Nov 292018
 

Now here’s an interesting standard-proofed gold rum I knew too little about from a country known mostly for the spectacular temples of Angor Wat and the 1970s genocide.  But how many of us are aware that Cambodia was once a part of the Khmer Empire, one of the largest in South East Asia, covering much of the modern-day territories of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Viet Nam, or that it was once a protectorate of France, or that it is known in the east as Kampuchea?

Samai is a Khmer word for modern (it has subtleties and shades of meaning beyond that), and is the name given to a rum brand made by the only distillery in the country, a relatively new effort from a young company. It was formed by Daniel Pacheco and Antonio Lopez De Haro, a pair of young Venezuelan expats in 2014, who (the storyteller in me supposes) missed their home country and wanted to make an effort to bootstrap a local rum industry in a place more used to beer and rice wine and teuk thnout chhou (a whiskey-like spirit similar to Thailand’s Mekhong).

Made from locally grown cane and distilled in a pot still and aged for between one and two years, it is also, I should note, added to – it’s actually something of a flavoured rum, since a touch of honey from Ratanakiri (a province in Cambodia known for its very tasty honeys) is also added.  Too, the ageing is done in american and french oak and sherry casks, and while the company website makes no mention of how this is accomplished, I am assuming that various barrels of rum with these various woods, are all married together for the final product, which gives it an interesting flavour profile, to say the least.

All right, so we have a new distillery, a new rum, and no notes.  Let’s run through it and provide some for the curious.

Nose first.  As befits the strength and the production methodology, it’s soft, salty, and reminded me of fish sauce and miso soup.  It was also musky, musty, dry and kind of thick, with aromatic tobacco, sweet soya and molasses coiling beneath it, sort of a combination of maggi cubes, brown sugar, and raisins – intriguing to say the least.  Some very ripe fruit (babanas, pineapples) that edged towards rottenness, without ever stumbling over into spoilage. I tasted it blind and thought it was a standard proofed (it was), and it reminded me of a cross between a cheap rough darker Demerara rum (say, DDL’s 5YO, Young’s Old Sam or Watson’s) and a low-ester Jamaican.

A higher strength might have not worked as well for this rum, and given it a harshness which would not have succeeded quite as nicely as it did – as it was, it tasted nice and smooth, warm and sweet, with just enough bite behind the demure and easy facade to show it wasn’t 100% milquetoast.  The palate suggested biscuits, cereals, molasses, brown sugar, vanilla, caramel, winey notes, a melange of difficult-to-nail-down fruits – not excessively complex, but enough going on to be intriguing. It accomplished the odd trick of seeming more sweet than it was, partly because of the thickish mouthfeel and texture, and was set off by a few sly touches all its own – some brine, sharpness and that background of syrup, probably from the sherry and honey influence.  It was, shall we say, very pleasant and unintimidating, ending with a quietly impressive and surprisingly long finish, dry, dusty, somewhat sweetish, with a touch of fruit salad set off by cumin and masala.

Well now, what to make of a rum like this? It does not line up directly with any style one can immediately pinpoint, which is part of its attraction — I’d say that it’s geared towards the softer South/Latin American / Cuban or eastern palates (I was reminded of the Batavia Arrack, Amrut and Mekhong rums, for example, but not Fiji or the Japanese).  The Samai Gold rum has perhaps more sweet than lovers of purer Jamaican, St Lucian or Bajan would prefer, but if you’re into DDL’s lower-proofed rums, Plantation rums or other Asian ones, this one would be right in your wheelhouse, and much as I usually sniff at sweeter rums these days, I can’t deny that with its slightly off-kilter tastes, it’s quite a nifty drink, partly because it is, in its own way, something of an original.

Rums like the Samai showcase again the pleasure one can have in exploring iterations in the spirit, in a way that is simply lacking in most others.  It’s like a voyage of discovery that encompasses the whole world — each continent, each country, each distillery that makes rum, has some interesting variation on the theme. The under-the-radar Cambodian rum written about here is intriguingly different, tasty to a fault and gentle enough to appeal to a broader audience.  And all that while maintaining a sort of unique taste profile all its own, adding yet another brick to the impressive and fascinating global structure that is Rum. 

(#572)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • Many thanks to John Go, who supplied the sample.
Nov 272018
 

Thailand doesn’t loom very large in the eyes of the mostly west-facing rum writers’ brigade, but just because they make it for the Asian palate and not the Euro-American cask-loving rum chums, doesn’t mean what they make can be ignored; similar in some respects to the light rums from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama and Latin America, they may not be rums du jour, yet they continue to produce for their own local audiences and sell very nicely worldwide, thank you very much.  There’s a market for the profile, and given the enormous population of Asia, it’s no surprise that they can make rums for themselves, and sell them, without always worrying too much about the hot topics of purity, additives, ageing and terroire that are so much discussed elsewhere.

That’s not to say that Issan, the company that makes this low-key white rum, doesn’t adhere to such principles.  They certainly do. Located just a short distance from the Laotian border in the north east of Thailand, a stone’s throw from the town of Vientiane (which makes its own rum), Issan uses handcut, hand-peeled cane (grown without herbicides or pesticides, sourced from its own farm and from small farmers around the area), its own strain of yeast, and a small copper pot still imported from Europe.  Like the French Caribbean islands, cane is cut and pressed to cane juice and set to ferment within 48 hours (for 3-4 days), and the waste cane is used as both fuel and fertilizer in an effort to be both ecologically sound and environmentally sustainable. The operation is somewhat more primitive than Chalong Bay (for example), but one can’t argue with the philosophy of artisanal production espoused by founder David Giallorenzo, a Frenchman from Abruzzo, who relocated to Thailand to start Issan in 2011 after a career in the financial services industry.

