Mar 122020
 

The Cor Cor “Green”, cousin to the molasses-based “Red” (both are actually white – the colours refer to their labels’ hues) is an order of magnitude more expensive than its scarlet labelled relative, largely because it is made from cane juice, not molasses, and therefore rather more seasonal in production.  The question is, how does the cane juice white compare when run up against its intriguing (if off-beat) molasses-based white. Both are, after all, made by the same master blender who wanted to apply an awamori sensibility to making rum.

Tasting the Red and Green side by side, then, is an instructive experience, akin to doing a flight of white Habitation Veliers. Given that everything else is constant – sugar cane, the pot still distillation apparatus, the resting in steel tanks (neither is “aged” in the classical sense), the lack of any additives or filtration – then the only thing that should make a difference in the taste is the molasses versus cane juice, and the length and method of the fermentation cycle.

But even that is quite enough to make a clear difference, I assure you.  The Green is most definitely not the Red, and is discernibly an agricole style cane juice rum with all this implies, filtered through the mind of the Japanese culture and love for their own spirits.  However, let it also be noted that it is not a standard agricole by any means…and therein lies both its attraction to the curious, and potentially its downfall to the masses.

To illustrate the point, consider how it noses: it’s intriguing and pleasantly flinty, and has the initial tang of mineral water into which have been dunked some salt and olives, a sort of poor man’s martini.  There is a background of sweet and light florals and white fruit, and if you stick with it, also something more maritime – seaweed and iodine, I suggest. It’s mild, which is a function of the living room strength at which it’s issued (40% ABV), and the memory you’ll carry away from smelling it, is of the sea: brine and iodine and herbaceousness, only partially balanced off by sweeter and lighter components.

The taste is where the resemblance to a French island agricole comes more clearly into focus. Sweet sugar water, fresh-cut grass, citrus peel, some eucalyptus and gherkins in pimento vinegar, and a very nicely balanced series of light fruit notes – papaya, guavas, pears, watermelon.  As I said above, it’s different from the Red (to be expected – the sources are Montague and Capulet, after all) yet some minor family resemblance is noticeable; and although the rum tastes a little watery, the finish lasts so long and it coats the mouth and tongue so well, it allows it to skate past such concerns, leaving behind the fond memories of miso soup, pimento, apple cider and some citrus…and, of course, an olive or two.

Even though the Green was offbeat in its own way, I liked it more than the Red. It’s not really a true agricole (comes off a pot still, for example, produced with a different distillation philosophy) and lacks something of that feral nature of those whites bottled in the Caribbean that have spoiled me.  Clairins and blancs are a take-no-prisoners bunch of badass 50% rowdies, and I like them precisely for that air of untamed wild joy with which they gallop and spur across the palate — and the Green is not at that level.

So, it’s unusual, and decent, and complies with some of the notes we want and look for in a cane juice rum.  It’ll excite some interest in the regular rum world for sure. But to my mind it’s not yet aggressive enough, strong enough, good enough, in a way that would make a bitchin’ daiquiri or a ti-punch, or cause a drinker to wake up, sit up, and say wtf in Japanese. Not yet. Though admittedly, if they stick with it and continue developing juice like this, then they’re getting close to making a rum that does precisely that.

(#709)(82/100)


Other Notes

The label is a stylized map of South Borodino island (the Russians named it so in the 19th century after the ship Borodino surveyed it – the Japanese name is Minamidaito) where the distillery is, overlaid with a poem I’ll quote here without comment:

Bats, dancing in the night sky
Suspended magic, falling in drops
These are the things
That make men and women covet love
This is the magic of rum,
a sugarcane love potion

Mar 052020
 

Given Japan has several rums which have made these pages (Ryoma, Ogasawara, Nine Leaves, Helios, Seven Seas), by now most should be aware that just about all of them source their molasses out of the southern islands of Okinawa, if not actually based there themselves. The Grace distillery, who make the Cor Cor line of rums, conforms to that informal rule, yet is unusual in two ways – first, it is still very much a manual operation, somewhat surprising for a nation with a massive technological infrastructure; and it produces rums from both molasses (the red labelled rum we’re looking at today) and cane juice (the green labelled one). 

Cor Cor as a title has no deep transliterative meaning — it is derived from English (the opposite is true for games maker Atari, as a counter-example) and uses the first letters of the words “coral” (the island where it’s made is formed from a coral reef) and “corona” (which the island resembles). Grace Distillery itself was formed in 2004 in a building that used to be a small airport terminal, on the tiny Okinawan island of Minamidaito, and use a steel pot still, and do not practice ageing – another point of departure. Instead, their rum is rested in inert tanks and after a suitable period determined by their master blender, it’s bottled at 40%, as-is, unfiltered, uncoloured, un-added-to.

