm, the company uses a different technique – it dumps French oak chips into the vat (this is also mentioned casually and without elaboration on their website) and that provides the “aged” profile, which, after all, is just the interaction between wood and spirit.  By varying the amount of chips, and the amount of char they have (and so the surface area in contact with the spirit), it is therefore possible to extract a rhum at the other end which has a more intense profile than an equivalently barrel-only-aged product.

What this means is that by common parlance, the rum is not aged at all – it is infused. Moreover, the process – both distillation and infusion – means that elements of the profile deriving from oxidation and evaporation are lacking, and there is a minimal angel’s share from the steel vats. To their credit, nowhere does Laodi say that their rhum is “aged X years” and I think the terminology used by the rep in response to my questions was not meant to imply true ageing.  It does raise some flags, though, because there is no real regulation of or accepted terminology for this kind of flavour enhancement / infusion / ersatz ageing process. The closest one can get is the process of using boisé in cognac, or creative enhancement often imputed to low-rent rum brands. Laodi might not have intended it, but surely this methodology will create food for thought for regulators and commentators in the years to come.

All that aside, for me as a reviewer, I have to ask, does it work?  I’d say yes it does – I mean, there were a lot more flavour elements coming out of the Brown than I was expecting.  I think the rhum is tasty, a bit on the weak side, too thin at the end and needs some more boosting, but a pleasant cane juice spirit that tastes aged (Mr. Sagnier himself remarked that he could not tell the difference), and is more enjoyable than that age suggests it might be.  The issues it raises, though, are likely to trouble rum chums long after the bottle they bought is finished and they move on to the next one.

(#626)(82/100)


Other notes

Some of the questions that occurred to me as I was writing the last paragraphs on the subject of using wood chips were:

  • Does it fly in the face of the standard and accepted ways that ageing is defined? (the rum does, after all, rest for the requisite number of years in a vat, according to Laodi).
  • Will it be derided and decried by those who adhere to a more traditional way of ageing rum and consider it a form of cheating?  
  • How many chips are considered the equivalent of one barrel’s surface contact area? How big do they have to be? And, if you want to go to the extreme, why not just use boise or wood powder
  • Is there a limit?
  • Is it forbidden in any way? Is it legal?

I’m not sure. No standard I’ve read addresses any of these issues, not really. Before the sugar and additives debate took over, it was often mentioned (or accusations were made) that extra wood chips were added to barrels of some rums to make the flavour more intense, but this gradually fell out of public consciousness in favour of dosing, additives and wet barrels. I believe that at bottom, ageing can be defined as the complex interaction of wood and spirit over time, and whether the wood is on the outside (barrels) or the inside (chips) can be seen as a matter of terminology, semantics and fine parsing of regulations by the pedants.

But that obscures the fact that a barrel is a barrel, of known and uniform size and internal surface area, a common and well-understood standard used the world around for centuries. Wooden chips or sticks are a totally different thing, and adding an undisclosed amount of chips to an inert vessel just doesn’t seem to be the same, somehow, especially since there are no standards governing how they are, or can be, used. 

May 202019
 

The word agricole is nowadays used indiscriminately to refer to any cane juice distillate, no matter where it is made, and by consumer and producers both.  Discussions have recently popped up on FB arguing that appropriating the term under such circumstances was (and is) theft of reputation and quality, which the French Island rum makers had garnered for themselves over long decades (if not centuries) of quality rhum-making, and was therefore being ripped off by any producer not from those islands who used the term.  And here comes a rum company from the Far East, Laodi, seeming to have found an admirable way of getting around that issue, by referring to their hooch as “Pure Sugar Cane Rhum,” which I think is just missing the word “juice” to be completely accurate.

Laodi, whose parent company is Lao Agro Organic Industries, was formed in 2006 by Ikuzo Inoue, a then-52 year-old Japanese engineer, who, with a local Lao partner, acquired a distillery located in the village of Naxone in Laos, just north of the Thailand border — it’s actually just a short drive away from the Issan Distillery (which is south of the border).  The distillery previously made local spirits like lao-lao (based on fermented rice) but the new owner decided to switch to rum, utilizing sugar cane from one of two 10 hectare plots of land (one always remains fallow and they are rotated), and going determinedly with juice rather than molasses.

The cane is cut and transported to the factory where it is crushed (1 tonne cane = ~400  liters juice) and set to ferment in steel vats using dehydrated wine yeast, for between 3-4 days. The resultant wine is about 9% ABV and is then run through a vacuum distillation machine – using this apparatus reduces the boiling point of the liquid by lowering the pressure within the apparatus, supposedly leading to less degradation of the wine in a shorter timeframe; the separation of heads and tails and extraction of the heart remains the same as for traditional methods.  

Initially the resultant spirit came out the other end at 47% and early versions of the Laodi / Vinetiane rums were bottled at 42% – the white rum was rested for two years in stainless steel tanks and slowly reduced to that strength – clearly they’ve done some upgrading since then, as by the time one of them walked through my door and into my glass, they already were beefing it up. That rum (or rhum if you like), was the 56% Vientiane Agricole rhum I looked at two years ago, which seems to be discontinued now (or replaced by this one – note the strength which is the same, and the loss of the word “agricole”…somebody is clearly paying attention).

How does this iteration smell?  Very pungent and very powerful – it’s unclear whether their vacuum distillation method is bolted on to a pot or column still, but for my money, based on the profile, it’s column (query to the company is pending).  It smells simply massive – salty, dusty and lemon-grassy all at once, quite herbal and earthy, of musty loam, rain on hot clay bricks. This was just the opening salvo, and it was followed swiftly by other notes of acetones, polish, cinnamon, anise, sugar water, cucumber and some watermelons, papayas and white guavas.  I thought I sensed some vanilla in there somewhere, but could have been wrong – overall, for that strength, it behaved remarkably well.