With export licenses taking a year to put together, the still arriving in December 2013, the next year started with just under a thousand bottles of production, and then initial exports were limited to a thousand bottles to France, Italy, Switzerland, Andorra and Belgium.  This was not large, but the company got a boost in 2014 when it won a silver medal in Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition (again in 2016), as well as bronze and gold medals in the Paris Rhumfest in 2015. By 2018, the target was ten thousand bottles of production, new stills had been ordered (for greater capacity) and with continued market increase in Europe and exposure by online magazines and bloggers, its rumprint is sure to escalate in the years to come.

Aged rums (or rhums, if you like) are not a major part of the program at this stage (though they do age their rums for a minimum of six months which suggests some level of filtration), and the one I tried was their 40% white, about which I’d heard quite a bit over the years but never got a chance to try — John Go sent it to me, knowing of my fondness for juice from Asia.  And for a product that was more or less still in swaddling clothes compared to its agricole competition in the Caribbean, it wasn’t half bad.

The nose was very very briny, accompanied with what seemed like an entire basket of olives, and alongside that was the dry mustiness of dried rice paddy and sacking (similar to the TECC and Cambridge Jamaicans, remember those?), yoghurt, and sweet flavours – swank, mangoes, green peas fresh out of the can, very delicate fruits which had to do major lifting to get themselves past the wall of salt.  There was also some faint acidic notes which balanced things off, light citrus (tangerine, let’s say) and also cereals, biscuits and oatmeal cookies and some buttermilk, all of which got slightly sweeter after everything opens up. In other words, it took the aromas of any good agricole, and then went their own unique way with it.

The nose was pretty good — the palate was where it was somewhat weaker. This was, I suppose, to be expected — standard proof rums have to be remarkably intense to get one’s attention these days and that goes as much for whites as any other.  So – it was watery and quite light, in no way aggressive, warm and sweet, and actually quite pleasant. You could mix it, but why bother? It had the light sugar water, light lemon zest, light pears and white guavas, and light spices….cumin, a suggestion of nutmeg, little else aside from a pinch of salt.  There’s a finish of sorts, short, sweet, watery and slightly fruity, and about all that could reasonably be expected.

Still, given that I walked in expecting even less, it was a really enjoyable product, akin to a softer clairin.  My personal experience with Asian spirits suggests they tend to be less in-your-face, smoother, a shade sweeter – sometimes additives perform the function of making it palatable.  As far as I know, Issan issues what comes of the still into the bottle without any messing around except to reduce it to 40% and some filtration, and they do a pretty good job here…I can only imagine what a more potent full proof version would be like (probably knock my socks off, I’m thinking, and if they could get it past Thai legislation which forbids bottling spirits north of 40%, and out to the West, more medals would be in the offing for sure).  

The Issan isn’t out to change the rumiverse, doesn’t want to reinvent the pantheon of rums (white or otherwise), and is a left-of-straightforward, relatively light, eager-to-please white rum — and deceptive in that you only think it’s weak when you start…then it grows little fangs and shows some aggro, and you realize there’s rather more here than was immediately apparent.  It’s a neat drink, well made, a slow-burn white, perhaps made for those who walk in believing they’re getting a gentle sundowner…and are then suckered into enjoying something just a shade more potent.

(#572)(79/100)

Jun 172018
 

#521

Somehow, after a big splash in 2015-2016, Indonesian rums came and left the scene with equally and almost startling suddenness.  Although Haus Alpenz has been making a Batavia Arrack Van Oosten for many years (even decades, perhaps), it is a niche spirit, really, and not many know of it, and no, I haven’t tried it. My first encounter with the arracks came when I bought the Compagnie des Indes Indonesia rum in 2015 (and quite liked it), and within the year By The Dutch put this fascinating product out the door and then occasional photos began making the rounds on FB of Naga and Nusa Cana rums.  Shortly thereafter Matt Pietrek wrote one of his deep dives into the By the Dutch rum, and yet after all that, somehow they have almost vanished from the popular consciousness.

Perhaps it’s the renaissance of Bajan and Jamaican rums in those same years that stole the show, I don’t know – certainly over the last years the various social media are fuller of Bajan and Jamaican rum pictures and commentaries than just about anything else. Maybe it’s physical distribution, festival absences, word of mouth, Facebook posts (or lack thereof).  Whatever the case for its lack of mindshare, I suggest you give it a try, if only to see where rum can go…or where it has already been.

Part of what makes arrack interesting is the way it is fermented. Here some fermented red rice is mixed into the yeast prior to addition to the molasses and water (up to 5%), which undoubtedly impacts the final taste.  I was told by a By the Dutch rep that this particular spirit derives from sugar cane juice and fermented red rice cake, and is then twice distilled: once in a pot still, producing a distillate of about 30% ABV, and then again in another pot still to around 60-65%.  At that point it is laid to rest in barrels made of teak (!!) in Indonesia for a number of years and then shipped to Amsterdam (Matt implies it’s to Scheer) where it is transferred to 1000L oak vats. The final arrack is a blend of spirits aged 8 months, 3, 5 and 8 years, with the majority of the spirit being 3 and 5 years of age and bottled at 48% ABV.

A production process with so many divergent steps is sure to bring some interesting tastes to the table. It’s intriguing to say the least.  The nose, even at 48%, is remarkably soft and light, with some of that pot still action being quite evident in the initial notes: rotting banana skins, apples gone off and some funky Jamaican notes, if perhaps not as intense as a Hampden or worthy Park offering.  This then slowly — almost delicately — released light citrus, watery fruit and caramel hints, chamomile, cinnamon, green tea and bitter chocolate and a sort of easy sweetness very pleasing to smell.

