Jul 182019
 

“This is a distillery … which deserve some serious attention” I wrote back in 2017.  I should have taken my own advice and picked up more from there, because this rhum is really well done, and one to share generously. 

Located just south of dead centre on the tiny island of Marie Galante (itself south of Guadeloupe), Bielle is a small sugar plantation dating back to the late 1700s, named after Jean-Pierre Bielle (he also owned a coffee shop), which went through a series of owners and went belly-up in the 1930s; the property was sold to a local landowner, Paul Rameaux, who had no more success than his predecessors in reviving its fortunes. 1975 marked a revival of Bielle when la Société d’Exploitation de la Distillerie Bielle (SEDB) took over the assets, and nowadays a nephew of Mr. Rameaux, Dominique Thiery, runs the distillery. So, it’s another small outfit from the French West Indies about whom only the islanders themselves and the French seem to know very much.  

This might be a grievous oversight on our part, because I’ve tried quite a few of their rhums (and wrote about one of them before this), and they’re good, very good — both this one and the Brut de Fut 2007 scored high. And if Bielle was not well represented in the medal roundup of the recently concluded Martinique Rhum Awards, it might just mean their work is as yet undiscovered while other, better-known estates hog all the glory.

The profile of this 2001 tropically aged 14 year old demonstrated clearly, however, that these were no reasons to pass it by. Consider first the way smelled, dense, fragrant, and rich enough to make a grasping harpy sign the divorce papers and then faint.  Plums, peaches, mangoes, blackberries, molasses, citrus, all jammed together in joyous, near riotous abandon of sweet, acidic, tart and musky aromas. I particularly appreciated the additional, subtle notes of molasses-soaked damp brown sugar, white chocolate and danish cookies, which added a nice fillip to the whole experience.

Even someone used to standard strength would find little to criticize with the solid 53.1% ABV, which provided a good, very sippable drink.  All the fruits listed above came back for a smooth encore, and adding to the fun were gherkins in pickling sauce, brine, anchovies…you know, something meaty you could almost sink your teeth into – a little denser and this thing might have been a sandwich.  But it’s the molasses, overripe bananas, caramel and vanilla combining with all that, which binds it all together (sort of like a rumForce). I thought it was excellent, delectable stuff, skirting a fine line between rich and delicate, dark and light, thick and crisp. And the finish did not disappoint — it was dry yet luscious, exhaling vanilla, molasses, bananas, olives, nougat, cherries and a dusting of nuts

The Bielle deepens my admiration for Guadeloupe rhums, which are sometimes (but not in this case) made from molasses as well as cane juice, Guadeloupe not being subject to the AOC regime. This liking of mine does no disservice or call into question Martinique, whose many distilleries make savoury rums of their own, as crisp, clear, and clean as a rapier wielded by le Perche du Coudray.  There’s just something a little less precise about Guadeloupe rhums that I enjoy too – something softer, a little richer, more rounded. It’s nothing specific I can put my finger on, really, or express in as many words — but I think that if you were to try a few more Bielle-made rums like this one, you’d know exactly what I mean.

(#643)(87/100)

Jul 152019
 

Rumaniacs Review #098 | 0642

Everything about this rum is fascinating, and while there are gaps in its provenance, there’s still more available than some other rums in this series we’ve looked at. Note that it comes from the same timeframe as the Sangster’s Jamaican (R-097), but this one is much better and has more convoluted historical antecedents.

A.A. Baker & Co was founded back in 1898 by Arthur and Arnold Baker (and their cousin George) in Trieste, which at the time was the fourth largest city of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and their main trading port and shipbuilding centre (it later got annexed into Italy, where it remains, for reasons too complex for a rum review).  These gentlemen were forerunners of today’s independent bottlers, producing various rums deriving from the West Indies, Australia and Central America (as well as cognacs and whiskies), which were sourced by trading with ships that stopped over in Trieste. It still exists to this day, producing the Battle Axe Jamaican and other blended rums, though the Bakers have long since sold out to other (Italian) owners and the company moved to Gorizia, a ways up the road.

This 2-liter bottle is tricky – Nicolai Wachmann, who generously provided me with the sample, was told it was from the 1960s by the person he had sourced it from, but most of the pictures found online from a recent auction, suggest it was from the 1970s.  Neither is the age mentioned anywhere, or which estate in Jamaica was the source of the rum, so what we are left with is the rather impressive proof, and questions we wish — not without regret — had more answers.

Colour – gold

Strength – 60%

Nose – Even if I didn’t know it was Jamaican going in, I would have guessed. Glue, acetone, funk,rotting bananas and orange peel, brine, paint, and that’s just the first ten seconds.  There’s also the damp sawdust of freshly-sawn lumber, ginger, nail polish, aged balsamic vinegar and some good soup under all that. But once it opens it also settles down and the fruits begin to take over, like apples, grapes, mangoes…and at the last, some slightly rotten meat.