The taste was excellent too: it glided across the tongue with controlled force and without trying to scrape it raw.  It tasted initially dry and pungent, of glue and furniture polish, linseed oil (the sort I used to oil my cricket bat with, back in the days when I dared to lift one), and also of brine and olives and coconut water, cider and vinegar, cucumbers in a mild pimento sauce, and behind it, the citrus zest. And on top of all that, there was a peculiar creaminess to the experience, like a snow cone with syrup and condensed milk drizzled over the shaved ice. This all led up to a very pleasant finish, crisp and citrus-like, redolent of more brine, cider, guavas, mangoes, nicely spicy, nicely tasty and an all round excellent close, which stuck around as long as regular guests at a Caner Afterparty.

Dredging back through my memories of the original Laodi Vientiane and what I thought of it back then, I think that even though the strength was the same, this was and is a different rhum, an evolution in the quest to raise the bar, up the game.  It controls its strength well, yet loses none of the force of its ABV, and isn’t trying to be bitchy or sharp or uncomfortable. We may not call it an agricole, yet its antecedents are clear – it’s a cane juice rhum, strong, well made, properly delicious, with just enough edge to keep you hopping. And made in a part of the world we should seriously start to look at, in the constant search for quality artisanal rums that fly under our western radar..

(#625)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Laodi comes from the two words — “Lao” for the country and “Di” meaning “good”
  • The company also makes a lightly-aged brown-coloured rum (with an interesting variation on the ageing process), as well as a set of “married” rums which are infused or spiced and released at lower proof.
  • Rumporter magazine has an excellent 2017 article by Damien Sagnier on the company and its production techniques, which I drew on for the more technical aspects – the assumption is that these have not changed since then, of course.
  • The label is a masterpiece of minimalism, but the counterpoint to that is that it doesn’t actually provide much in the way of information – most of what I’m telling you comes from brochures, webpages and a meandering conversation at the booth at the 2019 Paris Rhumfest where I filched a hefty sample.  
May 152019
 

(c) Duty Free Philippines website

Tanduay, for all its small footprint in the west, is one of the largest rum makers in Asia and the world (they’re either 1st or 2nd by sales volume, depending on what you read and when), and have been in business since 1854. Unsurprisingly, they see fit to commemorate their success with special editions, and like all such premiums with a supposedly limited release meant only for the upper crust, most can get one if they try. The question is, as always, whether one should bother.

The presentation of the CLX rum is good – boxed enclosure, shiny faux-gold label, solid bottle.  And all the usual marketing tantaraas are bugled from the rooftops wherever you read or look. It’s a selection of their best aged reserves, supposedly for the Chairman’s personal table.  It has a message on the back label from said Chairman (Dr. Lucio Tan) extolling the company’s leadership and excellence and the rum’s distinctive Filipino character (not sure what that is, precisely, but let’s pass on that and move on…). All this is par for the course for a heritage rum. We see it all the time — kudos, self praise, unverifiable statements, polishing of the halos. Chairmen get these kinds of virtuous hosannas constantly, and we writers always smile when we hear or see or read them.

Because, what’s missing on this label is the stuff that might actually count as information – you know, minor, niggly stuff like how old it is; what kind of still it was made on; what the outturn was; what made it particularly special; what the “CLX” stands for…that kind of thing.  Not important to Chairmen, perhaps, and maybe not to those maintaining the Tanduay website, where this purportedly high-class rum is not listed at all – but to us proles, the poor-ass guys who actually shell out money to buy one. From my own researches here’s what I come up with: CLX is the roman numerals for “160” and the rum was first issued in 2014, based on blended stocks of their ten year old rums.  It is more than likely a column still product, issued at standard strength and that’s about all I can find by asking people and looking online.

Anyway, when we’re done with do all the contorted company panegyrics and get down to the actual business of trying it, do all the frothy statements of how special it is translate into a really groundbreaking rum?

Judge for yourself. The nose was redolent, initially, of oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies and cereals…like Fruit Loops, I’m thinking.  There are also light acetones and nail polish remover. There may be an orange pip or two, a few crumbs of chocolate oranges, or maybe some peach fuzz drifting around, but it’s all thin pickings – maybe it’s the 40% ABV that’s at the root of it, maybe it’s the deliberately mild column still character that was chosen. There is some vanilla and toffee background, of course, just not enough to matter – for this to provide real oomph it really needed to be a bit stronger, even if just a few points more strength.

The same issues returned on the very quiet and gentle taste.  It seemed almost watery, light, yet also quite clean. A few apples and peaches, not quite ripe, providing the acid components, for some bite.  Then red grapes, cinnamon, aromatic tobacco, light syrup, vanilla, leather for the deeper and softer portion of the profile. It’s all there, all quite pleasant, if perhaps too faint to make any statement that says this is really something special.  And that standard proof really slays the finish, in my own estimation, because that is so breathy, quiet and gone, that one barely has time to register it before hustling to take another sip just to remind oneself what one has in the glass.

How the worm has turned.  Years ago, I tried the 12 year old Tanduay Superior and loved it. It’s placidity and unusual character seemed such a cut above the ordinary, and intriguingly tasty when compared to all the standard strength Caribbean blends so common back then.  That tastiness remains, but so does a certain bland sweetness, a muffled deadness, not noted back then but observed now….and which is no longer something to be enjoyed as much.

I have no issue with the standard Tanduay lineup — like the white, the 1854, the Gold, the Superior etc —  being deceptively quiet and mild and catering to the Asian palate which I have been told prefers rather more unaggressive fare (some of their rums are bottled south of 39%, for example).  I just believe that for an advertised high-end commemorative rum which speaks to a long and successful commercial company history, that more is required. More taste, more strength, more character, more oomph. It’s possible that many who come looking for it in the duty free shops of Asia and blow a hundred bucks on this thing, will come away wishing they had bought a few more of the Superiors, while others will be pleased that they got themselves a steal.  I know which camp I fall into.

