Nov 072019
 

It’s when you smell and then taste the Strand 101° (58% ABV) rum from South Africa’s Mhoba, that you begin to get an appreciation for what this relative newcomer has accomplished in so short a time. The initial punch is all pot still, all righteous reek, all the time — there’s no holding back and it’s just fascinating to inhale. It smells sharply of paint thinner, nail polish, turpentine and rancid fruit left to go bad in the sun…after a tropical rain, with the steam still coming off the ground. It contains the tartness of a lemon meringue pie mixed up with green apples and gooseberries and a flaky, buttery crust. Sugar cane sap, cider, sour cream, brine, and the rising aromas off a loaf of sourdough bread fresh from the oven.  And over all that is the clear scent of candy floss and bubble gum. I mean, is that a great beginning or what? If I closed my eyes I could hear the Wailers.

A combination of rums from a single still – part was aged, part was unaged, and blended after the fact – the taste was low key and enormously satisfying, and it reminded me of nothing so much as a slightly off-kilter Smith & Cross.  Which is not surprising, since that was exactly what they were aiming for (see below). Right away there came a blast of rotten and overripe fruits doused with caramel, then baked into a pie (yeah, I know how that sounds). Strawberries, white chocolate, apricots, bubble gum, vanilla, toffee and nuts.  There’s just enough to make for complexity, some real funkiness, yet held back enough to make for a a fascinating, well-balanced synthesis. 

Mhoba’s white was uniquely itself, while French cask suffered (only in my opinion) from trying to be too much and the elements jangled restlessly and failed to come together – here there was no such problem. Even the finish succeeded – long, dry, briny, creamy and toffee-like. There was a touch of citrus and tart sweetness, and the fruits relinquished the stage, ceding the foreground and taking a step back.

The Strand 101° was specifically designed by Knud Strand, a colourful Danish distributor who worked closely with Robert Greaves (as he had with many brands before) to bring the Mhoba line to market. What he was looking for was to create a blend of unaged and aged rum from pot stills, adhering to something of the S&C profile but from only one still (not two or more). He was messing around with samples some time back and after making his selections finally came back to two, both fullproof — one, slightly aged was too woody, with the other unaged one perhaps too funky. 

The idea to market such a rum to the South African high-end bar scene, while ensuring it would not tread on the corns of or compete with Havana Club or Bacardi (who had commercial contractual relations with many of them), and at the same time provide a balance of freshness, funkiness and woodiness. He mixed them up in varying proportions and came up with one blend that was so absolutely right that after testing it around and being given loads of plaudits, he and Greaves decided to bottle it.  And in a gesture of unusual generosity, Greaves named it after Knud, since, as he put it, “”It is your blend.”

Well, the story may have a few more steps, and maybe there’s more (or less) than I’ve recounted. What’s clear to me is how good the rum really is. Just about everything works here, the strength, the still, the cuts, the assembly, the balance between babyhood and youth, herbals and woods, the lot.  It’s a rum without doubt hewing to the path of rums of yore, while twisting things just a smidgen to highlight it own origin, its own still and its own design. If one small outfit with a tinkered pot still and some gumption can make a series of rums so well, so fast (and it really does seem to be something of a trend nowadays, doesn’t it?) then not only will the better known Caribbean houses have to make some room for this new kid and others like it, but you know what? — they may seriously have to up their game and look to their laurels, because a whole raft of such new and nimble fast-movers is coming.

(#673)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • The small South African company of Mhoba needs no more introduction after Steve James’s three part write up (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3), and the more recent Rum Revelations interview, but I include the links here for completeness.
  • The blend is roughly 50-50 between the unaged high ester component and the very slightly aged part, depending on their relative concentrations. Strength is 58% which in Imperial measurements works out to 101 proof.
  • The blue and gold colours of the label were chosen in homage to the Smith & Cross Jamaican rum which was its initial inspiration.
Nov 042019
 

There was a lot of interest in and written about Mhoba between the UK 2018 and Paris 2019 rumfests, and when one checks out the rums they make, it’s not hard to see why.  It’s from a unique part of the world, has been deep-dived by Steve James in a thee-part-post that could hardly be bettered (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 are here), has a pot still action going on, and the rums themselves are solidly distinct. So we should beware of letting them fall off our mental rum radar in between expos – because they’re good, and, perhaps more important, well made, unmessed-with, cask strength, and very, very original.