It got better when I tasted it, because the strength came out more clearly – not aggressive, just very solid and crisp at the same time, sweet and clear, almost like an agricole with some oak thrown in for good measure.  The pot still origins were distinct, and taste of sweet fruits gone over to the dark side were handled well: apples, citrus, pears, gherkins, the very lightest hint of olives, more tea, green grapes, with cooking spices dancing around everything, mostly nutmeg and cinnamon.  Even the finish was quite aromatic, lots of esters, bananas, apples, cider and a sort of grassiness that was more hinted at than forcefully explored.

As an alternative to more commonly available rums, this one is good to try at least once. It doesn’t smack you in the face or try to damage your glottis – it’s too easy or that – and works well as both a sipping drink (if your tastes go that way), or something to chuck into a mai-tai or a negroni variation. One of the reasons why it should be tried and appreciated is because while it has tastes that suggest a Jamaican-Bajan hybrid, there is just enough variation here to make it a fascinating drink on its own merits, and shows again how rum is simply the most versatile, varied spirit available.   Plus, it’s quite a nifty rum by itself, sweet enough for those who like that, edgy enough for those who want more.

Now, with respect to the rum news all being about the western hemisphere’s juice: I don’t begrudge the French, Spanish or English Caribbean rum makers their glory — that would be deeply unpatriotic of me, even if one discounted the great stuff the islanders are making, neither of which is an option. There’s a reason they get just about 75% of the press, with the independents and Americans (north and south) getting the remainder.  But I just want to sound a note of caution about the blinkers such focus is imposing on our rumsight, because by concentrating on nothing but these, we’re losing sight of great stuff being made elsewhere – on the French islands, St Lucia, Grenada, Mexico, Japan…and Indonesia. From companies like By the Dutch. A stern and forbiddingly solid cask-strength rum this is not – but it’s original within its limits, eminently sippable for its strength, it’s an old, even ancient drink made new, and even if one does not immediately succumb to its languorous charms, I do believe it’s worth taking out for a try.

(84/100)


Other notes

The bottle clearly says “aged up to 8 years”.  Understand what this means before you think you’re buying an 8 Year Old rum.

Apr 032018
 

#502

Asia may be the next region to discover for rummies.  Some companies from there already have good visibility – think Nine Leaves or Ryoma from Japan, Tanduay from the Phillipines, Amrut from India, Laotian from Laos and so on – and we should not forget Thailand.  So far I’ve only tried the Mekhong “rum” from there, and that was a while ago…but for the last few years I’ve been hearing about a new company called Chalong Bay, from the resort area of Phuket; and when John Go and I traded samples a while back, he sent me one of their interesting whites that for sure deserves a look-see from the curious who want to expand their horizons.

Chalong Bay is the brainchild of another pair of entrepreneurs from France (like those chaps who formed Whisper and Toucan rums) named Marine Lucchini and Thibault Spithakis.  They opened the company in 2014, brought over a copper column still from France and adhered to an all-natural production philosophy: no chemicals or fertilizers for the cane crop, no burning prior to harvesting, and a spirit made from fresh pressed cane juice with no additives.  Beyond that, there’s the usual marketing stuff on their site, their Facebook page, and just about everywhere else, which always surprises me, since one would imagine the history of their own company would be a selling point, a marketing plug and a matter of pride, but no, it’s nowhere to be found.

Be that as it may, it’s quite a nifty rum (or rhum, rather), even if somewhat mild. The 40% ABV to some extend gelds it, so one the nose it does not present like one of the proud codpieces of oomph sported by more powerful blancs out there.  Olives, brine, swank, generally similar to Damoiseau, J. Bally, Neisson, St Aubin blanc, or the clairins, just…less. But it is an interesting mix of traditional and oddball scents too: petrol, paint, wax, a little brie, rye bread, and just a touch of sweet sugar cane juice.  Faint spices, lemongrass, light pears…before moving on to hot porridge with salt and butter(!!). Talk about a smorgasbord.

The taste on the palate takes a turn to the right and is actually quite pleasing. Thin of course (couldn’t get away from the anemic proof), a little sharp.  Sweet and tart fruity ice cream. A little oily, licorice-like, akin to a low rent ouzo, in which are mixed lemon meringue pie and clean grassy tastes. Not as much complexity as one might hope for, though well assembled, and the flavours at least come together well.  Citrus, pears and watermelon emerge with time, accompanied by those muffled softer tastes – cereal, milk and salted oatmeal – which fortunately do not create a mishmash of weird and at-odds elements that would have sunk the thing. Finish is short, thin, quite crisp and almost graceful.  Mostly sugar water, a little citrus, avocado, bananas and brine. Frankly, I believe this is a rum, like the Toucan No 4 or the El Dorado 3 Year Old White, which could really benefit from being ratched up a few notches – 50% would not be out of place for this rhum to really shine.

After all is done, the clear drink finished, the unemotional tasting notes made, the cold score assigned, perhaps some less data-driven words are required to summarize the actual feelings and experience it evoked in me.  I felt that there was some unrealized artistry on display with the Chalong Bay – it has all the delicacy of a sunset watercolour by Turner, while other clear full proofs springing up around the globe present brighter, burn more fiercely, are more intense…like Antonio Brugada’s seascape oils (or even some of Turner’s own).  It’s in the appreciation for one or the other that a drinker will come to his own conclusions as to whether the rum is a good one, and deserving a place on the part of the shelf devoted to the blancs. I think it isn’t bad at all, and it sure has a place on mine.