(#624)(75/100)


Other notes

As always, thanks to John Go, who sourced the rum for me.

May 132019
 

Everything you research on Naga is likely to make you rend your robes with frustration at what little you do manage to dig up. Yet paradoxically, everything you do find out about the rum itself seems guaranteed to keep you reading, and make you buy it, if no other reason than because it seems so damned interesting. The label seems designed specifically to tantalize your curiosity.  Perusing it, you can with equal justification call it “Naga Batavia Arrack” (“made with Indonesian aged rum” says the script, implying there it’s arrack plus rum), or “Naga Double Cask rum” or “Naga Java Reserve Rum” or simply go with the compromise route.  And each of those would, like the mythical elephant to the blind men, be somewhat correct.

It’s a Batavia Arrack from Indonesia, which means it a rum made from molasses and a red rice yeast derivative (just like the arrack made by By the Dutch). Both Naga’s 38% version with a different label, and this one, are a blend of distillates: just over half of it comes from pot stills (“Old Indonesian Pot Stills” puffs the less-than-informative website importantly, never quite explaining what that means) with a strength of 65% ABV; and just under half is 92% ABV column still spirit (the ratios are 52:48 if you’re curious). The resultant blend is then aged for three years in teak barrels and a further four years in ex-bourbon barrels, hence the moniker “double aged”.  In this they’re sort of channelling both the Brazilians with their penchant for non-standard woods, and Foursquare with their multiple maturations

Whether all this results in a rum worth acquiring and drinking is best left up to the individual.  What I can say is that it demonstrates both a diversity of production and a departure from what we might loosely term “standard” — and is a showcase why (to me) rum is the most fascinating spirit in the world….but without the rum actually ascending to the heights of must-have-it-ness and blowing my hair back.  In point of fact, it is not on a level with the other two Indonesian rums I’ve tried before, the Compagnie des Indes Indonesia 2004 10 YO and the By The Dutch Batavia Arrack.

Follow me through the tasting: the nose is initially redolent of brine and olives, and of cardboard, and dry and musty rooms left undusted too long. That’s the beginning – it does develop, and after some time you can smell soy, weak vegetable soup, stale maggi cubes, and a faint line of sweet teriyaki, honey, caramel and vanilla.  And, as a nod to the funkytown lovers out there, there is a hint of rotten fruits, acetones and spoiled bananas as well, as if a Jamaican had up and gone to Indonesia to take up residence in the bottle…and promptly fell asleep there.

Palate. It was the same kind of delicate and light profile I remembered from the other two arracka mentioned above. Still, the texture was pleasant, it was pleasantly — but not excessively — sweet, and packed some interesting flavours in its suitcase: salt caramel ice cream, dill and parsley, cinnamon,sharp oak tannins, leather, some driness and musky notes, and a sharp fruity tang, both sweet and rotten at the same time – not very strong, but there nevertheless, making itself felt in no uncertain terms. Finish was relatively short, mostly light fruits, some brine, mustiness and a trace of rubber.

Summing up.  On the negative side, there is too little info available online or off for the hard facts — what an “Indonesian” pot still actually is, where the distillery is, who owns it, when was the company established, the source of the molasses and so on…this erodes faith and trust in any proclaimed statements and in this day and age is downright irritating. Conversely, listing all the pluses: it has a genuinely nice and relatively sweet mouthfeel, is gentle, tasty, spicy, somewhat complex and different enough to excite, while still being demonstrably a rum…of some kind. It just didn’t entirely appeal to me.

Because I found that overall, it lacked good integration.  The pot still portion careened into the column still part of the blend and neither came out well from the encounter; the esters, acidity and tartness really did not accentuate or bring out the contrasting muskier, darker tones well at all, and it just seemed a bit confused….first you tasted one thing, then another and the balance between the components was off.  Also, the wood was a shade too bitter – maybe that was the teak or maybe it was the liveliness of the ex-bourbon barrels. Whatever the case, the overall impression was of a product that somehow failed to cohere.

I’m fully prepared to accept that a rum from another part of the world with which we lack familiarity caters to its own audience, and is supposed to be somewhat off the wall, somewhat at right angles to conventional tastes of bloggers like me who are raised on Caribbean fare and all its imitators.  Yet even within that widely cast net, there’s stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t. This is one that falls in the middle – it’s nice enough, it kinda sorta works, but not completely and not so much that I’d rush out to get me another bottle.  

(#623)(79/100)

May 092019
 

Like most rums of this kind, the opinions and comments are all over the map.  Some are savagely disparaging, other more tolerant and some are almost nostalgic, conflating the rum with all the positive experiences they had in Thailand, where the rum is made. Few have had it in the west, and those that did weren’t writing much outside travel blogs and review aggregating sites.

And that’s not a surprise. If you exclude the juice emerging from new, small, fast-moving micro-distilleries in Asia, and focus on the more common brands, you’ll find that many adhere to the light latin-style column-still model of standard strength tipple…and many are not averse to adding a little something to make your experience…well, a smoother one; an easier one. These rums sell by the tanker-load to the Asian public, and while I’m sure they wouldn’t mind getting some extra sales, restrict themselves to their own region…for now.

One of these is the Thai Sang Som Special Rum, which has been around since 1977 and has supposedly garnered a 70% market share for itself in Thailand.  This is a rum made from molasses, and apparently aged for five years in charred oak barrels before being bottled at 40% ABV. Back in the 1980s it won a clutch of medals (Spain, 1982 and 1983) and again in 2006, which is prominently featured in their promo literature…yet it’s almost unknown outside Thailand, since it exports minimal quantities (< 1% of production, I’ve read).  It is made by the Sang Som company, itself a member of Thai Beverage, one of the largest spirits companies in the world (market cap ~US$15 billion) – and that company has around 18 distilleries in the region, which make most of the rum consumed in and exported by Thailand: SangSom, Mangkorn Thong, Blend 285, Hong Thong, and also the Mekhong, which I tried so many years ago on a whim.