Palate – Well, at that strength, it’s not a surprise that it attacks with ferocity; it’s hot and sharp and (oddly) even a little sweet.  Salt, brine, black pepper, olives, and the vague mintiness of a cough syrup, including the medicinal aspect of it. Fortunately the gaminess of the nose is very much in the background here, and what one gets after some time is a rich – if scrawny – panoply of sharp and tart fruit flavours mixed up with some oddball elements. A touch of toffee and blancmange, quite faint, complete this picture.

Finish – Long, hot and very spicy.  Lots of spices and herbs here: ginger, dill, thyme, as well as caramel, vanilla and unripe apples and other sharp fruits.

Thoughts – Not very full bodied or musky, presents as somewhat thin and very clear.  The strength for what is probably a rather young rum may be excessive for true appreciation, but even so, for the 1970s when light rums were all the rage, it took guts to make this thing at all. 

Obviously the production methodologies of the estates have changed somewhat since this rum was made, or it’s a blend of multiple marques.  Maybe both. Whatever the case, identifying which distillery in Jamaica produced it is not easy – I’d hazard a guess that there’s some pot still in here (but not all) and that there’s Longpond and maybe Worthy Park in the blend – but it’s all a guess, because, who knows for sure? And that’s a real shame, because with the ascendancy of the New Jamaicans these days, how cool would it be to say you had one of their rums, dating back fifty years or more?

(#642 | R-098)(83/100)

Jul 142019
 

It’s been some time since a current production Cuban rum not made by a third party crossed my path.  Among those was the Santiago de Cuba 12 YO, which, at the time, I enjoyed a lot, and made me anxious to see how older versions from the Cuba Rum Corporation’s stable would work out.  So when the 25 YO became available, you’d better believe I snapped it up, and ran it past a bunch of other Latin rums: a Don Q, two of the Diplomatico “Distillery Collection” rums, a Zafra 21 and just because I could, a Kirk & Sweeney 18 YO.

The Cuba Rum Corporation is the state owned organization located in the southern town of Santiago de Cuba, and is the oldest factory in the country, being established in 1862 by the Bacardi family who were expropriated after the Cuban Revolution in 1960. The CRC kept up the tradition of making light column-still Cuban rum and nowadays make the Ron Caney, Varadero and Santiago de Cuba lines, the last of which consists of an underproof blanca and sub-5YO anejo, and 40% 12 YO, 20 YO and this 25 YO. The 25 YO is their halo product, introduced in 2005 in honour of the 490th anniversary of the city of Santiago de Cuba’s founding and is lavish bottle and box presentation undescores the point (if the price doesn’t already do that).

Could a rum tropically aged for that long be anything but a success? Certainly the comments on the crowd-sourced Rum Ratings site (all thirteen of them, ten of which rated it 9 or 10 points out of ten) suggest that it is nothing short of spectacular. 

The nose was certainly good – it smelled richly of leather, mint, creme brulee, caramel, raisins, cherries, and vanilla.  The aromas were soft, yet with something of an edge to them as well, a bit of oak and tar, some citrus peel and lemon juice (just a little), plus a whiff of charcoal and smoke that was not displeasing. Even at 40% (and I wish it was more) it was enormously satisfying, if unavoidably light.  Good thing I tried it early in the session – had it come after a bunch of cask strength hooligans, I might have passed it by with indifference and without further comment.

The challenge came as it was tasted, because this is where standard strength 40% ABV usually falls flat and betrays itself as it disappears into a wispy nothingness, but no, somehow the 25 year old got up and kept running, in spite of that light profile.  The mouthfeel was silky, quite smooth and easy, tasting of cinnamon, aromatic tobacco, a bit of coffee. Then came citrus, nuts, some very faint fruits – raisins again, ripe red grapes, kiwi fruits, sapodilla, yellow mangoes – that was impressive, sure, it’s just that one had to reach and strain and really pay attention to tease out those notes…which may be defeating the purpose of a leisurely dram sipped as the sun goes down somewhere tropical.  Unsurprisingly the finish failed (for me at any rate – your mileage may, of course, vary): it puffed some leather and light fruits and cherries, added a hint of cocoa and vanilla, and then it was over.

The Santiago de Cuba brand was supposedly Castro’s favourite, which may be why the Isla del Tesoro presentation quality rum retails for a cool £475 on the Whisky Exchange and this one retails for around £300 or so.  Personally I find it a rum that needs strengthening. The tastes and smells are great – the nose, as noted, was really quite outstanding – the balance nicely handled, with sweet and tart and acidity and muskiness in a delicate harmony, and that they did it without any adulteration goes without saying. It would, six years ago, have scored as good or better than the 12 year old (86 points, to save you looking). 