(80/100)


Other notes

  • Interestingly, the rum does not refer to itself as one: the label only mentions the word “Spirit”.  Russ Ganz and John Go helpfully got back on to me and told me it was because of restrictions of Thail law.  I’m calling it a rhum because it conforms to all the markers and specs.
  • Tried contacting the founders for some background, but no feedback yet.
  • The company also makes a number of flavoured variants, which I have not tried.
Apr 062017
 

#354

Amrut, that Bangalore company which makes the Old Port rum I tried many years ago, as well as whiskies many swoon over, is no stranger to making rums, but their marketing effort is primarily aimed at the subcontinent itself, and perhaps other parts of Asia (maybe they’re chasing Old Monk, which is supposedly the #1 rum in India).  There’s not much of a range (five rums in all), and I rarely saw any of them in Canada – this one was bought in Europe.  Given that this particular rum is a blend of – get this! – Jamaican, Bajan, Guyanese and Indian pot-still rum, one can perhaps be forgiven for asking whether they’re going in the direction of Ocean’s Atlantic Rum; and as far as I was concerned that one suffered from overreach.  But at least we know where the “Two Indies” moniker derives, if nothing else.

It’s also worth commenting on one thing: the Indian component of the rum is supposedly a pot still originating distillate based on jaggery, which is a natural sweetener made from sugar cane…whose by-product is molasses so one wonders why not just go there and have done, but never mind.  The issues (not problems) we have are two fold: firstly, jaggery is actually made from either sugar cane or the date palm, so I’m unsure of which variation is in use here (since sugar cane jaggery is cheaper, I’m putting my money there); secondly, assuming the jaggery is from cane, it is in effect a reduced version of sugar cane juice – a syrup – what we in the West Indies and parts of South America sometimes refer to as “honey”. So in effect there’s nothing particularly special about the matter except that its source product is made in Asia and widely known there.  And, of course, the marketing, since it suggests a divergence and distinction from more familiar terms.

Anyway, all this preamble leads inevitably to the question of whether that basic ingredient lends a difference to the profile, the way for example a “maple syrup rum” would (and yes, there is such an abomination). I don’t really think so – the difference in taste and smell I noted seemed to be more a product of the entire geographical environment, the way a Bundie is linked to Australia, and Dzama is Madagascar and Ryoma is Japanese.  I’m not saying I could necessarily taste it blind and know it was either from India in general or Amrut in particular – but there were differences from more traditional Caribbean or Latin American rums with which we have greater experience

Consider first how it smelled.  The nose began by presenting a sort of lush fruitiness that spilled over into over-ripe, almost spoiled mangoes, persimmons and sweet tropical fruit and kiwi, something also akin to those cloying yellow-orange cashews the snacking nuts are made from (not those with the stones inside).  In the background there lurked caramel and vanilla, some cloying sweet and also breakfast spices (cloves and maybe nutmeg mostly, though very light) just as the Old Monk had; and overall, the aromas were heavy and (paradoxically enough) not all that easy to pick out – perhaps that was because of the inoffensive 42.8% ABV it was bottled at.

I liked the taste a lot better, though that queer heaviness persisted through what ended up as a much clearer rum than I had expected.  So, bananas, more of the mangoes and cashews, honey, papayas, and the spices.  Adding some water released some chocolate and coffee, nutmeg, more vanilla and caramel, maybe some light molasses, some licorice, a nice twist of citrus rind, which I liked – it provided an edge that was sorely needed.  Finish was soft and quick, reasonably clean and warm, but was mostly the spices and caramel than anything else.

Reading around doing the usual research (and there is really not very much to go on so I have an outstanding email and a FB message sent out to them) suggests there are no artificial flavours included: but I dunno, that profile is quite different, and the breakfast spices are evident, so I gotta wonder about that; and the overall mouthfeel does suggest some sugar added (no proof on my side, though).  This doesn’t sink the drink, but it does make for an unusual  experience.  You’re not getting any Jamaican funk, Guyanese wooden stills or easier Bajans, nor any of that off-the-wall madness of an unaged white popskull.  It is simply what it is, in its own unique way.

On balance, a decent enough drink. I liked it just fine, though without any kind of rabid enthusiasm – it was from somewhere new, that’s all. You could drink it neat, no issues. Personally I thought the flavours were a mite too heavy (it stopped just short of being cloying) and meshed rather clumsily in a way that edged towards a muddle rather than something clearer and more distinct that would have succeeded better.  Much like the Tanduay, Mekhong, Tuzemak, Bundie or even the Don Papa rums, I suspect it is made based on a local conception of rum, and is for local palates.  Add to that the terroire concept and you can see why it tastes so off-base to one weaned on Caribbean tipple.  There’s a subtle difference from any of the British West Indian rums I’ve tried over the years, and though the Two Indies is a combo of several nations’ rums, I can’t separate the constituents and tell you with assurance, “Oh yeah, this comes from Foursquare” or “That’s Hampden” or even “PM!”  (and no, I don’t know whether these were the constituents).

So, they have used jaggery rather than molasses to make it, blended their way around a mishmash of profiles, and while I liked it and was intrigued, I didn’t believe all that was really needed and may even have made it less than its potential.  In Guyanese creole, when we see that kind of thing showing itself off as an artistic blending choice we usually smile, grunt “jiggery-pokery” and then shrug and fill another tumbler.  That pretty much sums things up for me, so I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a compliment or not.

(82/100)

Other notes

The rum makes no mention of its age, and nothing I’ve unearthed speaks to it.  That was also part of my email to Amrut, so this post will likely be updated once I get a response.

Jan 172017
 

A new direction for the Japanese rum-maker, which has some flaws but is an interesting rum nevertheless.

#336

When researching the background for the Encrypted, I came across the website RumRatings, which is a place where people rate and comment on rums they have tried without going through the effort of, say, creating a website or putting their thoughts on a more formal basis (the way one sees on the /r/rum forum on reddit, for example, a site where fans can be even more rabid than on Facebook).