The rum doesn’t specify, but I’m going out on a limb and saying, that this is a column still product.  I can’t say it did much for me, on any level – the nose is very thin, quite sweet, with hints of sugar cane sap, herbs, dill, rosemary, basil, chopped up and mixed into whipped cream.  Some cinnamon, rose water, vanilla, white chocolate and more cream. Depending on your viewpoint this is either extremely subtle or extremely wussy and in either case the predominance of sweet herbal notes is a cause for concern, since it isn’t natural to rum.

No redemption is to be found when tasted, alas, though to be honest I was not really expecting much here.  It’s very weak, very quiet, and at best I can suggest the word “delicate”. Some bright ripe fruits like ripe mangoes, red guavas, seed-outside cashew nuts.  Cocounts, flowers, maybe incense. Also lighter notes of sugar water, watermelon, cucumbers, cinnamon, nutmeg – Grandma Caner said “gooseberries”, but I dispute that, the tartness was too laid back for that rather assertively mouth-puckering fruit. And the finish is so light as to be to all intents and purposes, indiscernible. No heat, no bite, no final bonk to the taste buds or the nose.  Some fruit, a little soya, a bit of cream, but all in all, there’s not much going on here.

All due respect for the tourists and Asians who have no issues with a light rum and prefer their hooch to be devoid of character, this is not my cup of tea – my research showed to to be a spiced rum, which explains a lot (I didn’t know that when I was trying it).  It’s light and it’s easy and it’s delicate, and it requires exactly zero effort to drink, which is maybe why it sells so well – one is immediately ready to take another shot, real quick, just to see if the next sip can tease out all those notes that are hinted at but never quite come to the fore. The best thing you can say about the matter is that at least it doesn’t seem to be loaded to the rafters with sugar, which, however, is nowhere near enough for me to recommend it to serious rumhounds who’re looking for the next new and original thing.

(#622)(68/100)

May 052019
 

Rumaniacs Review #097 | 0621

As far as I can tell, Dr. Sangster arrived in Jamaica to lecture at UWI in 1967, got sidetracked into the rum business, and died in 2001. During his time on the island, Dr. Sangster did more to popularize rum cream and spiced / infused rums (pineapple, coconut, orange, etc – there were some 20+ varieties) than promote pure rums themselves, but he was also known for his blends, like Conquering Lion Overproof and this one, the Old Jamaica DeLuxe Gold which is definitely off the grid and, in a curious way, also quite modern.

It is unknown from where he sourced his base stock.  Given that this DeLuxe Gold rum was noted as comprising pot still distillate and being a blend, it could possibly be Hampden, Worthy Park or maybe even Appleton themselves or, from the profile, Longpond – or some combination, who knows? I think that it was likely between 2-5 years old, but that’s just a guess.  References are slim at best, historical background almost nonexistent. The usual problem with these old rums. Note that after Dr. Sangster relocated to the Great Distillery in the Sky, his brand was acquired post-2001 by J. Wray & Nephew who do not use the name for anything except the rum liqueurs.  The various blends have been discontinued.

Colour – Gold-amber

Strength – 57%

Nose – Opens with the scents of a midden heap and rotting bananas (which is not as bad as it sounds, believe me).  Bad watermelons, the over-cloying reek of genteel corruption, like an unwashed rum strumpet covering it over with expensive perfume.  Acetones, paint thinner, nail polish remover. That is definitely some pot still action. Apples, grapefruits, pineapples, very sharp and crisp.  Overripe peaches in tinned syrup, yellow soft squishy mangoes. The amalgam of aromas doesn’t entirely work, and it’s not completely to my taste…but intriguing nevertheless  It has a curious indeterminate nature to it, that makes it difficult to say whether it’s WP or Hampden or New Yarmouth or what have you.

Palate – Salty black olives, a shade sharp and tannic, with cinnamon caramel, vanilla.  Develops into something fruity and flowery. Sharp and rough flavours in need of better balance and sanding down, very like the JB Charley, if that had ever been aged and boosted up with some additional esterification.  Dirthy, earthy, loamy, musky, sweaty, meaty. Really quite an original, and if that was what Sangster was after — to amp up the ester count and then twist it to make it scream — he sure succeeded.

Finish – Shortish, dark off-fruits, vaguely sweet, briny, a few spices and musky earth tones.

Thoughts – I could not help but think of the Velier Longponds, especially the last two, because the Sangster’s is not a rum most people would like unless they were wading hip-deep into the Jamaican dunder pits and loved the resultant hogo bombs. It falls into the same category as the TECC (but not quite the TECA which is reliably reported to hail from a parallel rumiverse) – a regular high ester funky hogo-centric bastard that’s been tilted ever-so-slightly into near madness without completely losing its charm. It’s not my thing and I won’t score it to the rafters…but major points for the sheer defiant courage  it took to bottle rotting garbage badassery without apology.

(78/100)

May 022019
 

Like those tiny Caribbean islands you might occasionally fly over, the Maria Loca cocktail bar in Paris is so miniscule that if you were to sneeze and blink you’d go straight past it. When Mrs Caner and I go inside, it’s dark, it’s hectic, it’s noisy and the place is going great guns. At the bar, along with two other guys, Guillaume Leblanc is making daiquiris with flair and fine style, greeting old customers and barflies and rumfest attendees, the shaker never still. Even though he doesn’t work there, he seems to know everyone by their first name, which to me makes him a top notch bartender even without the acrobatic or mixing skills.