Mhoba’s founder Robert Greaves originally considered making a South African version of cachaca…but fortunately for us, changed his mind. He built his own small stills (many of them, each evolving from the previous iteration), played around with the technical aspects of crushing, fermenting and distilling for two years, applied for a Liquor License in South Africa, and it all finally came together in 2015. Initial samples sent to the Miami Rum Festival in 2016 resulted in more tweaking, and by 2018 he had a blend of rum aged for about a year in six scraped, scoured, seared and toasted French oak casks (the epic of how he ended up there is worth a read so head over to Rum Revelations for some background), which he presented in London that year — though the one I tried was from a six-months-older blend of the same barrels, which yielded 330 bottles and which was shown off in the Paris Rumfest in early 2019.

This is where good labelling helps understand what you’re getting.  Mine read that it was a sugar cane juice rum, single blended, the bottle outturn (330 bottles, of which this was a sample), batch 2019FC1, South African made, and 65% ABV (ouch!). Actually, the only things missing from the label were the age statement (website says just over a year) and the still of origin (it’s a pot still), which I imagine subsequent labels will correct, especially as additional aged varietals begin to enter the market and a stock of different aged expressions gets built up – already, the company site lists eight different rums, so they’re not wasting any time.

I liked the pungency and herbal nature of Mhoba’s white rum, and remarked it compared nicely to a Neisson or a civilized clairin.  The French cask was a horse of a different colour, though I can’t definitively state whether this was because of the ageing, the cuts made or the tweaking of the still. One thing for sure – the casks had their say here.  Just the nose made that clear – very little of the vegetal, herbal notes of the white made it through here. Indeed, what I smelled was a combination of dialled-down Jamaican funk – sharp, overripe, sour fruits, oddly shy for such a powerful rum – combined with damp cardboard, hot earth after a rain, and paint thinner. Gradually, over the half hour I spent smelling it, it released citrus zest, toffee, chocolate oranges, dill and just a hint of brine. And yet it remained curiously indistinct, hard to come to grips with and pick apart.

The palate was better, very dry, very strong, yet that vagueness persisted here too, if perhaps not as much. Sour fruits gone off were there – mangoes, apricots, peaches, cashews (the ones with the seeds outside) — plus mint, dill and rosemary, brine, ginger and lemongrass. These were the sharper aspects, balanced off by some light coffee, caramel, wine, black grapes and those dusky earth and cardboard and coffee notes, leading to a roaring sharp finish which was long and dry, closing off with hints of nuts, coffee, caramel, and a last whiff of fruitiness

I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this.  The minimal ageing toned down the rawness of an unaged spirit in a way that polished off some of the rough edges, so that was good; the additional fruitiness imparted by the Cape Brandy left in the staves (even after the sanding and scraping away of a few millimeters of impregnated wood) was nice – overall, it was a solid, strong drink. This, paradoxically, was also its weakness.  The strength was so great that it overpowered the subtle notes that a mere year-and-a-bit of ageing had provided, and it failed to cohere in a way that would allow the individual taste components to shine more. Here then was a rum that I felt could either use some more ageing, or some water, and indeed I did put a few drops into my drink and it became much more approachable that way.

Still, it remained something of an odd duck, hard to pigeonhole, tough to nail down precisely.  It had aspects of an aged agricole, and points that reminded me of a Jamaican high-ester rum, all combined with the dampening anonymity of a column-still, high-proofed, lightly-aged filtered product from, say, Bacardi.  In that lay its originality and its attraction because in a market crowded with ever more indie cask strength releases, new experiments from old houses, and ever more cheap column still plonk, anything new and well made and tasting the way it does is a welcome breath of fresh air. I may not have been entirely sold on its quality, but I won’t forget it any time soon — and as the years go by I can see my shelf having more than just a few of the rums from this small South African company, because they’re surely one to watch.

(#672)(83/100)

Sep 232019
 

If you doubt the interconnectedness of the modern world, let me relate this circular story. About three or four years ago Gregers Nielsen (now of the Danish company 1423 and someone I enjoy heckling in every rumfest I see him at) introduced me to Richland Rum from Georgia, which I thought was nice, if perhaps not a world beating standout. Fast forward a couple of years and I’m doing research on rums of Africa and in looking at Liberia I come across Sangar rums, made by an expatriate American who was consulting with – Richland Rum. Another year passes, and at the 2019 Berlin rumfest the very first stand I’m told to go to is a new rum from Liberia – Sangar.  And who told me this and pointed in their direction? Gregers…who then ended up working two booths over. I rest my case.