The comments were not inspiring. “Too young and harsh and chemical,” wrote one from Hungary whose tastes ran into the sweet of Dictador, Millonario and Zacapa; “This sh*t is a waste of time,” opined another from Romania, who headed his less than enthusiastic comment “Whisky Rum or something…” and who also (from the link to his “cabinet”) seemed to prefer softer soleras and sweeter rums and put the Jamaican RumFire and a Bristol Spirits 1996 Caroni close to the bottom.

Such criticisms serve a purpose in this instance, because there aren’t many reviewers who have yet taken to Nine Leaves, so even an opinion from the street is useful when we buy one…and just because I like ‘em personally doesn’t mean you will. So I don’t link to these negative remarks in an effort to diss the gentlemen in question or to sneer at their opinions, just to lay the groundwork for suggesting that if your tastes run into the more easy-going, softer Spanish style of rums – or those that are known by now to be sweeter than the norm — then this Company’s rums might not be in your wheelhouse. Nine Leaves aren’t as individualized as, say, unaged cask-strength agricoles from a pot still, but their rums do take some getting used to.

Nine Leaves, that one-man outfit from Japan makes very young rums (most six months or so), and they are closer in profile to a mashup of whites and Jamaicans with the leavening influence of Barbados thrown in, plus maybe a clairin or two for some fangs. Yoshiharu Takeuchi makes no attempt to be particularly unique, which is perhaps why his rums actually are. And of all those Clear and “Almost <<pick your season>>” French- or American-oak-aged six month old rums, I’d have to say he’s done something pretty interesting here, like nothing he’s attempted before. He’s thrown kaizen out the window and gone in a new direction.

Consider: normally Nine Leaves distills its rums, does the cuts, and then ages the result for six months, which is why there are a bewildering array of multi-years Almost Springs and Almost Autumns and Angel’s Half French and American Cask Aged rums in their portfolio; but with the Encrypted, he has gone in the “finishing” direction (much as English Harbour, DDL and FourSquare have done in the past year or two).  This is a blend of four rums, each two years old  – the four were aged in barrels of American oak, barrels that previously held oloroso, brandy…and one that remains unidentified, perhaps in an effort to tease Florent Bouchet of the Compagnie, who occasionally holds a distillery of origin to be “secret”, leading to tons of heated conjectures and endlessly entertaining commentary in the blogosphere.  The closest Nine Leaves has previously come to this concept is with their Sauvignon Blanc edition, but the ultimate intention is the same — to add to the flavour profile without actually adding anything, a tactic Zacapa, A. H. Riise and Don Papa could perhaps take note of.

Bottled at a firm 48% in 2016, the golden rum is certainly a step above their younger products.  All share a somewhat astringent, rather thin-but-intense nose (I’m trying hard not to think of my feared primary school teacher, the redoubtable Mrs. Jagan, with her sharp voice, pince-nez, bladed nose and ever-ready foot-long ruler but that’s almost impossible), and here that was only marginally ameliorated by the ageing period.  Sharp for sure, acerbic yes, intense without question – but the aromas weren’t half bad. Citrus, light florals, some earthiness and lavender doing an interesting tango, plus the vaguest hint of fruits and grassiness, all very crisp and distinct.  It presents far more like an agricole than a molasses based rum.

The two years of ageing was where to some extent the rum failed to deliver when tasted, however promising the nose had been. The crisp clarity was retained, yet it still presented as somewhat raw, a shade too uncouth, without any rounding that would have made the mouthfeel better.  Fortunately, that aside, the taste was excellent, and once I got used to it, I found myself appreciating its sprightliness and youth, and again I was left wondering how this was so much like an agricole.  Those same vegetal, grassy notes persisted, to which were added florals, red wine, orange zest, sultanas, and also a sort of cereal background that developed into the creaminess of cheese on black bread.  It was odd, but came together quite well, and I had no real complaints about the finish, which was somewhat spicy, but still exited with a cleanliness and clarity redolent of the spicier tartness of green apples and grapes.

Putting all these observations together, it was, in fine, a pretty decent two year old rum – the finishes certainly helped it attain a level that simple ageing never would have. When you consider Nine Leaves’s regular issuances of six month old rums, made pretty much the same way, aged in either in one barrel or another, it’s easy to grumble that they make the same rums on every go-around, so getting one is like getting them all.  By making the Encrypted, Nine Leaves has shown they are not bound to the way they have made rums before — and are quite willing to take their products into new and interesting directions that may not entirely work now, but hold great promise for their efforts in the future

(85/100)

Jan 112017
 

A white rhum from Laos, which comes out punching at 56%

#334

The rums we see and drink share a certain geographic commonality. On the shelves are rums from the various Caribbean islands, those old British, Spanish and French (and Dutch, and yes, Danish) colonial possessions. Next to them are South and Central Americans tipples which are the inheritors of the Spanish traditions brought over centuries ago…no shortage of their products either. Then there are those from micro-ops from Canada and the USA, few of which make any sort of big splash but which gain an audience from the communications infrastructure of those developed nations. And of course there are independent bottlers in Europe who take 90% or more of their stock from the Caribbean and further south. We hear about these all the time. But it’s possible that the future undiscovered variations of the rum world lie not west of Greenwich, or close by…but east.

Bar the odd exception like the Fijians, Old Monk, Bundaberg and Nine Leaves (or CDI’s Indonesians), how often do we hear about other rums from Australia, from India, from Africa, from the Far East? I’m not saying they make ninety-point masterpieces of rum which would make a pilgrimmage necessary, but if we consider ourselves Evangelists of the Cane, perhaps some attention should be paid to the outliers as much as the more familiar and popular mastodons of our world.