In the dark corner off to the side are wedged Joshua Singh and Gregers Nielsen, a quartet of bottles in front of them.  Part of the reason they’re here is to demonstrate the Single Barrel Selection of their Danish company (named “1423” after the first barrel of rum they ever bottled back in 2008) and how they fare in cocktails. Nicolai Wachmann and Mrs Caner have been drafted to help out and I’m squished in there as well to do my review thing and take notes in the Little Black Book (since the Big Black Book didn’t fit into my pocket when I was heading out).

Three of these bottles are formal SBS releases by 1423, and there’s a Jamaican, a Trini and one from Mauritius. The fourth is a white-lightning tester from (get this!) Ghana, and I haven’t go a clue which one to start with. Nicolai has four glasses in front of him and somehow seems to be sipping from all four at once, no help there. Mrs. Caner, sampling the first of what will be many daiquiris this evening, and usually so fierce in her eye for quality rums, is raptly admiring Guillaume’s smooth drink-making technique while batting her eyes in his direction far too often for my peace of mind. Fortunately he’s engaged to a very fetching young miss of his own, so I stop worrying.

“Any recommendations?” I ask Joshua who’s happily pouring shots for the curious and talking on background about the rums with the air of an avuncular off-season Santa Claus.  How he can talk to me, pour so precisely, have an occasional sip of his own, discuss technical stuff and call out hellos to the people in the crowd all at the same time is a mystery, but maybe he’s just a better multi-tasker than I am.

“Try the Jamaican,” he advises, and disappears behind the bar.

“Not the Trinidadian?” I ask when he pops back up on this side, two new daiquiris in his hand.  Mrs. Caner grabs one immediately, fending off Nicolai’s eager hands and shoving him into the wall in a way that would make a linebacker weep.  He looks at me like this is my fault.

“It’s not a Caroni, so you might feel let down,” Josh opines, handing the second cocktail glass to another customer. “It’s Angostura, and you’re a rumdork, so…” He shrugs, and I wince.

Since I’m writing an on-again, off-again survey of rums from Africa (50 words and I’m done, ha ha), the Ghana white rum piques my interest, and I turn to Gregers, who is as tidy and in control as ever.  I suspect he lined up his pens and papers with the edge of his desk in school. “The Ghana, you think?”

He considers for a moment, then shakes his head and pours me a delicate, neat shot of the Mauritius 2008. “Better start with this one.  It’s a bit more…mellow. And anyway, you tried the Ghana last year in Berlin. If you need to, you can try it again later.”

The rum winks invitingly at me.  I take a quick moment to snap some pictures of the bottle, thinking again how far labels have come in the last decade.  Velier started the trend, Compagnie des Indes provides great levels of detail, and others are following along, but what I’m seeing here is amazing. The label notes the distillery (Grays, which is a famed family name as well – they make the New Grove and Lazy Dodo line of rums but not the St. Aubins); the source, which in this case is molasses; the still type – column; distillation date – 2008; bottling date – 2018; and other throwaway details such as the non-chill-filtration, the port wine finish, the 281-bottle outturn, and the 55.7% ABV strength.  I mean, you really couldn’t ask for much more than that.

I nose the amber spirit gently, and my eyes widen.  Wow. This is good. It smells of toblerone, white chocolate, vanilla and almonds but there are also lighter and more chirpy notes swirling around that – gooseberries, ginger shavings, green grapes, and apples. And behind that are aromas of dark fruit like plums, prunes and dates, together with vague red-wine notes, in a very good balance. Musky, earthy smells mix with lighter and darker fruits in a really good amalgam – you’d never confuse this with a Jamaican or a Guyanese or a Caroni or a French island agricole.  I glance over at Mrs. Caner to get a second opinion, but she’s ogling some glass-flipping thing Guillaume is doing and so I ask Nicolai what he thinks. He checks glass #2 on his table and agrees it is a highly impressive dram, just different enough from the others to be really interesting in its own way. He loves the way the finish adds to the overall effect.

As I’m scribbling notes into the LBB, I ask Gregers slyly, “Is there anything you’ve been told not to tell me about the rum?” He is like my brother, but business and blood and booze don’t always mix well, trust is earned not given freely, and I’m curious how he’ll answer. Nicolai’s ears perk up and he pauses with his nose hanging over the third glass.  Though he doesn’t talk much, his curiosity and rum knowledge are the equal of my own and he likes knowing these niggly little details too.

“Nope. Any question you have, we’ll answer.” Gregers and Joshua exchange amused looks. Truth to tell, there are two omissions which only a rum nerd would ask for or actively seek out.  I wonder if they’re thinking the same thing I am. So:

“Additives? You don’t mention anything about them on the label.”  And given how central such a declaration is these days to new companies who want to establish their “honesty” and street cred, an odd thing to have overlooked – at least in my opinion.

Joshua doesn’t miss a beat. He confirms the “no additives” ethos of the SBS line of rums, and it was not considered necessary to be on the label – plus, if some weird older gunk from Panama or Guyana, say, were to be bottled in the future and then found to be doctored by the original producer, maybe with caramel, then 1423 would not have egg over its face, which makes perfect sense.  Then, before I ask, he and Gregers tell me that this rum is actually not from a single barrel but several casks blended together. Well…okay (there’s full detail in “other notes” below, for the deeply curious).

The bar is getting noisier, more crowded.  Pete Holland of the Floating Rum Shack just turned up and is making the rounds, pressing the flesh, because he knows, like, everyone – alas, his pretty wife is nowhere in sight. Yoshiharu Takeuchi of Nine Leaves is in center-court, telling a hilarious R-Rated story I cannot reprint here (much as I’d like to) of how he was mugged in Marseilles while taking a leak in an alleyway, and Florent Beuchet of the Compagnie is mingling – I shout a hello at him over the heads of several customers.  He waves back. The cheerfully bearded and smiling Ingvar “Rum” Thomsen (journalist and elder statesman of the Danish rum scene) is hanging out next to his physically polar opposite, Johnny Drejer (tall, slim, clean-shaven); Johnny and I briefly discuss the new camera I helped him acquire, and some of his photographs and the state of the rumiverse in general. There are probably brand reps and other French rumistas in attendance, but I don’t recognize anyone else.  All I can see is that everyone is enjoying themselves thoroughly. The energy level of the bar is off the scale.

