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

Jun 092019
 

“Could grogue be the next clairin?” asked Dwayne Stewart in a facebook post the other day, when he and Richard Blesgraaf were discussing the Vulcão, and his respondent (you could almost see him smile) replied with a sort of yoda-like zen calm, “Clairin is clairin.”  Which is true. Because beyond the superficial similarities of the two island nations – the relative isolation of the islands, the artisanal nature of their juice, the mom-and-pop rural distillation of the spirit far away from modern developments or technological interference – the truth is that you could not mistake one for the other. At least, not those that I’ve tried.

Take, for example, the subject of today’s review, the Vulcão grogue, which is nowhere near as ominous as its name suggests.  If you have previously tried one of the four main Velier-distributed Haitian clarins (the Sajous, Vaval, Casimir and Le Rocher), marvelled at their in-your-snoot take-no-prisoners ferocity and taste, and took Dwayne’s question to heart, you might be expecting some kind of long-gestated uber-strong clear xenomorph hammered out of Vulcan’s forge, that threatened to melt your tonsils.  But it’s not. In fact, it’s closer to an off-beat agricole than anything else, and a particularly good one at that.

Even at 45% – which is practically tame for a clear rhum these days — the Vulcão smelled lovely, and started off with brine, thyme-infused water and lemon sherbet poured over a meringue cake. After five minutes or so, it also gave off scents that were creamy, salty, olive-y, with a dusting of white chocolate and vanilla, and as if impatient to continue, belched out some additional fruity whiffs — watermelon, pears, white guavas and bananas. There were also some odd minerals and ashes and iodine (not quite medicinal, but close), with overtones of sugar-water.  

Short version – a yummy nose, and fortunately, it didn’t falter on the palate either. It was strong, and quite dry, unusual for a cane-juice based rhum (last time I had something so sere was years ago, with the Flor de Cana Extra Dry white).  The brine and olives really came out and made an initial statement here, and combined with the sweeter elements with impressive control and in well-nigh perfect balance, making for a worthy sipping rum by anyone’s standards. With a drop or two of water came white fruits, flowers and sugar water, all of which were the slightest bit tart.  And as if all that wasn’t enough, there was a light creaminess of butter pastry, Danish cookies and anise hanging about in the background, reminding me of the freshly baked croissants Mrs. Caner so loves to have in Paris. The finish is rather subdued, even faint – perhaps we should not expect too much of 45% but after that nose and that taste I sort of was, sorry, and even though I noted almonds, toblerone, sugar water, nougat, pears, ripe apples, it seemed a bit less than what had come before. Not shabby, not bad…just not up to the same standard.

Anyway, finish aside, the development and movement the rhum displays on the tongue is excellent, first salt, then sweet, then creamy, well-balanced and overall a remarkable drink by any standard. It remembers its antecedents, being both a fierce and forceful rhum…but is also a nicely integrated and tasty sipping drink, crisp and clear, displaying a smorgasbord of contrasting, even competing, yet at all times well-melded series of sweet and sour and salt flavours in delicious harmony. Sip or mix, it’ll do well in either case.

So, to answer Dwayne’s perhaps rhetorical question with respect to taste and production details, my own response would be “Not really.” While grogues are a fascinating subset of rums, an intriguing branch on Yggdrasil (The Great Rum Tree), they are too different — too elegant, maybe — to really be classed with or as clairins.  They do share some of the same DNA: fresh cut cane juice and wild yeast fermentation (for ten days) and no ageing, for example, but also go in their own direction by using pot stills (as here) not columnar ones. What comes out the other end, then, are terroire-driven white rums with a character all their own, with this one, one of the best I tried in Paris, absolutely worth trying, and close to being an undiscovered steal.  In the sense of that last statement, now that I think about it, I’d answer Dwayne differently…and tell him that they’re exactly like clairins.