But these days I can’t quite endorse it as enthusiastically as before even if it is a quarter of a century old, and so must give it the score I do…but with the usual caveat: if you love Cubans and prefer softer, lighter, standard proofed rums, then add five points to my score to see where it should rank for you.  Even if you don’t, rest assured that this is one of the better Cuban rums out there, tasty, languorous, complex, well-balanced….and too light.  It’s undone – and only in the eyes of this one reviewer – by being made for the palates of yesteryear, instead of beefing itself up (even incrementally) to something more for those who, like me, prefer something more forceful and distinct.

(#641)(82/100)


Other notes

Pierre-Olivier Coté’s informative 2015 review on Quebec Rum noted the outturn as 8,000 botles.  One wonders whether this is a one-off, or an annual release level.

Jul 112019
 

Photo (c) 1423.dk

There’s another S.B.S rum from Trinidad I should really be writing about, tried on that magical evening in Paris when I ran heedless and headfirst into the Mauritius 2008 and the Jamaican DOK 2018, but naah – there’s this other one they made back in 2016, probably long sold out and gone, which I remember equally well.  And that’s the S.B.S. Enmore, distilled in 1988, bottled twenty seven years later, with the sort of solid 51.8% ABV strength that would make the near legendary Bristol Spirits PM 1980 nod approvingly and dab a single ethanol tear from its metaphorical eye.

1423, the parent company making the Single Barrel Selection series laboured in obscurity in Denmark for years, it seems to me, before coming to the attention of the larger world with startling suddenness.  All this time – ever since 2009 when they released their first rum from barrel #1423 – this small concern founded by four friends (now five) expanded. And although they were primarily into distribution, they never ceased sourcing and bottling their own rums on the side – this culminated around 2016 with the formation of the more exclusive SBS brand, which, as the name implies, does rums from single barrels.  The first year they bottled juice from Panama, Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Fiji and Guyana, and haven’t stopped running since.

You’ll forgive me for having a soft spot for Guyanese rums.  The profile of the wooden stills’ output appeals to me more than most, when it isn’t dumbed down and tarted up with the sweet stuff (I move off fast when that happens because if I wanted a Tiger Bay strumpet I’d go there to get rolled, thank you very much).  Anyway SBS follows the indie maxim of not messing with what’s in the barrel, so we have something clean here, as I’d expect.

It smells perfectly fine.  It reeks of well polished leather, aromatic tobacco smoke, prunes and unsweetened dark chocolate, and that’s just for openers.  There’s also raisins, salted caramel, brine, an olive or two, some mild coffee and some moist brown sugar that still has the whiff of molasses in it. And behind all that is damp black earth, rotting bananas and a darkness that makes you think perhaps it’s trying to channel a HP Lovecraft or something.

I enjoyed the nose for sure, but it’s the taste that makes or breaks a wooden still rum.  Here, it was excellent – thick, dark, and almost creamy, like Irish coffee. Some licorice and mint chocolate led off, a bit of raisins, toffee, nougat, a twitch of ripe apples.  And then it opened up and out came the coffee, the leather, salt caramel, prunes, plums, blackberries, molasses … and was that ripe avocados with salt I was getting in the background?  Quite possibly – the richness of the rum, both in taste and in texture, could hardly be faulted. And the finish was excellent, solid and breathy, not giving anything new, but sort of summing things up – so, some leather, tobacco, stale coffee grounds, caramel and those fruits again, fainter this time.

Now, there’s no doubt in my mind that this was as Guyanese as pepperpot and DDL – the real question is, which still made the rum?  The label says it’s an Enmore from a pot still, all of SBS’s records (here and here) say “Enmore” and “pot” but the Enmore still itself is a wooden coffey, so that only leaves two options – either the label is wrong, or it’s one of the two other stills, the Port Mourant wooden double pot, or the Versailles wooden single pot. And since Marco makes no mention of the PM still ever going near Enmore (it was moved to Albion, then to Uitvlugt and then to Diamond), and since the Versailles still was in Enmore in 1995 (the last year that estate’s distillery made rum) then the balance of probability says it’s a Versailles, as Marius of Single Cask Rum stated without attribution in his own rundown of the SBS rums. 

Assuming my line of reasoning is correct, then it’s a Versailles-still rum (SBS are digging to clear this mystery up on my behalf after I contacted them about the discrepancy), but maybe this is all just pedantry and anal-retentive detail mongering.  After all, it tastes a lot like the Moon Import Enmore 1988-2011 which supposedly was a coffey still rum from there, and even if it was (or wasn’t), who that drinks this thing really deep-down cares? I thought that the rum was more solid and “thicker” than a true — and usually more elegant — Enmore, yet more civilized than the Versailles rums tend to be. It was deep, dark, and delicious, a very good rum indeed for those who like that profile, and if we can’t identify its origins with precision, at least we can drink it, enjoy it, love it — and thank SBS for bringing it to our attention.  We just don’t see enough of such rums any more and that’s reason enough to appreciate what they did, even without the business about which still it came off of.