Some of my research shed some interesting light on the profile of the rum, but I think I’ll leave that for the end: suffice it to say that this was both normal with respect to other Japanese rums, and abnormal with respect to what we in the west are used to. The nose was sweet, light and faintly briny, with a metallic medicinal hint to it.  I knew there was more to come, and so set it aside and came back to it over time, and picked out black pepper, vegetable soup, biryani spices, seaweed. And, later, also dry cereal, butter, olives and flowers. Frankly, I found it a little confusing – it was nice and a ways better than the rank meatiness of the Seven Seas which had shuddered and put away – but nosed at a tangent from the norm of “regular” rums I’ve had more often.  

Palate – oh, much nicer.  Dry dusty citrus-infused sugar water, peas, salty cashews. There was a dusting of salt and cooking spices and miso soup, with lemon grass and sour cream somewhere in there.  I liked the development better, because what had been confusing about the nose gelled into a better harmony. Still a little off-base, mind you…but in a nice way. I particularly enjoyed the herbal and iodine background (not overdone, more a hint than a bludgeon) which set off the light fruit and brine in a way that complemented, not distracted.  Finish was long and dry, sugary and watery, redolent of delicate flowers and fruit. It was surprisingly durable, for a rum at 40%.

The Cor Cor Red was more generous on the palate than the nose, and as with many Japanese rums I’ve tried, it’s quite distinctive. The tastes were somewhat offbase when smelled, yet came together nicely when tasted.  Most of what we might deem “traditional notes” — like nougat, or toffee, caramel, molasses, wine, dark fruits, that kind of thing — were absent; and while their (now closed) website rather honestly remarked back in 2017 that it was not for everyone, I would merely suggest that this real enjoyment is probably more for someone (a) interested in Asian rums (b) looking for something new and (c) who is cognizant of local cuisine and spirits profiles, which infuse the makers’ designs here. One of the reasons the rum tastes as it does, is because the master blender used to work for one of the awamori makers on Okinawa (it is a spirit akin to Shochu), and wanted to apply the methods of make to rum as well.  No doubt some of the taste profile he preferred bled over into the final product as well.

The Cor Cor duo raised its head in the 2017 and 2018 rum festival circuit, and aside from a quick review by Wes in the UK – he commented that it was a pair of rums that engendered quite some discussion – it has since sunk almost completely from public consciousness.  I have to give it a cautious endorsement just because it’s so damned interesting, even if I couldn’t entirely find it in my heart to love it. Years from now Japan may colonize the rumisphere, the same way they have made themselves space in the whisky world. For now, this probably won’t get them there, however intriguing it might be to me personally.

(#707)(80/100)


Other Notes

  • I reached to to several friends in Japan for background: thanks in particular to Yoshi-san, who managed to get in touch with Grace directly on the question of the still and the master blender.
  • Grace also releases a Cor Cor Premium and Koruroru 25 rum variations, but I have never seen them for purchase.
  • Yuko Kinjo is the CEO and founder of Grace Rum. She was introduced to rum whilst sitting in a friend’s bar in the early 2000s, and asked herself “Why not make rum right here, a unique spirit made completely of local ingredients?” Cor Cor Rum is made only of sustainable local sugarcane and is a joint effort between Kinjo-san and the Minamidaito Island Chamber of Commerce. 
Jan 232020
 

The French-bottled, Australian-distilled Beenleigh 5 Year Old Rum is a screamer of a rum, a rum that wasn’t just released in 2018, but unleashed. Like a mad roller coaster, it careneed madly up and down and from side to side, breaking every rule and always seeming just about to go off the rails of taste before managing to stay on course, providing, at end, an experience that was shattering — if not precisely outstanding.

It is bottled by L’Esprit, the Brittany-based company that provided two of the most powerful whites I’ve ever tried (from Fiji and Guyana); and distilled by the Australian distillery Beenleigh, which is practically unknown outside of Oz, but which has been in operation since before 1884 (see other notes, below) and which I’ve mentioned briefly in two heritage Rumaniacs reviews, the Stubbs Queensland White, and the Inner Circle “Green Dot” rum. And it’s stuffed into specially hardened glass at a palate-dissolving, tears-inducing 78.1%, which is sure to  make any lover of machismo grin, flex the glutes and the pecs, and dive right in.

To say it’s hot may be understating the matter.  This thing noses like an unexpected slap from your loved one, the sweet force of which has to be watched out for and mitigated as best one can. It’s sizzling, it’s sharp and quite sweet – caramel, butterscotch, apricots, peaches and cherries in syrup…on the icing of a vanilla cake. And even with the strength I could, after a while, smell very ripe, almost spoiling mangoes and kiwi fruit, with cereals, cinnamon, and milk…plus more chopped fruit. 