Guillaume has finished his cocktail twirling demo and lost my wife’s attention, I note happily. He’s mixing more drinks for another small group of people who just wandered in. Mrs. Caner is now deep in conversation with Nicolai about his marital status and that of her entire tribe of single female relatives. After landing me like a prize trout all those years ago, my pretty little wife has developed a raging desire to “help out” any single person of marriageable age — and she’s seen Hitch like forty-seven times, which doesn’t help.  Anyway, they’re both ignoring the rums in front of them, so I roll my eyes at this blasphemy and continue on to the tasting.

And let me tell you, that Mauritius rum tastes as good as it smells, if perhaps a little sharper and drier on the tongue than the aromas might suggest. It really is something of a low-yield fruit bomb.  Raspberries, strawberries, lemon peel, ginger and sherbet partied hard with the deeper flavours of prunes, molasses, vanilla, nuts, chocolate mousse, ice cream and caramel…and a touch of coca cola, tobacco and seaweed-like iodine.  There’s even a sly hint of brine, thyme, and mint rounding things off, transferring well into a lovely smooth finish dominated by candied oranges, a sharp line of citrus peel, and a very nice red wine component that completes what was and remains, a really very good drink.  It is like a curiously different Barbados rum, with aspects of Guyana and Jamaica thrown in for kick, but its quality is all its own, and hopefully allows the island to get more press in the years to come. For sure it is a rum to share around.

With some difficulty, I manage to catch Mrs. Caner’s eye and pass the glass over to her, because I think this is a rum she’d enjoy too.  Somehow even after all the daiquiris she’s been getting, her eyes are clear, her speech is unslurred, her diction flawless, and I may be biased but I think she looks absolutely lovely.  As she tries the SBS Mauritius, I can see she appreciates its construction as well and she compliments Joshua and Gregers on their selection. “This is great,” she remarks, then provides me with a whole raft of detailed tasting notes, which I have mysteriously lost and none of which somehow have made it into this essay.

Nicolai, over in his corner, is happy to cast some other comments on to the table regarding the SBS Mauritius, all positive.  We all agree, and I tell Gregers, that this is one fine rum, and if I could, I’d buy one, except that I can’t. My wife, having delivered herself of her earth shaking opinion, immediately beelines over to the bar area where Guillaume’s fiancee and sister have just arrived, most likely because she’s had enough of all the testosterone in our corner and wants some real conversation with people who are specifically not certifiable about rum.

L-R – Nicolai, Gregers, Guillaume, Joshua and one of the bartenders from that evening whose name I did not get, sorry.

I want some fresh air so Joshua and I go outside the bar for a smoke (the irony does not escape us).  The nighttime air of Paris is crisp and cool and I remember all the reasons I like coming here. We discuss 1423 and their philosophy, its humble beginnings more than ten years ago, though that remains outside the scope of this essay.

“So, the Mauritius was a very good rum,” I remark, happy to have started off this fest (and 2019) on a good rum, a tasty shot.  He courteously does not ask for my score which for some obscure reason is all that some people want. “What do you think I should try next?”

He smiles, reminding me once again of Santa Claus in civilian clothes and taking a breather from gift giving, mingling with the common folk. “Oh the Jamaica, for sure.  That’s a DOK, PX finished, pot still aged in 40-liter barrels…and let me tell you, there’s some really interesting stories behind that one -”

I stop him. My fingers are twitching. “Hang on.  I gotta write that down. Let’s go inside, pour a shot, and you can tell me everything I need to know while I try it.  I don’t want to miss a thing.”

And while it’s not exactly relevant to the Mauritius rum I’m supposed to be writing about here, that’s pretty much what we ended up doing, on a cool evening in the City of Lights, spent in the lively company of my beautiful wife, and assorted boisterous, rambunctious geeks, reps, writers, drinkers, bartenders and simply good friends. You just can’t do a rum tasting in better surroundings than that.

(#620)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • In one of those curious coincidences, the Fat Rum Pirate penned his own four-out-of-five star review of the same rum just a few days ago. However, the first review isn’t either of ours, but the one from Kris von Stedingk, posted in December 2018 on the relatively new site Rum Symposium. He was also pretty happy with it
  • Background on the rum itself:
    • Joshua met with a rep from Grays from Mauritius a few years ago at the Paris Rhumfest; he brought a number of different cask samples from the warehouse. 1423 ended up choosing two, which were about 9 years at this time
      • The first was aged seven years in a 400-liter French Limousin oak, followed by two more in Chatagnier (Chestnut).
      • The second was again aged seven years in a 400-liter French Limousin oak, followed by two years in Port.
    • 1423 ordered both of them but ended up receiving 400 liters of the Chatagnier cask and 120 liters of the Port both now with another ageing year in their respective casks. All of this was blended together when delivered to Denmark and the 2018 release was basically the first 200 liters, all tropical aged. The remaining 320 liters are still in the Denmark warehouse waiting for a good idea and the right time to release.
Apr 292019
 

El Dorado and their high-end collection, the Rares, continue to inspire head scratching bafflement – they get issued with such a deafening note of silence that we might be forgiven for thinking DDL don’t care that much about them.  Ever since 2016 when they were first released, there’s been a puzzling lack of market push to advertise and expose them to the rum glitterati. Few even knew the second release had taken place, and I suggest that if it had not been for the Skeldon, the third release would have been similarly low key, practically unheralded, and all but unknown.