(#640)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Distilled November 1988, bottled October 2016.  For my money that’s a 28 year old
  • Many thanks to Nicolai Wachmann, who sourced me the sample quite a while back. I seem to have lost my glass-and-sample-bottle picture, hence my using stock photos
  • The rum is red brown in colour, very pretty in a glass.
Jul 072019
 

“Austere” says the back label of Rum Nation’s massive rum beefcake from Réunion, and they weren’t kidding. The rhum traditionalle from the French Department is bottled at 60.5% ABV, is seriously violent, a tropically-aged molasses-derived brown bomber, and to my mind it’s quite a step up from the lower-proofed 45% 7 year old agricole they had previously released in 2016.  It is not recommended for people who don’t know what they’re getting into.

HyperFocal: 0

Why?  Because insofar as it has those wild, fierce and pungent smells and tastes, it’s very much like the new wave of Jamaican rums now making such big waves – Hampden and Worthy Park in particular.  Because this presses many of the same buttons, shares something of the same rum-DNA, the major one being that it’s coming off a still stuffed with the potential to crank up the ester-count. And while neither of these two bottles says so — for whatever reason — I’m going on record as saying they’re both from Savanna and the wonder of it is that they come off a savalle copper column still, not pot stills like the Jamaicans.  And yet the ‘Nation’s cask strength version from 2018 is in no way a lesser rum.

Just smelling it tells you that.  It releases such an intense aroma when cracked – a beautifully clear piece of work, smelling of caramel, vanilla, leather, wine, and a lot of red fruits: cherries, red currants and pomegranates, that kind of thing.  And that’s not all…esters come out of hiding after five minutes or so, bubble gum, sharp green fruits, sandalwood, cloves, acetones, and that’s accompanied by a sort of woody, almost meaty smell that’s tough to pin down but really quite interesting.  And as if all this was not enough it continued with sugar cane sap, a citrus line, mint, thyme, and even a twist of black licorice – seriously, you should keep that glass going for at least ten minutes, preferably more, because it just doesn’t seem to want to stop.

Some rums falter on the taste after opening up with a nose of uncommon quality – fortunately Rum Nation’s Réunion Cask Strength rum (to give it its full name) does not drop the ball. It’s sharp and crisp at the initial entry, mellowing out over time as one gets used to the fierce strength. It presents an interesting combination of fruitiness and muskiness and crispness, all at once – vanilla, lychee, apples, green grapes, mixing it up with ripe black cherries, yellow mangoes, lemongrass, leather, papaya; and behind all that is brine, olives, the earthy tang of a soya (easy on the vegetable soup), a twitch of wet cigarette tobacco (rather disgusting), bitter oak, and something vaguely medicinal.  It’s something like a Hampden or WP, yet not — it’s too distinctively itself for that. It displays a musky tawniness, a very strong and sharp texture, with softer elements planing away the roughness of the initial attack. Somewhat over-oaked perhaps but somehow it all works really well, and the finish is similarly generous with what it provides — long and dry and spicy, with some caramel, stewed apples, green grapes, cider, balsamic vinegar, and a tannic bitterness of oak, barely contained (this may be the weakest point of the rum).

I noted that it reminds me of the New Jamaican rums and that’s certainly true.  But for anyone who likes the Lontan rums, the 2006 HERR 10 YO or the two 2018 “57” expressions, its uniqueness can’t be described by simply saying it’s a version of a rum from the Caribbean. It’s fiercely and uncompromisingly itself, with tastes that complement — without replacing — the rums issued by its cousins from Jamaica. It’s dry, intense, rich, searing, complex, and that short tropical ageing period mellowed it enough to let subtler notes shine without dampening them down too much or losing the crispness of the more youthful elements. And so, summing up, what we have here is a relatively young rum that tries to wring the very last whiff or drop of flavour from its distillate — and succeeds brilliantly.

(#639)(86/100)

Jul 042019
 

2014 was both too late and a bad year for those who started to wake up and realize that Velier’s Demerara rums were something special, because by then the positive reviews had started coming out the door, the prices began their inexorable rise, and, though we did not know it, it would mark the last issuance of any Demeraras of the Age by the Genoese concern headed by Luca Gargano.  Yesu Persaud – DDL’s chairman – was slated to retire by the end of that year, and in early 2015 the new chairman terminated the preferential relationship.

That said, it was not entirely a disaster for Luca, because, as he remarked to me in 2018 when we were discussing that remarkable series of rums, he was already seeing a diminution in the quality of the casks he was being allowed to select from. And these consisted of marques of lesser ages, experimental work and overall diminishing returns. So perhaps it was time to move on to other things.