The problem lies in getting one’s paws on any.  The rum makers of the east (or south) usually lack good distribution networks or agents to bring their products to the western markets, which is why Capo Verde off Senegal makes grog like the clairins but nobody ever heard of them, or why Ogasawara and Ryomi are relatively unknown outside Japan.  In other situations, the domestic market is large enough to swallow all the output, so again, unless you’re there it’s not likely you’ll hear much about, for example, Ord River, Substation No. 41 or Beenleigh’s 5 year old, all of which are made in Oz.  Old Monk and Amrut are ginormous sellers in India but not always that easy to find one in your local hoochery, and then there are the Asian nations which make ersatz rum their own way, like Tanduay, Chalong Bay, Mekhong…or this Laotian one, which we’ll poke our snoots into today.

Information on the rhum is as maddeningly hard to find as the product itself. What little I’ve been able to cobble together from mon ami L’homme à la Pousette (the source of the sample, big thanks to the man) and some diligent googling, is that it derives from Vientiane, Laos, and is an organically made agricole bottled at a hefty 56%.  The company that makes it — Lao-Agro Organic and Distillery Inc — has a brand called Laodi which is primarily liqueurs, and they also produce a lower proofed white variation of this rhum, and a slightly aged one.  I gather that it is mostly for local consumption, not export (which may be why few of us ever heard of it before).  But in terms of the production methods, source of cane, filtration etc, there’s not much to go on, sorry.  We have to take it on its merits alone.

All that aside, this was quite some rhum – it reminded me of the clairins, the Rum Nation Pot Still Jamaican, the DDL High Wine (sadly discontinued), oomphed-up French Island unaged blancs, or, for that matter, even some of  those new whites Velier put out last year.  The raw pot still style was right there up front when one sniffed it – salty, vinegary notes, crisp cool cucumbers, rubber and acetone and nail polish and freshly varnished furniture.  Yeah, it was sharp, and quite stabbing, and there was an odd developing odour of commingled fish sauce, citrus juice, and coconut water nosing around the back end…fortunately, that was controlled and not excessive, and the whole aroma was underlain by that herbal swank and sugar water that so characterizes agricoles.  In that sense it was both similar to and different from, “regular” agricoles with which most of us are more familiar.

Palate wise, the agricole origin was much more evident.  Tons of sweet sugar water and juicy pears, white guavas, grass, lemon juice and also — somewhat to its detriment, because these did not enhance the balance or integrate properly — some wax, brine and red olives.  To the end, it remained harsh and sharp, quite raw, nowhere near as cultured as, say, the Nine Leaves Clear or even the Appleton (Wray) overproof, which was stronger.  Still, say what you will – it was unique, with an enormously long, hot finish, redolent of wax paper and olive oil, more brine, more herbals and grass, and yes, more swank.  

On balance this is a cocktail maker’s dream, I think, and would make a mix that would blow your hair off, but as a sipper it fails, which is no real surprise — much as I like agricoles, white rums and unaged rhums for their sheer machismo and balls-to-the-wall aggro, this one isn’t up in my wheelhouse. That’s because the way the flavours intermingle isn’t quite right, and the sandpaper rawness of the experience is off-putting.  However, I have to concede that I’m somewhat partial to rhums that swing wildly for the boundary, go for a six instead of a safe one, and miss with grandeur, rather than never bothering to come up to the batting crease at all. Is this Laotian rhum a success?  No, not really (or not yet) – but it’s never somnolent, never moribund…never boring.  It runs smack into the wall at full speed, and fails with authority, know what I mean? And that, to me, is something that matters.

(75/100)

Dec 142016
 

ryoma-7-1

An essay in Oriental and Caribbean fusion

#326

Outside the cognoscenti, the rabid fanbase or deep-field researchers, few know (or care) much about rums from outside the Western hemisphere.  Yet rums from India and Thailand and Australia are massive sellers in the East, to say nothing of the emergent makers from Japan.  Nine Leaves is the newest outfit from the Land of the Rising Sun to garner major accolades in the larger rumiverse, but rum has been made from locally grown sugar for a very long time, and it’s no surprise that other companies have been quietly doing business in the spirit without many outside the region being the wiser.  Whisky might be the Japanese attention-getter du jour, but I don’t review those, so let’s turn a small spotlight on to the rums instead.

One such is this very interesting pale yellow product from the Kikusui distillery, located in the Niigata Prefecture on the north coast of Honshu — they also make, and are mostly known for, sake. The Kikusui brewery was formed in 1881 by Takasawa Suguro, when he received the right to make it from his uncle Takasawa Masanori and was approved to make it in his own right in 1896. It remains a family business (into its fifth generation), with sake remaining the mainstay of the company (one can only wonder who the rum loving guy in the family was, who broke with tradition by making it). In the first century of its existence, the company was not a large one, and weathered many storms like shortage of rice, the war years, sickness and premature death of family members, floods, earthquakes – in 1964 the brewery was damaged by earthquake and for two consecutive years floods destroyed what was left.  Somehow the family kept going and in 1969 a replacement brewery was completed. New equipment, modern production methods and management techniques were introduced in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s the company branched out into canned sake, food dishes and even stores of its own.  Sometime in the 2000s, as best as I can determine and perhaps as a result of western influences or lack of desire to go with whisky, it was decided to branch into rum.

The sugar cane from which it is made comes from the southern island of Shikoku, the smallest island in the chain, and the rum derives from freshly pressed cane, which would make it a Japanese agricole, as well as putting to the test my own theories about whether terroire really does have a major influence on the final product.  There is no information on whether the rum is pot still or column still derived; it’s aged for seven years in American oak barrels, and issued at 40%.  There you go.