That amusing if irrelevant tale aside, here is some of the background of Sangar. My initial research a year or so back created some confusion – the application for equity  investment called it Sehzue Distillers; the contact email at the time said Nimba Valley Rum and the official site referred to Miseh Distilling even though the website is for Sangar rum – but in all cases the principal force behind it is Mike Sehzue, an American West Point graduate with an MBA whose father was born in Liberia.

Mr. Sehzue had no idea how to make rum, but on a visit to Liberia in 2010, he became more aware of the local cane juice alcohol with its long grass-roots history and, realizing that expertise and raw materials were on hand, he decided to open a medium sized distillery both to encourage industry in a country now recovering from a protracted and bitter civil war, and to showcase the potential of locally made rum.  A chance meeting led to an introduction (in 2014) to Erik and Karin Vonk of Richland Rum distinction and they provided him with the encouragement and technical advice which permitted him to open his distillery for business a few years later. The result is the only rum they make at the moment, the 40% Sangar White, sold primarily in Liberia, with the festival circuit raising awareness for export plans to the USA, EU and UK in later 2019 and 2020.

The rum is pot-still produced and derives from cane juice, not molasses. Sangar has no cane fields of its own, and contracts with seventeen or so local farmers in the surrounding area to source its cane, which is brought to the distillery and crushed within eight hours of cutting, with the juice put to ferment for five days.  Then it’s run through their copper pot still, and bar filtration for sediment, is bottled pretty much as it is, unaged, clear, at a relatively demure 40% (which I suspect is so that it can more easily be appreciated by the target audience in the USA).

For the hardcore rum junkie, 40% would not normally excite serious interest (although the prospect of trying a new and relatively unknown African rum absolutely should), but trust me, the combination of a rum incorporating magic words like “pot still” and “unaged” and “clear” was and is well worth seeking out when it comes to the festival near you because the aromas and tastes are barely held in check even by those softer standards. The nose, for example announced its potential badassery with an initial tantara of salt, wax, gherkins in vinegar and just enough bite to make one wonder if a red chili wasn’t hiding in there someplace. Brine and olives were at the fore, followed by crisp green apples, lemon zest, cinnamon, and cumin.

Tastewise, I would have preferred something released at a higher proof, because the profile was mild instead of forceful, slightly muddled instead of really crisp — and while that will allow anyone to drink it neat without an issue, it also muted the flavours, almost losing some, that could have used a little beefing up.  Clearly discernible were citrus, light fruit (papaya, white guavas, pears), sugar water, watermelons, sweet green peas (!!), and the rum retained just enough of the attitude to permit a good interaction with the brine and olives with the lighter components. Unsurprisingly the finish was short and wispy, mostly a mix of sweet and salt, soya, light fruits and a dash of cumin to close up the show.

So let’s sum up, then. The balance was excellent, the interplay of flavours spot on, and I was quietly impressed that so much could be packed into a package with so little aggro. Choosing my words carefully, I can say that this is a near perfect 40% white homunculus of a rumlet, and there will be an audience for it, no question – but it won’t be those who cut their teeth on agricole blancs north of 50%, for whom this will be an interesting diversion without replacing their pet loves.  That said, there’s nothing at all wrong with it – it delivers at its proof point for those who appreciate that, and for those looking for an interestingly taste-filled mild white sipper, it delivers there as well.

Sangar points to several developing themes in today’s rumworld, which I‘ve almost  inadvertently been following through my reviews and only become clearer in hindsight. First there’s the gradually increasing amount of micro-distilleries who aren’t seeking to make whisky or gin or vodka (or everything at once, as much as they can), but rum, full stop.  Bar the United States, these micros are in remote areas of the world far from the Caribbean, like Africa and the Far East. And they seem to have a near-unnatural love for issuing unaged white rums at higher proofs, which is a subset of rums drawing more attention in recent years, especially in the cocktail circuit

With respect to that last remark, Sangar is something of an outlier, since the white reviewed here is bottled at standard. And the agricole blancs from the old and proud houses of the French West Indies are not in danger of losing their pride of place any time soon, not to the Far Eastern micros, or to Sangar. But as I noted above, with the interconnectedness of the world and transmigration of skills to any place with enough desire and smarts to make a good rum, it’s possibly just a matter of time before Sangar becomes a rum producer who really does earn the use of both the words “artisanal” and “craft” … without turning the words into the meaningless marketing twaddle that afflicts so many others.

(#659)(82/100)


Other notes

Sangar has small quantities of rum ageing away in port casks in Liberia: it’s unknown when these will be released as aged rums to the market, but it does point to their long term development strategy.