The Uitvlugt rum we’re looking at today, one of the last bottled in that year and in that Age, was still quite respectable based on its stats: distilled in 1996 on the four-column French Savalle Still (at the time housed at the estate, not Diamond); full tropical ageing in Guyana resulting in a 78% angel’s share losses and four remaining barrels which went into 1124 bottles; and a solid strength of 57.2%.

Did it sample well? Judge for yourself. The nose of the dark amber rum was refined, gentle…even easy. This was surprising given it was just about navy strength (one can wonder if that was a coincidence).  But even with that lack of oomph, it was remarkably distinct, even precise with the clarity of the dusky aromas it emitted. These began with molasses, brown sugar, caramel and vanilla, and added a thread of licorice, cinnamon, lemon zest, and then dumped in bags of dark, fleshy fruits like plums, prunes and ripe peaches. In a way it was like stepping back into a time, when those flavours defined “good” without anyone bothering to look for additional complexity – what distinguished this nose was the way they all came together in a refined olfactory melange, orderly, measured, balanced. 

Tasting it showed that the strength which had not been so apparent when smelled was simply biding its time.  It didn’t come across as aggressive or glittering sharp, just firm and very controlled, biting just enough to let you know it wasn’t to be taken for granted. The immediate tastes were of salty olives, cider, apples, quite strong.  Slowly (and with a drop or two of water) this developed into molasses, brown sugar, black currants, prunes plus smoke and a well-worn, well-cared for leather jacket. But what really stood out — over and beyond the rich dark fruits and the sense of well-controlled oakiness — was the sense of a rum-infused hot mocha with caramel, molasses, whipped cream, and a dusting of almonds and sweet spices, and it’s out and out delectable, even elegant.  I spent a lot of time sniffing it, sure, but much more just tasting. This thing is dangerous because it’s tasty enough to encourage rampant sipping, and the finish – slow, long-lasting, deeply flavoured with spices, chocolate, almonds and raisins – doesn’t assist in one’s self control in the slightest. 

For those who have a love affair with rums from the famed wooden stills, the Uitvlugt marques – whether by Velier or other independents, light or heavy, dark or blonde, tropical or continental – occasionally appear to be second-tier efforts, even throwaway fillers made with less elan and dedication than more famous rums we know better. Coming as they do from a column still, they are sometimes overlooked.

But they should not be. Admittedly, the Uitvlugt 1996 was not a severely complex rum with a million different subtleties chasing each other up and down the rabbit hole, the enjoyment of which lay in teasing out all the various notes, and sensing ever more around the corner.  It was more a coming together of all the flavours we associate with rum, in an exciting yet somehow still traditional way, impeccably assembled, elegantly balanced, exactingly chosen, and hearkening back to familiar old favourites from simpler times which now reside only in our memories.

So even then, at the end of the Age, when all was coming to a close and we thought we had seen pretty much everything, Luca still managed to pull a few last Guyanese rum rabbits out of his hat.  The Uitvlugt 1996 will likely not be one of the pot-still decades-old classics that fetches a few thousand dollars at auction, but for those who want to see what all the fuss about Velier is, while not straying too far out of their comfort zone, I can’t think of many better places to start than this unsung gem.  

(#638)(87/100)


Other notes

Jul 012019
 

M&G out of Cabo Verde, as noted in the review of their tasty little white, stands for Musica e Grogue, a hat tip to the love of island music and island rum that characterized the founders, Jean-Pierre Engelbach (with his fascinating involvement in the dramatic and musical arts over the decades), and Simão Évora, a local Cabo Verde grogue producer and music-devotee. Using one of the five grogue producers in the tiny village of Tarrafal (population = 450, stills = 5, a stat that fascinates everyone who’s read it) they produce two main products, the white, and a slightly more out-of-nappies version, the Velha which stands for “aged” in the local vernacular.

Essentially, the Velha is just their white grogue that’s been allowed to sleep a while longer.  It has the same 10-15 day natural fermentation of organic, cane-derived juice, and the same distillation in a fire fed pot still, which is then collected and set to mature.  Now, back in 2017 they obtained eight oak barrels imported from a French winemaker from the Gaillac terroir (Brocol varietal), and not having a warehouse, proceeded to dig a cellar for them in the middle of the village (!!), and left the grogue to age there for 13 months, then bottled it in 2018 with an outturn of less than a thousand bottles — 604, to be exact — captured at a firm 44%.

With such a short ageing cycle we might be anticipating something a bit off the reservation, slightly tamed by the barrels and the sub-50% strength. Naah, not really. It smelled sweet and soft, of fanta and sprite and a bowl of red olives.  There was a whiff of anise and vanilla and oak and coffee grounds, and after some minutes, also raisins, dates, figs, and aromatic pipe tobacco, flowers and a sly little wine note set off by just a hint of lemon zest.