(#631)(85/100)


Other notes

  • I’ve put some feelers out regarding the company that makes it, and if/when/once this is received the post will be updated with some more factual background info.
  • Made in 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. I was told five small “distilleries” exist in this tiny place, and three of them supply the grogue which is blended into the Vulcão.
  • Back label translation: The island of Santo Antao in Cabo Verde is undoubtedly one of the first cradles of cane spirits. Before rum or cachaca, it has been unchanging for hundreds of years. Distilled in ancient pot-stills made from pure cane juice, this rum ancestor is an extraordinary witness of the past.
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.
Jan 312019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#594)(80/100)


Other Notes

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

Nov 092016
 

matugga-1

A less than impressive Jamaican wannabe rum that’s actually from Africa

#315

In one of those coincidences that occasionally crop up, one of my Gallic colleagues texted me as I was putting together the write up for the Matugga, and asked me what I thought of it. “Mediocre,” was the terse response, given the comparators I had on hand that day against which I was rating it, and the almost finished review – but in retrospect that was perhaps too dismissive, since it’s not entirely a bad rum, and both the good and the bad should be acknowledged, in spite of the hyped marketing message.

In this case the selling and marketing point is the rum’s origin – East Africa, Uganda to be exact, and that sure works, because it’s entirely on that basis that I bought it (Zulu Impi is another).  This is a rum like, oh, Lost Spirits or Seven Fathoms – made by a small outfit led by one person with some drive and gumption. Considered objectively and dispassionately it’s a company that, like those other two, takes an unusual, original detail about the rum’s production, and tries to develop that into an entire marketing plan, without really finishing the job of making it a really good one, even a really good young one.

Anyway, the molasses is sourced from a small town in Uganda called Matugga – forget the blurb on the company website about the quality of cane or soil – and fermented in the UK for seven days (rather a long time) before being distilled in a copper pot still and then aged in English oak, though nowhere is it stated exactly how long.  For the record I suspect around 2-3 years max.

matugga-2That age is probably about right.  The nose of the 42% Matugga certainly gave no indication that decades of careful maturation were behind it.  In fact, my first reaction was a grimace and a “yeccch”.  Rank notes of rubber, cardboard, rotting vegetable were first, followed by others of musky and damp old houses with too many cats in it.  But fortunately these sensations were fleeting, and nose changed after opening up, moving to more dominant smells honey and acetone, richer fruits, banana and treacle, maybe half a crème brûlée.  Quite an about face, and after walking around with it, I thought it was like a young, untamed and rather rambunctious Jamaican rum, more than anything else — not nearly as well made, but not to be dismissed out of hand either.  

On the palate, the orange-gold  was not that stellar, though certainly interesting: thick and oily, almost cloying…and then a sharp skewer of black pepper and pimentos without the heat kicked in.  Again, just as with the nose, it did a ninety degree turn and became another rum altogether, more traditional.  The main players emerged on stage – caramel, vanilla, some sugar water (this and the vanilla became particularly pronounced after a while), papayas, pears and white guavas.  Underneath it all was a weird kind of bitterness of raw cocoa beans that accentuated what was already a rather jagged and inconsistent profile, one moment sweet, fruity and almost cloying, the next sharp, bitchy, peppery and out to get me.  And it finished quickly and without fanfare, giving up final hints of nuts, molasses, caramel and vanilla, standard stuff, no points here.

So no, some interesting notes and originality acknowledged, the rum doesn’t really gel.  It has potential, sure, but so far as the profile is concerned, it’s somewhat incoherent, more than a little unbalanced, not well integrated and perhaps not even sure what it wants to be — a Jamaican funk bomb, or an easier, soothing  rum made for mass consumption and to bolster sales before the really good aged stuff comes out the door. Plus those additives, whatever they are, are an annoying and pointless distraction. Why didn’t they just have the guts to take the subtle notes of an East African terroire, run with it and make a case for its uniqueness, for a rum having a profile of neither arrack or molasses or agricole but a new and untried melange of them all?  Their lack of courage in standing by the inherent qualities of their own product is a depressing commentary on both what the rum is, and what it might have been.

(79/100)

Other notes

When I started doing my research, I was unsurprised to discover 37g/L sugar on the hydrometer tests. In this case, I believe that less sugar and more ageing would do wonders for the rum. Evidently, the makers thought the opposite.