It’s been a while since I tried a rum with an olfactory profile quite like this: it started out with a wet cardboard soggy mess (the cardboard that the aroma implied, that is, not the rum); and cereals, rye bread, coconut water, rotting fruit (it was gentle, for which I gave fervent thanks), which over time, developed into a very pleasant nose of apples and cider, oddly sharp and weak at the same time.  It was very light, faintly sweet, and could not for a moment compare to the clear voluptuousness of a Caribbean agricole, yet it presented an intriguing profile of its own that was almost Jamaican, and marked it out as singular – clearly, one had to be prepared to take a sharp left turn to enjoy it and not demand it adhere to a better known French island smell. I can’t say with conviction that I succeeded…but I was intrigued.

The palate was just as interesting, if equally bizarre.  To begin with, it was very different from the way it smelled – it was clear and crisp on the tongue as any cane-juice-derived rum ever made, extraordinarily light and clean for something supposedly aged for seven years, and tasted of light sweet grapes (those red ones from Turkey, or the green ones from Lebanon my wife buys for me), cucumbers, dill, and very light notes of vanilla, green apples, flowers, green tea ice cream, pears, some smoke, and a vague soya sauce background. In other words, the dreadlocks to a big step backwards. It was sprightly, light, crisp.  Too bad the finish decided to circle back to the beginning, and end things with more of those fruits that had gone off, and that wet cardboard, tied in a bow with olives and brine.  A little was okay, too much kinda soured on me.

So…I enjoyed the offbeat, original taste, liked the crispness of the mouthfeel, and was okay with the edges front and back, yet there was something uninspiring about the experience taken as a whole. It’s possible that both terroire and the company’s expertise with (or preference for) sake tilted their philosophy to something at odds with more familiar rummy profiles; and of course the 40% while allowing a wider audience to be catered to, does impose some limitations. Still, I’ll say this – it is emphatic for what it is, and as a rum it sure makes its own statement. There’s more than a bit of unaged pot still profile in here (hence my unconfirmed suspicion that this is what they are using to distil it), but for that to take a more commanding stance requires moving above the issued ABV and maybe playing with the barrel strategy some more. At end, therefore, it exhibits both strengths and weaknesses.

Why did I buy this?  Well, because I could, because I was interested, and because it’s informative and useful to write about more than just the regular crop of rums from the regions with which we are all familiar.  We should look to expand our horizons, and if the experience is not always an unadulterated positive, who can say what others might like, what the company’s ten year old is like, or where it moves in the future?  Happily, the Ryoma 7 year old rum exhibited more on the plus side of the ledger than minuses, was a sprightly, funky little rumlet, and is quite affordable for anyone who wants to take a flier on something off the beaten track.  

(80/100)

Other notes

The name “Ryoma” (or Ryōma) is that of one of the revolutionaries of the Meiji era who was prominent in the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate (he was murdered in 1867).  That name in turn derives from a legend of a god with the head of a dragon and the body of a horse, which supposedly could run 1000 li in one day.

Aug 032016
 

Nine Leaves white 1

A quite serviceable, unmessed-with white rum from Japan, steering a delicate middle course between sleaze and decorum with less than complete success.

(#292 / 84/100)

***

Nine Leaves, that always-interesting one man operation out of Japan, doesn’t find much favour with Serge Valentin, who has consistently scored their rums low, but I’ve always kinda liked them myself.  The 2015 edition of the “Clear” is a case in point, and showcases the move of some rum makers into white, unaged, unfiltered, full-proof, pot still products.  The aren’t for everyone, of course, and may never find broad acceptance, since they always feel a shade untamed – in that lies their attraction and their despite.  I get the impression that most of the time cocktail enthusiasts are their main proponents, aside from writers and enthusiasts who love sampling  anything off the beaten track.

Such white rums share several points of commonality. They have a raw-seeming kind of profile, channel the scents of a starving artist’s one room studio (or maybe that of a dirty chop shop garage in a ghetto somewhere), and often feel a tad boorish to taste.  But as part of the great, sprawling family of rum, I recommend them, especially if they’re decently made, just so people can get a sense of how wide-ranging the spirit can be. And this one isn’t half bad.

What Nine Leaves did here was make a rather tamed version of the savage Haitian or Brazilian unaged rums which are its first cousins. Now, when poured and sniffed, it billowed up very aggressively (as one might expect from a popskull brewed to a meaty 50%), and the strong smell of fusel oil, wax attacked right away – pungent is as good a word as any to describe it, and it reminded me strongly of the Rum Nation Jamaican 57%, or even, yes, any of the clairins.  But it nosed in a way that seemed more rounded and less jagged than those elemental firewaters. And while I didn’t care for the scents of paraffin and cheap lye soap (of the kind I used to do laundry with by the side of nameless rivers in my bush days), there were gradually more assertive, sweeter smells coiling underneath it all…sugary water, watermelon, cinnamon and nutmeg.  These lighter hints redeemed what might otherwise have just been an unsmiling punch of proof.

Nine Leaves White 2

As I noted with the cachacas last week, the dry, sharp and sweet taste was something of a surprise, coming as it did at right angles to the preceding pot still heft.  Salty green olives and more sugar water melded uneasily and eventually made an uneasy peace with each other, to develop into a more easy going, even light, palate redolent of more watermelon, cane juice, with some of that thick oily mouthfeel that characterized the Sajous, or the Jamel. There were some green apples, florals, and half ripe mangoes (minus the mouth puckering tartness), even a shaving of lemon zest…however they all seemed to suffer from the issue of not knowing whether they wanted to go all-in and define the product as a rampaging pot still rum squirting esters and fuel oil in all directions, or be a lighter, sweeter and more nuanced, well-behaved rum that would appeal to a broader audience.