That was quite a medley on the nose, yet oddly the palate didn’t have quite have as many tunes playing. It was initially briny with those olives coming back, a little peanut brittle, salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, all held back.  What I liked was its general softness and ease of delivery – there was honey and cream, set off by a touch of citrus and tannics, all in a pleasant and understated sort of combination that had a surprisingly good balance that one would not always imagine a rhum so young could keep juggling as well as it it did.  Or as long. Even the finish, while simple, came together well – it gave up some short and aromatic notes, slightly woody and tannic, and balanced them out with soft fruits, pipe tobacco, coffee and vanilla, before exhaling gently on the way out. Nice.

Since I’ve started searching out and encountering these rums from Cabo Verde, I have been wondering about the dichotomy between how I had thought they would taste and how they actually tasted. That misconception – mine, at any rate – derived from an almost complete lack of familiarity with Cabo Verde grogues.  So far I’ve tried just a few, but those few have impressed me quite a bit.  While not yet world beaters, they show that the best new rums (or undiscovered old ones) are not always the biggest names or those with the loudest voices or even the best reputations, because we just don’t know enough about so many of them, even now. The M&G Velha and the Natural — quietly and cogently and without fuss — make the point that when these rums become available, it’s well worth giving them a try even if we never heard of them before,  just to see where else rums can go, how well they can be made, and how good they can taste.

(#637)(84/100)


Other notes

While the Velha and the white are the main products of the company, M&G also make a number of grogue-based punches at around 22-25 % ABV that are flavoured with local fruit.

Back label translation:

“This blonde rum comes from the terroir of Tarrafal of Mont Trigo on the island of Santo Antao (Cape Verde). For decades, our producers have been carrying on the tradition of making the Grogue, an artisanal rum with a surprising flavor, with tastes of fruit, cane and spices. Cultivated on a volcanic soil, without fertilizer or pesticide, the sugar cane benefits from dry tropical climate and good irrigation

It comes from a fair trade. Aged for more than a year in Bordeaux barrels available in our cellar, this grogue velha has acquired woody flavors that enhance the original taste and confer a beautiful roundness.

Exceptional cuvée limited to 604 bottles.”

Jun 262019
 

The fourth and last of the four Dutch West Indies rums that I obtained solely to shed some light on the islands is a pale 35% shrug of indifference called the Palmera White Aruba rum. You know me, I have a thing for unapologetically barking-mad high-proofed white rums – but dis ain’ dat, as my bushmen squaddies would say back in the old days.

Were you to google it, you’d find that the Palmera Quality Products company produces several rums – notably the White and the Dark “authentic Arubian rums with a rich heritage flavour” at standard strength, and is at pains to mention on its About page that “…PQP produces many different beverages in its own processing plant…[and] produces products locally from carefully developed formulas that meet international standards.” No mention of a distillery, a blender, a sugar cane source, an ageing regimen. Call me a cynic, but it sure implies a mass-produced neutral-spirits-treatment operation to me, not a rum made by a dynamic master blender who knows his sh*t, let alone by a distillery that can be identified.  

And maybe that’s why I can never find out anything about these companies, and why the Dutch West Indian islands’ rums – the San Pablo Gold label and Platinum White from Curacao and the Carta Reserva from Aruba – have singularly failed to make any lasting impression on the rumisphere. That might also explain why nobody ever posts an ecstatic hosanna on FB saying “I got this!” and then basks in the glory of the hunt concluded, the find immortalized, the cheers of the envious crowd modestly acknowledged.

So then, what was in the glass that day? A white rum, 35%, supposedly from Aruba (I suppose otherwise), and very little to go on beyond that. As befitting its puny mouse-that-roared proofage, it didn’t give off much of an aroma – sugar water, grass, dill, the sweetness of laundry detergent and a tad of lemon juice.  It was marginally more assertive than the Carta Reserva, and maybe a shade better balanced between some sweet and lemony components.

The taste was mostly sodas: 7-Up or Sprite, cream soda.  Some vanilla, coconut, and vague herbaceous flavours, sugar water and pears, and believe me, that was reaching. Maybe it’s an island thing, to make rums this weak (the current rums listed on the website are similarly proofed, bar a pair of 151s), but all a rum like this one can do is juice up a cocktail or give you a headache in hot weather because you won’t think something so mild could affect you, when of course it can.

The Palmera is as unprepossessing as all the others from the region I’ve sampled (bar the untried overproofed 151s).  It’s light and white, weak and meek, and after the first three tries with its cousins, I approached it with distinct lack of enthusiasm, and finished the tasting exercise with relief. The rum just, I dunno, has this indifferent air of “good ‘nuff” that offends me for some reason, like barely enough effort was put into it to make it sell, and no more. Even the Curacao San Pablo rums at least had the courage to go to 40% instead of messing around with this underwhelming strength.