Never mind that, though, let’s return briefly to the the third bottle of the Release 2.0  which was issued in 2017. This was not just another one of the Rares, but part of the stable of Velier’s hand-selected 70th Anniversary collection which included rums from around the world (including Japan, the Caribbean, Mauritius….the list goes on). We were told back in late 2015 that Luca would not be able to select any barrels for future Velier releases, but clearly he got an exemption here, and while I don’t know how many bottles came out the door, I can say that he still knows how to pick ‘em.

What we have here is a blend of rums from Diamond’s two column coffey still, which provided a somewhat lighter distillate modelled after the Skeldon mark (the Skeldon still has long since been destroyed or dismantled); and the Port Mourant double wooden pot still distillate for some deeper, muskier notes.  The proportions of each are unknown and not mentioned anywhere in the literature – all we know is that they were blended before they were set to age, and slumbered for 16 years, then released in 2017 at 54.3%.

Knowing the Demerara rum profiles as well as I do, and having tried so many of them, these days I treat them all like wines from a particular chateau…or like James Bond movies: I smile fondly at the familiar, and look with interest for variations.  Here that was the way to go. The nose suggested an almost woody men’s cologne: pencil shavings, some rubber and sawdust a la PM, and then the flowery notes of a bull squishing happily way in the fruit bazaar. It was sweet, fruity, dark, intense and had a bedrock of caramel, molasses, toffee, coffee, with a great background of strawberry ice cream, vanilla, licorice and ripe yellow mango slices so soft they drip juice.  The balance between the two stills’ output was definitely a cut above the ordinary.

Fortunately the rum did not falter on the taste.  In point of fact, it changed a bit, and where on the nose the PM took the lead, here it was the SVW side of things that was initially dominant. Strong, dark, fruity tastes came through — prunes, blackberries, dates, plums, raisins, pineapples, ripe mangoes.  After it settled down we got mature, sober, more “standard” aged-rum parts of the profile – molasses, licorice, sweet dry sawdust, some more pencil shavings, vanilla, creme brulee, caramel, almonds, white chocolate and even a hint of coffee and lemon zest. Damn but this thing was just fine.  The SVW portion is such a great complement to the muskier PM part, that the join is practically seamless and you couldn’t really guess where the one stops and the other begins. This continued all the way down to the exit, which was long, rummy and smoky, providing closing hints of molasses, candied oranges, mint and a touch of salted caramel.

There is little to complain about on Velier’s 70th anniversary Demerara. I prefered DDL’s Enmore 1996 just a bit more (it was somewhat more elegant and refined), but must concede what a lovely piece of work this one is as well.  It brings to mind so many of the Guyanese rums we carry around in our tasting memories, reminds us a little of the old Skeldon 1973, as well as the famed 1970s Port Mourants Velier once issued, holds back what fails and emphasizes what works. To blend two seemingly different components this well, into a rum this good, was and remains no small achievement.  It really does work, and it’s a worthy entry to Demerara rums in general, burnishes El Dorado’s Rare Rums specifically, and provides luster to Velier’s 70th anniversary in particular.

(#619)(88/100)


Other Notes

There’s an outstanding query to Velier requesting details on proportions of the blend and the outturn, and this post will be updated if I get the information.

Apr 242019
 

Although the grogues of Cabo Verde have been seeping through our rumconsciousness for years now, it’s a curious thing that there are almost no reviews to be found online at all. All we have is rumours and quiet whispers in the dark corners of smoke-filled tiki-bars, random small comments on FB, and stories that Luca Gargano of Velier has been sniffing about the islands for years, perhaps putting together another series of organic, pure single rums designed to wow our socks off.

2019 might at last, then, be the year to change that, as grogues were quite visible in the Paris rhumfest in April, and one of them was the Barbosa grogue, which I just so happened to try at the Habitation Velier booth, where, after exchanging pleasantries with Daniel Biondi, I rather cheekily helped myself to a hefty shot of this thing and sat back to await results. Not without a little trepidation, mind you.

Because, you see, the lost world mystique hanging around them creates an aura about these almost unknown rums made in remote lands in traditional ways, in a way that make them rums of real interest. They’re supposedly throwbacks to the way “rums ought to be,” the way “they were once made” and all sorts of stuff like that. Artisanal, untamed, simple rums, brewed the same way for generations, even centuries, akin to Haiti’s clairins or the original cachacas. Which may be why Luca keeps going back to the place.

Such preconceptions made the tasting of the Barbosa grogue (or, as it is noted on the label “Amado & Vicente Barbosa Grogue Pure Single Rum”) an odd experience – because in reality, it conformed to few of the profile markers and tasting notions I was expecting, based on the remarks above. The nose of the 45% white was decidedly not a sledgehammer to the face, and not an over-amped nostril-shredder ready to give week-long nosebleeds. Instead it was actually quite gentle, almost relaxed, with light aromas of olives in brine, green grapes, pineapples, apricots (minus the sweet syrup), grass, cooking herbs like dill, and quite a lot of sugar water, more than in most blancs I’ve tried. It wasn’t hot, it wasn’t fierce and it wasn’t feral, just a real easy rum to appreciate for smell alone.

This was also the case when tasted. The bright and clean fruity-ester notes were more in evidence here than on the nose — green apples, sultanas, hard yellow mangoes, thyme, more pineapples, a bag of white guavas and watery pears. There was a hint of danger in the hint of cucumbers in white vinegar with a pimento or two floating around, but this never seriously came forward, a hint was all you got; and at best, with some concentration, there were some additional herbs (dill, cilantro), grass, sugar water and maybe a few more olives. I particularly liked the mild finish, by the way – clear and fruity and minty, with thyme, wet grass, and some almonds and white chocolate, sweet and unassuming, just right for what had come before.