Jul 222019
 

South Africa has been making wine for centuries, backyard bathtub liquors are a local staple, and rums and rotgut of some kind (and quality) have always been made. Still, we may want to pay more attention to those rums going forward because in the last decade there have been quite a few small local companies starting up operations there, making small batch rums with little-stills-that-could and quietly garnering kudos for themselves for some interesting products, none of which I’ve tried (which is my loss). Companies like Copeland, Inverroche, Tapanga, Whistler, 25° South, DeVry, Distillery 031, Brickmakers, and the list goes on.

Another one of these is Mhoba, which Steve James of the Rum Diaries Blog brilliantly detailed a couple of months ago. Mhoba has been experimenting and playing around with making rums as far back as 2012, when the founder Robert Greaves thought of making a South African version of cachaca…but he changed his mind after a seminal 2013 encounter in a hotel bar in Mauritius introduced him to all the variety global rums possessed. This led to two years of trial and error, attempting to improve the quality of his spirit on a self-constructed pot still (he has a mechanical engineering background, which undoubtedly helped – in that way he’s a lot like Mike Moscoso of Barik in Haiti), as well as applying for a Liquor License, which all finally came together in 2015.  Samples went out the door in 2016 to the Miami Rum Festival which resulted in feedback and more tweaking, and 2017 at the UK provided an opportunity for a more serious intro of the company’s work to the public. It was successful enough that by 2019 it was being distributed in Europe and gained a lot of interest and word of mouth by being probably the only cane-juice derived rum in South Africa.

I’ll leave you to peruse Steve’s enormously informative company profile for production details (it’s really worth reading just to see what it takes to start something like a craft distillery), and just mention that the rum is pot still distilled from juice which is initially fermented naturally before boosting it with a strain of commercial yeast.  The company makes three different kinds of white rums – pot still white, high ester white and a blended white, all unaged. I tried what is probably the tamest of the three, the Select, which the last one, blended from several cuts taken from batches processed between October to December of 2018 and bottled at 58%.  All of this is clearly marked on the onsite-produced label (self-engraved, self-printed, manually-applied), which is one of the most informative on the market: it details batch number, date, strength, variety of cane, still, number of bottles in the run…it’s really impressive work. 

Ah, but how does it taste, you ask. What does it smell like? Well, it’s not a sharp as 58% might lead you to believe, but man, that pot still action is very nice indeed. The briny notes of a humid day at the seaside, combined with olives, acetones and sour fruit, showing that the still was alive and well, and that the esters retained their influence.  There was something nice and tart about it too, like macerated gooseberries mixed up with some soursop and then dropped into a can of paint or furniture polish, and the odd thing is, it gets sweeter and saltier the longer it sits in the glass, which is quite a trick for any rum to pull off. It relaxes after some time, and adds some lemon zest, cucumbers and pimentos to the mix, after which there isn’t much more to be found – but what there was was plenty, let me assure you. The blending doesn’t entirely take the edge off the rum, which retains a sort of youthful raw intensity to the aromas.

It tastes somewhat sharper than it nosed, which is fine, something to be expected.  Again, salt, brine, olives to begin with, plus the sour fruit, acetones, nail polish.  I enjoyed the background hints of lemon zest and cinnamon and the overall crispness of the profile, which was not an amalgam of melded tastes, but a procession of crisp, high-steppin’ flavour notes that were sharp and distinct as a bayonet. What is of interest is the overall herbal, grassy aspect to it which wasn’t quite as evident on the nose: in other words it tasted something like an agricole.  Too, there was some earth, musky spices in there lending a nice balance to the experience: tumeric, I’d say, and some masala. The finish was short and dry, but nicely balanced, sweet, salty and crisp, and summed up most of the action here: salty notes, some sweet, some spices, some earth. 

Overall, my general opinion is that it resembled Neisson’s agricoles more than most, or maybe a civilized clairin (if the comparison needs to be made at all, and it doesn’t, really). It wasn’t exactly a furiously complex hurricane of a jillion different things all wanting to get your attention at once: what it did do was focus on what it had, and crisply emphasized the notes it did play, without straying too far from its strengths. I didn’t get a chance to try the pot still or the high ester whites as comparators to this white rum, but I have to admit, the sheer rough quality of this one makes me wish I had. This juice is quietly badass, and I want me some more.

(#644)(82/100)

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 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 to ten days before being run through small wood-fired 350-liter 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.
  • Three kinds of cane are harvested: Nossa Terra Pieta, Nossa Terra Branca, and Bourbon varietals.
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.