Socrates remarked that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Where I to apply that here and paraphrase, I’d add a codicil that the Palmera and its cousins makes inevitable – “Sometimes the examined rum is not worth drinking.”  Sorry, but here that’s God’s own truth, and the best I can say about it is that although it’s pointless and purposeless and near tasteless, let’s be grateful that at least it’s painless.

(#636)(64/100)


Other notes

The design of the modern labels is quite different from the one I bought, so I assume there’s been some changes over the years.  I don’t know if the blend or recipe was changed when the label did, nor am I aware when this happened

Jun 242019
 

This is one of those strange rums that clearly exists, but about which nobody seems to know anything, even though I was informed it remains on sale in Aruba to this day. Jazz Singh out of the UK couldn’t help – he rather witheringly remarked that the only local stuff he found on the island was “a lot of imported column rubbish” and that the one distillery Aruba used to have is definitely closed. And good luck with finding any info on the company whose name is on the label, Playa Liquor and Bottling Co, ‘cause that’s equally opaque and non-communicative. So for the moment I’ll treat is a sort of low rent tourist trap hooch. In fact, I’m not even sure what else the company does, so spare is Playa’s online footprint, on FB or elsewhere.

There is an air of “generic” about the rum. It has a title used before – “Superior Carta Reserva” was also a 1970s Puerto Rican rum made for E.F. Debrot Inc (a liquor merchant in Aruba), and it’s white, it’s 35%, and that’s about all you’re going to get here.  I’d hazard a guess it’s a column still product, and that it’s made elsewhere under contract by a third party…assuming it continues to be made at all, because there’s simply no way that any rum company would not advertise its own product, even locally, with this kind of promotional black hole. 

Tasting notes, then, because what else can we do? Nose: a thin, watery, a slightly salty cream soda and Angostura bitters…what we used to call a “rockshandy” when I was a boy.  Plus vanilla and a whiff of citrus. There’s not much more – it’s like light alcoholic water and no aroma of any distinctiveness whatsoever.

Palate? Nope, not a whole lot there either. 35% ABV excites little beyond my indifference.  Even having it first thing in the morning with nothing else before, so that the strength would be less of a factor than later, achieved nothing.  A splash of salt water and an olive or two, vanilla again, a short, faint bite of a very ripe apple, and maybe a pear…or was that a cucumber? Who cares?  The thing is so dim, so bland, so lacking anything resembling character, that you be forgiven for thinking it was in witness protection. The best part is the short, sweet, slightly salty, slightly dry finish, because, you know, it finishes. 

So there we are. Probably molasses based, filtered, an uninspirational, boring, flaccid excuse for a rum, distinguished only by its remarkable lack of anything in particular. It’s a hollow rum, a watery alcohol delivery system, eliciting nothing in the rum drinker except perhaps a big yawn. I’ll just leave it there.

(#635)(65/100)

Jun 202019
 

The “M&G” in the rhum’s title is not, as you might expect, the initials of the two founders of this small operation in Cabo Verde. In a lyrical twist, the letters actually stand for Musica e Grogue: Music and Grog.  Which is original, if nothing else, because artistic touches are not all that common in our world, and such touches are often dismissed as mere frippery meant to distract from a substandard product.

In this case, however Jean-Pierre Engelbach, who founded the company with local Cabo Verde grogue producer and music-lover Simão Évora, has an interesting background in the dramatic and musical arts, and was a singer, comedian and director on the French scene for decades…one can only wonder what drove him to amend his career at this late stage by taking a sharp U turn and heading into the undiscovered country of grogues, but for my money, we should not quibble, but be grateful that another fascinating branch of the Great Rum Tree has come to our attention. For what it’s worth, he told me he fell in love with Cabo Verde music a long time ago, leading to visits and a growing appreciation and love for the local rhums and eventually the two men chose to entwine their passions in the name of the company.

Anyway, this particular product is an unaged white, a grogue by the islands’ definitions (the only one that counts), derived from sugar cane in the Tarrafal village just south of Monte Trigo on the island of Santo Antão, the most north-westerly of the series of islands making up Cabo Verde..

Fire-fed pot still in Tarrafal. Photo (c) Musica e Grogue FB page

This one small village has five small artisanal distilleries (!!) that produce grogue in small quantities — about 20,000 liters annually — and M&G’s founders believe that the cane varietals there, combined with the climate and soil, produce a juice of exceptional quality. However, they only use a single preferred grogue-distiller for their juice, unlike Vulcão, also from here, which is a blend of three.