The finish suggested more clearly what the originating vision behind the rum had been – it was long, very long, a little dry, with sweet and salt finally finding their harmonious balancing point and providing a lovely ending to what had been a pretty good all-round (if not earth-shattering) experience.  It’s rich, yes, vibrant, yes, tasty, yes.  What was lacking was a little integration and balance, a bit more arrogance in the trousers, so to speak.

But don’t get me wrong. Mr. Takeuchi knows what he’s doing. He’s got time, patience, kaizen and some pretty neat tech backing him up.  He likes what he does, and makes what he does quite well.  This rum may be a smoothened-out, vaguely schizoid clear rum more akin to an unaged agricole — in spite of being made with molasses, from Okinawan sugar – but it still scores and tastes in the region of the clairins and other white rums that I may have raved about more enthusiastically. My recommendation is to ignore the score, and simply try the rum if you can.  You will likely be quite pleasantly surprised by how well an unaged rum can be made. And how nice it can taste, in its own understated way.

Other notes

Distilled on a copper Forsythe still. There are still no plans to issue rums older than two years, for the moment.

 

Feb 042016
 

IMG_6349

Nope, all apologies to the islanders, but Fiji still doesn’t ascend to the heights of a country whose rums we must have. Yet.

(#253. 81/100)

***

Let’s just dispense with two more Fijian products that crossed my path, provided by my friend Cornelius of Barrelproof, who, it should be noted upfront, liked them both a lot more than I did. We don’t see many products from that country anywhere – “Eastern” rums don’t make it west of the iron curtain very often, so it’s mostly in online emporia that we find find rums from Fiji, Australia, Indonesia or even Japan; these are sold primarily in Europe, not in North America. Bundie, Don Papa and Nine Leaves look to buck that trend but they are small potatoes, really, and you’re still gonna look hard to locate a Tanduay, or even the stuff out of India.

Anyway, independent bottlers Duncan Taylor, the Rum Cask, Compagnie des Indes, Berry Brothers and some others do take the single barrel route, and so perhaps we should be grateful that we do get the chance to try these unusual profiles whenever we can. The rum came from the same distillery as the BBR 8 year old and the Compagnie’s 10 year old: the Fijian South Pacific Distillery now owned by Fosters from Australia, and located in the northwest of the small island.

DT Fiji Label

I said “unusual” a moment ago…it was not a word I chose lightly.

I poured the 54.8% hay-blonde, pot-still spirit into my glass, and flinched as if I had found a roach in my soup (oh waiter…!)  Sharp, snarling smells of kerosene, sealing wax, floor polish emerged fast, like a pissed of genie out of his lamp, ungentle and clashing with each other in a most unbecoming fashion. I went back to the shelf and checked out the Clairin Sajous to see if it was me…nope, that was still better. Ten minutes rest period didn’t help much – turpentine, acetone, wet paint decided to come out now, joined by candle wax, green grape skins…and I was left thinking, if this was pot-still, unfiltered, and issued “as-was” from the barrel, maybe the barrel needed to be changed; and to be honest, if ever I tried a rum that made a strong case for either more ageing or some dosage, this was it.  The smell was simply too raw and unrefined. Most of what it displayed was liquid sandpaper only marginally improved  by some ageing.

To my relief, there was some compensation once I tasted the thing. Better, much better.  Heated and very spicy, medium bodied in texture, and all this was a welcome change from the initial attack.  It tasted of red olives in brine, with a sort of meaty background, like a plastic tub of salt beef just starting to go.  Then at last more familiar notes asserted themselves and stopped mucking about, and I sensed some green grapes just starting to go, vanilla and smoke (not much), a very herbal, grassy element, more brine, sweet soya, some citrus, ginger and a good Thai veggie soup.  Cornelius felt it displayed something the funky charm of the Jamaican style, so if you ever get around to trying it yourself, there would be something to watch out for. The finish, unsurprisingly for such strength, was long enough, and I couldn’t say it was either good or bad – it existed, it lasted, I got notes of lemongrass, vanilla, citrus and soya and brine again, but very little of a more comforting back end. Colour me unimpressed, sorry.

Although the aromas and tastes suggest a cane juice base distillate, the Ministry of Rum and Fiji Rum Co. pages both say molasses.  Which makes the profile I describe even odder, because it was so much like the clairins, but lacking their fierce commingling of the same tastes into a synthesis that worked.  The nose was too jagged and too raw, the palate worked (up to a point) and the finish was nothing to write home about. In my opinion, this rum should have been left to sleep some more. The outturn was 284 bottles from a single cask, and it was aged in an oak cask for ten years, yet honestly, you might think it was no more than a three year old (or even younger) from the way it fended off any efforts to come to grips with it.

IMG_6350

I’ve now tried four or five Fijian rums, and admittedly, that’s hardly a huge sample set; still they do all exhibit a kind of right turn from reality that takes some getting used to, for those of us more accustomed to Caribbean traditionals or agricoles (which is most of us).  They may be proof positive that terroire is no mere subtly abstract concept which is insouciantly bandied about but lacking real meaning, and I believe that rums from other parts of the world do indeed provide their own unique tastes and smells and sensations.  The flip side of that, is that I have yet to acquire a real taste for some of them.  I’m not going to write Fijians off like yesterday’s fish…but thus far I haven’t met any (out of the few I’ve tried) that blow my socks off either. Certainly this rum doesn’t.

Other notes

Aged April 2003 to September 2013

Yes, if I see more Fijians, I’ll buy.  Still really curious about them.

Marco Freyr has put together a short bio of the company (in German)

The tasting notes above are my own.  I didn’t see the back label until Cornelius kindly sent me some pictures of the bottle.