Nov 262014
 

D3S_8929

A remarkably well balanced and tasty rum from the Indian Ocean

(#189. 84/100)

***

In spite of the prevailing belief that rums are Caribbean almost by definition, it’s axiomatic that many other nations and regions produce them.  Over the years I’ve found that the most readily identifiable and distinctive (I don’t say “best”) products, products that have a flavour profile all their own, usually hail from some distant part of the world where climatic and soil conditions are far removed from the norm: consider, for example the Bundaberg, the Old Port, or even the Tanduay.  Now sure, flavourings are sometimes added to the mix with the heedlessness of Emeril chucking spices…but not always.  Sometimes it’s just the terroire.

Such a one is the Rhum Vieux Millésimé 1998 ten year old, made and bottled in Madagascar from locally grown cane and molasses, offered at 45% in a bottle that is rather amusingly wrapped in a banana leaf (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).  This is a rhum that won a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in 2012, and is one lovely piece of work.

Take for starters, the initial nose: brown sugar, coffee and mocha, straight off, very smooth and inviting – 45% was a good strength for this rum.  I looked at the labelling again with some surprise – was this a spiced rum and they forgot to mention it?  Nope.  What you got was it. It was followed by vanilla, cloves, nutmeg and a soft background of bananas, all quite unaggressive and easygoing.  There was even some vague vegetal note there after a bit, almost imperceptible.

The palate broke little new ground, simply built on that excellent lead-in: more vanilla (not enough to make me suspicious about flavouring, yet I couldn’t dismiss the thought entirely), coffee, burnt sugar, nougat.  Fried sweet bananas (I loved those as a kid), nuts, peaches.  This rum was lovely, just lovely – soft and warm and exactly strong enough for what it was – a higher proof might have made it too spicy.  There was even, after a few minutes and a drop of water, leather and the sweet perfume of aromatic cigarillos.  Some ground walnuts rounded out the profile.  The finish was surprisingly short, yet still that warmth persisted, and closing notes of white pepper, smoke and those walnuts again.

These tasting notes sound utterly conventional, don’t they? Yet they’re not, not really – the balance of the vegetal notes and vanilla and nuts and sweetness of bananas popping in oil is not at all like the Caribbean rums with which many of us are familiar; I imagine some of this taste profile comes from the Pernod Ricard barrels shipped to Madagascar to age this rum the requisite ten years; but perhaps equal credit comes from the cane itself and the environment in which it is made.

Dzama rum is made by Vidzar, one of those local companies like Banks DIH in Guyana, or Clarke’s Court in Grenada, which have a rather larger visibility in their home country than they do abroad (this may change as they expand their markets). The company was formed in 1982 due to the efforts of Mr. Lucien Fohine, who noted that the small sugar factory on the tiny island of Nosy Be produced a distillate that had distinctive flavours which persisted into the final distilled products…mostly low level rum for local consumption, to that point. After some investigation, he concluded it came from the ylang-ylang plant (also known as the macassar oil plant, or the perfume tree) whose roots intermingled with that of the cane. (If this rum is an example of the flavour holdover, he may be on to something, though I’m ambivalent about the science behind that).

In an attempt to distill a decent rum to elevate the craft of his island, he formed a company Vidzar (a contraction of Vieux Rhum de Dzamandzar), located close to the sugar cane fields of Nosy Be, by a village called Dzamadzar. The company makes a range of rums for sale, including the Dzama Club, 3 YO and 6 YO, the Dzama XV 15 year old and Cuvée Noire (untried by me) and is starting to sell in the European market. This particular ten year old was aged in the aforementioned Pernod Ricard barrels and was distilled in 1998 but the date itself is just a marker, not a commemoration of anything special (the current ten year old on the company site is the 2000 Millésimé) – I’ll hazard a guess that it was a series of barrels set aside by the master blender as simply being of higher quality.

I’ve remarked before that one rum does not sink a brand, or define it – yet I have to be honest and say that a bad one tends to make me leery about approaching others in the range, while conversely, a good one makes me enthusiastic to do so – that’s human nature.  With this excellent rum hailing from a region I’ve not tried before, whose profile is remarkably distinctive and far from unpleasant, I’m pretty stoked to see what else Dzama has in the larder the next time I get a chance to buy one.  You could do worse than trying some yourself…and this one would be an excellent place to start.

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