The production methods are straightforward: the cane, grown pesticide- and fertilizer-free, is crushed within 48 hours of harvesting, and fermentation is open air with natural from wild yeast for 10-15 days.  The wash is then run through a fire-heated pot still, taken off at around 45% and is left to rest for a few weeks in 20 liter demi-johns known as a “Lady Jeanne” (also referred to as a Mama Juana or Dame Jeanne in Spanish and French speaking countries respectively).  The peculiarity of this rest is that the large squat bottle in question is also stoppered with banana leaves, which “[…] allows the air to pass during the rest period of the grogue, necessary after the distillation,” said Jean-Pierre Engelbach, when I asked him.

Banana-leaf-stoppered demi-johns in which the grogue rests after distillation for 3-4 weeks. Photo (c) Musica e Grogue FB Page

That out of the way, what we had here, then, was a rhum made to many of the same general specifications as a French island agricole, while preserving its own unique production methodology and, hopefully, drinking profile.  Did it succeed?

Oh yes.  On smelling it for the first time, my initial notes read “subtly different” and within its strictures, it was. It initially seemed like a crisp-yet-gentle agricole, smelling cleanly of sweet sugar cane sap, vanilla, dill, green grapes and freshly mown grass, with a teasing note of brine and olives and a whiff of watered down vegetable soup fed to a jailbird in solitary.  It was delicate and clear and different enough to hold the attention of anyone, nasal newbie or jaded rumdork, and the nice thing is, after five minutes it still was purring out aromas: flowers, cherries and pears, with a firm citrus line holding things together

While stronger and more individualistic drinks might be my personal preference these days, there was no denying that the Grogue Natural was a very pleasant drink, and I have a feeling I’ll be getting more of these things, as they provide a lovely counterpoint to agricoles in general.  It tasted light, grassy, herbal, sweetish (without actually being sweet, if you catch my drift), with hints of watery sap, cane juice, cucumbers, an olive or two, and lots of light fruits – guavas, pears, soursop, ginnip, that kind of thing, and again, that lemon zest providing a clothesline on which to hang the lot.  Finish was long and silky, surprising for something bottled at a modest 44%, but you don’t hear me complaining – it was just fine.

It’s become a sort of personal hobby for me to try unaged white rums of late, because while I love the uber-aged stuff, they do take flavours from the barrel and lose something of their original character, becoming delicious but changed spirits.  On the other hand, unaged blancs or blancos — white rums — when not filtered to nothingness for the clueless, are about as close to pure and authentic rums as anyone’s going to get these days, and Cabo Verde’s stuff is among the most authentic of the lot.

The Cap-Vert Grogue Natural that  M. Jean-Pierre and Sr. Simão are making is one of these that need to be tried for that reason alone, quite aside from its overall drinkability. Sure it lacks the meticulous clarity of the French agricoles, and you’d never mistake it for a cachaca or a clairin or a Paranubes, but the relative isolation and old-style production methods of these music-loving Cabo Verde producers have assured us of a really interesting juice here, which deserves to become much more well known than it yet is.  And drunk, of course. Yes. Preferably after a hard day’s work, as the sun goes down, while relaxing to the sounds of some really good island music.

(#634)(83/100)


Additional background

The company was formed in 2017 by the two gentlemen named above, who were drawn together by their mutual love of music and local rhum.  But it was not until 2018 that they received the formal licenses permitting them to export grogues and started shipping some to Europe. This delay may have to do with the fact that hundreds of small moonshineries and primitive stills – nearly four hundred  by one estimate – are scattered across Cabo Verde islands, with wildly varying quality of output. Indeed, according to one news report by the Expresso das Ilhas (Island Express), some 10 million liters of spirit calling it self “grogue” was marketed in 2017, but less than half of that could legitimately term itself so, since it was not made from sugar cane, and there were issues of hygiene and quality control to consider.

Be that as it may, M&G were able to navigate the new bureaucratic, quality and legal hurdles, obtain the requisite licenses and permits, and produced two grogues for the export market: the lightly-aged Velha we’ll be looking at soon, and the Natural.


Other Notes

  • M&G and Vulcão are among the frist brands to export grogue from Cabo Verde
  • M&G also makes some flavoured punches at a lower 18% strength
  • Maison Ferroni, which is the brand owner for the Vulcão, is the distributor for M&G
  • This bottle is part of the first release, and is something of a pilot project for the company’s export plans….hence the limited edition of 639 bottles.  It’s not special per se, just part of a batch of the first four hundred liters or so which they exported.
  • Back label translation:

This white rum comes from the Tarrafal terroir of Monte Trigo on the island of Santa Antao (Cape Verde). Our local producers, with their trapiches, continue the artisanal tradition of making grogue. It is distilled from fresh cane juice, cultivated on volcanic soil in the middle of fruit trees, without any fertilizer or pesticide. It benefits from a dry tropical climate and the exceptional irrigation of the village. Made in 2018 with the harvest of the year, it is a fair trade product.

In this natural grogue, with its amazing flavor, we can discover the many flavors of cane fruits and spices.

A first release limited to 639 bottles