The palate, well, this was very nice.  Initially it’s all passion fruit, five-finger, sorrel, tart soursop, salt caramel ice cream (Hagen-Dasz, of course).  It remains hot and sharp to a fault, which you can navigate with your sanity and glottis intact only only via paranoid caution and really small sips. It presented as nutty, creamy, fruity (of red, yellow, ripe variety, so choose for yourself), not crisp per se, just damn solid, as firm as a posturepedic mattress on sale at your local furniture store. Plus the headboard, which hits you several times, hard. Unsurprisingly, the finish is a DeMille-style biblical epic, long, hot, breathy, practically ever-lasting, leaving behind good memories of cereals, cream, salt butter, and thick ripe fruit.  These were admittedly somewhat standard, and perhaps unexceptional…but it certainly didn’t sink the experience.

I still remember how unusual the Aussie Bundaberg had been back in the day (as I recall all traumatic rum encounters) but no matter how polarizing it was, you couldn’t deny it had real balls, real character. L’Esprit’s Beenleigh was nowhere near that kind of opinion-inducing love-it-or-hate-it style, but that aside, I must say that it channels Conrad well, it’s major sound and fury, a mad, testosterone-addled wild-eyed piece of the rum zeitgeist, with wild pendulum swings from the sedate to the insane, the smooth to the storming, and a hell of a lot of fun to try. I don’t know how I missed including it in my list of the most powerful rums of the world, but for sure I’ve updated the list to make sure it’s in there.

L’Esprit remains one of my favourite independents. They lack the visibility and international reputation of better-known (and bigger) companies which have snazzy marketing (Boutique-y), a long trail of reviews (Rum Nation), ages of whisky and other experience (Samaroli) or visionary leaders of immense and towering reputations (Velier) – but somehow they keep putting out a rum here and a rum there and just don’t stop…and if they don’t always succeed, at least they’re not afraid of running full tilt into and through the wall and leaving an outline of Tristan Prodhomme behind. The Beenleigh is one of the rums they’ve put out which demonstrates this odd fearlessness, and ensures I’ll continue seeking out their rums for the foreseeable future. Both L’Esprit’s, and those of Beenleigh themselves.

(#694)(81/100)


Other Notes

  • Sugar cane growth had been encouraged in Queensland by the Sugar and Coffee regulations in 1864, the same year as the Beenleigh plantation was established (it was named after its founders’ home in England). Initially sugar was all it produced, though a floating boat-based distillery called the “Walrus” did serve several plantations in the area from 1869 and made rum from molasses – illegally, after its license was withdrawn in 1872, continuing until 1883 when it was beached.  Francis Gooding, one of the founders, purchased the onboard still and gained a distilling license in 1884 from which time such operations formally began in Beenleigh. Through various changes in ownership, Beenleigh as a distillery continued until 1969 when it shut down because of falling demand, then relaunched in 1972 under the ownership of Mervyn Davy and his sons; they didn’t hold on to it long and sold it to the Moran family in 1980, who in turn disposed of a controlling share to Tarac Industries in 1984. All the post-1969 owners added to the facilities and expanded the distillery’s production to other spirits, and it was finally acquired in 2003 by VOK Beverages a diversified drinks company from South Australia, in whose hands it remains.
  • Tristan confirmed that this rum was completely pot-still. Although the majority of Beenleigh’s rums come from a column still, the old copper pot still they started with all those years ago apparently is still in operation – I would not have thought a pot still could get a proof that high, but apparently I’m out to lunch on that one. Other than that, it is not a single cask but a small batch, and technically it is a 3 YO, since it spent three years in wooden casks, and two extra years in a vat.
Nov 282019
 

It must be something about the French – they’re opening micro distilleries all over the place (Chalong Bay, Sampan, Whisper, Issan and Toucan are examples) and almost all of them are channelling the agricole ethos of the French West Indies, working with pure cane juice and bringing some seriously interesting unaged blancs to the attention of the world. Any time I get bored with the regular parade of rums from the lands of the pantheon, all I have to do is reach for one of them to get jazzed up about rum, all over again. í

The latest of these little companies is from Vietnam, which is rife with sugar cane juice (“Nuoc Mia”) as well as locally made bottom-house rice- or molasses-originating artisanal spirits called “rượu” (ruou); these operate in the shadows of any Government regulation, registration or oversight — many are simple moonshineries.  But Saigon Liquorists is not one of these, being the formally incorporated enterprise of two expatriate Frenchmen Clément Jarlier and Clément Daigre, who saw the cane juice liquor being sold on the streets in Ho Chi Minh City and smelled a business opportunity. The fact that one was involved in spirits distribution in Vietnam while the other had both broker experience and knew about the distillation of cognac didn’t hurt wither – already they had a background in the industry.