The Barbosa grogue is produced by Montenegro distillery in Santiago, the main Cabo Verde island, and derive from organically grown sugar cane grown very close to the sea, in Praia Mangue. The cane is harvested manually, crushed right away and naturally fermented for six days before being run through small copper pot stills (see picture here) – this version is the first 2019 batch, unaged. The manager and co-owner of the distillery, Manuel Barbosa Amado, is a 47 year old agronomist and his family has been in the sugar cane and grogue business for the last fifty years or so – in what might be seen as a peculiar honour, it is the only grogue in Velier’s 2019 catalogue. I was told they might have called their product Montenegro after their own distillery, but ran into trademark issues with an Italian amaro maker of the same title and so named it for illustrious family members Vicente and Amado Barbosa, about whom I know unfortunately nothing

All that out of the way, what to make of this interesting variation of rum, then? Well, for one thing, I felt that 45% strength was perhaps too light to showcase its unique nature…jacking it up a few extra points might be worth it. It started off gentle, and underneath the sleek and supple silkiness of that initial taste you could sense some serious animal lurking, waiting for its own moment to come out and claw your face off. But this never happened. It stayed low-key and seemed surprisingly reluctant to come out and play with any sort of violence. So, a tasty and a fun drink, the purity evident, the unmessed-with nature of it a blessing…yet not different enough from better-known and better-regarded French island blancs to carve out its own niche in a market with ever increasing amounts of artisanal white rums competing for eyeballs and shelf space.

I’m not saying it must have madness and fury to succeed; nor does it need to rack up street cred by being like the Mexican Paranubes or the Sajous, the other poster children for cheerfully nutso white rums. We must accept that the Barbosa grogue lacks that distinctive spark of crazy which would immediately set it apart from any other rums on the planet, something specifically and seriously its own. But I also believe you can buy it and love it exactly as it is and you won’t be disappointed – because it is a more civilized and elegant rum than you might expect. And it’s worth a more serious look and maybe a buy, just to sample the sippable, approachable and enjoyable charms it presents, and get a whiff of something interesting, even new.

(#618)(81/100)


Other notes

  • Grogue is the local creole version of the word grog, and it hails from the same source.
  • Cabo Verde (or Cape Verde) is a group of ten Atlantic islands off the west coast of Africa due west of Senegal.  They are part of the same geographical eco-region as the Canaries and Azores and Madeira. Unlike them, Cabo Verde is independent and not an autonomous part of any European nation.
Apr 212019
 

Rumaniacs Review # 096 | 0617

Inner Circle out of Australia is one of those rums originally made by a now-defunct company called the Colonial Sugar Refinery, which had a long history pretty much unknown outside its country of origin. Formed in 1855, CSR established refineries in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji by the 1890s, and iin 1901 they opened a distillery in Sidney, using pot stills to make rums from Fijian and Australian cane. The Inner Circle brand name, which appeared in 1950, came from the limited high-quality rums they made for distribution to the favoured elite of the company and its clients, and around 1970 it got a broad commercial release in Australia: at that time it was bottled in three strengths, which in turn were identified by coloured dots – Underproof (38-40%, the red dot), Overproof (57% or so, green dot) and 33% Overproof (73-75%, black dot).

The distillery was sold off in 1986 and the brand disappeared, though CSR remains as a company involved in manufacturing of building products, no longer rums. The Inner Circle brand was resurrected in 2000 by Stuart Gilbert (the Australian Olympic yachtsman) in concert with Malcolm Campbell, one of the distillers of the company who had the original recipe, and I believe they did so with the financial backing of the Australian VOK group, which also took over the Beenleigh Rum Distillery in 2004.

The rum remains a pot still rum; and based on the label design, it was bottled just after 2004. Inner circle confirmed to me directly that it was 2004-2007 (and if I could find the batch code on the label they could tell me the exact year), pure Fijian cane distillate (so not really Australian after all), minimum of two years ageing in bourbon casks, and this particular batch recipe is no longer being made – hence its inclusion in the Rumaniacs series. It’s still possible to find bottles for sale at reasonable prices, mind you — this one was bought at auction last year.

Colour – Amber

Strength 57.2%

Nose – Are we sure this is a pot still 57.2% rum? Very strange, because nothing much seems to be going on here at all. It’s slightly sweet, fruit forward (peaches, apricots, cherries, very ripe). Characteristic brine and olives and acetones of a pot still distillate seem completely absent, and so it is nowhere near as complex as even an entry level funky Jamaican. After half an hour of letting it stand, and then rechecking I got some sweet vegetables (carrots) and a bit of glue and nail polish, really faint.

Palate – Same vague wispiness as the nose. Glue and rubber notes, very faint. A bit sweet and salty with repeated sips diminishing the sweet. Some light pineapples, dried apricots, cinnamon. A bit of caramel and vanilla, not much but all things considered, it had more potency and pungency than the nose did (and for me usually the reverse is true). There’s a trace of iodine and seaweed in the background, which is odd, but by no means unpleasant.

Finish – Short, warm. Some vegetables, brine, fish soup and sushi (that would be that iodine coming back again – odd that it wasn’t discernible on the nose). A bit of vanilla and caramel.

Thoughts – Leaves me indifferent, largely because it’s as vague as a politician’s statements. Maybe it was filtered or something, but overall, it simply does not conform to what we might expect from the strength and still as noted on the label. Which is a shame, ‘cause I had high hopes for it, but also relieved, since I dropped out of the bidding.

(73/100)


Other notes:

  • A redesigned bottle and revised recipe of the Inner Circle line of rums continues to be made.
  • Thanks to Tatu Kaarlas and Inner Circle themselves, who responded in fine style when bugged for background information
  • Sample came from the same bottle whose label is shown at top, from Nicolai W. out of Denmark, who ended up buying it.