Photo (c) Saigon Liquorists, from FB

Sourcing a 200-liter single column still in 2017 from China, they obtained fresh cane, then the juice, experimented for three months with fermentation, distillation, cutting, finally got the profile they were after, and rolled out the first Rhum Mia in October that year at a local charity gala. In their current production system, the sugarcane comes from Tien Giang in the Mekong Delta, just south of Ho Chi Minh City, via a supplier who collects it from farmers in the area and does the initial processing. The sugarcane is peeled, and pressed once to get the first juice. That is then vacuum-packed in 5L bags and loaded into refrigerated trucks (this slows down fermentation), which transport the bags the 70km to the distillery.  There fermentation is begun and lasts about five days, before being run through the still – what comes out the other end is around 77% ABV. The rum is rested in inert, locally-made traditional clay vessels called chums (used in rice liquor fermentation in Vietnam) for eight months and then slowly diluted with water over the final two months to 45% – a strength chosen to appeal to the local market where Mia’s initial sales were made. 

The strength might prove key to broader acceptance in foreign markets where 50-55% ABV is more common for juice-based unaged rhums (Toucan had a similar issue with the No.4, as you may recall). When I nosed this 45% rhum, its initial smells took me aback – there was a deep grassy kind of aroma, mixed in with a whole lot of glue, book bindings, wax, old papers, varnish and furniture polish, that kind of thing. It reminded me of my high school studies done in GT’s National Library, complete with the mustiness and dry dust of an old chesterfield gone to mothballs, under which are stacked long unopened suitcases from Edwardian times. And after all that, there came the real rum stuff – grass, dill, sweet gherkins, sugar water, white guavas and watermelon, plus a nice clear citrus hint. Quite a combo.

The rhum distanced itself from the luggage, furniture and old tomes when I tasted it.  The attack was crisp and clean on the tongue, sharp and spicy, an uambiguous blade of pure herbal and grassy flavours – sweet sugar cane sap, dill, crushed lime leaves, brine, olives, with just a touch of fingernail polish and turpentine at the back end, as fleeting as a roué’s sly wink.  After about half an hour – longer than most will ever have this thing gestating in their glasses – faint musty dry earth smells returned, but were mixed in with sugar water, cucumbers and pimentos, cumin, and lemongrass, so that was all good. The finish was weak and somewhat quick, quite aromatic and dry, with nice hints of flowers, lemongrass, and tart fruits.

Ultimately, it’s a reasonably tasty tropical drink that would do fine in (and may even have been expressly designed for) a ti-punch, but as a rhum to have on its own, it needs some torqueing up, since the flavours are there, but too difficult to tease out and come to grips with. Based on the experience I’ve had with other micro-distilleries’ blancs (all of which are stronger), the Mia is damned intriguing though. It’s different and unusual, and in my correspondence with him, Clement suggested that this difference comes from the fact that the sugar cane peel is discarded before pressing which makes for a more grassy taste, and he takes more ‘heads’ away than most, which reduces flavour somewhat…but also the hangover, which, he remarked, is a selling point in Vietnam.

These days I don’t drink enough to get seriously wasted any more (it interferes with my ability to taste more rums), but if this easy-on-the-head agricole-style rhum really does combine both taste and a hangover-free morning after, and if the current fascination with grass-to-glass rums continues in the exclusive bars of the world – well, I’m not sure how you could stop the sales from exploding. Next time I’m in the Real World, I’ll keep an eye out for it myself.

(#680)(76/100)


Other Notes

  • All bottles, labels and corks are sourced in Vietnam and efforts are underway to begin exporting to Asia and Europe.
  • Production was around 9000 bottles a year back in 2018, so it might have increased since then.
  • Plans are in play to distill both gins and vodkas in the future.
  • Hat tip to Reuben Virasami, who spotted me the sample and alerted me to the company.  Also to Tom Walton, who explained what “chums” were. And many thanks to Clément Daigre of SL, who patiently ran me through the history of the company, and its production methods.
Oct 022019
 

If you’re of a practical turn of mind and count your kopeks, there is absolutely no reason for you to buy this rum. It does not come in a bottle which stands easily on your shelf if the supports are mislaid; it is an overly sweet and probably spiced-up adulterated mess; and, if you’re an elitist, it doesn’t come with the pedigree of a centuries-old estate distillery on an island in the Caribbean. So on that basis, somewhat of a waste of money.

What it does bring to the table is an utterly awesome and eye-catching bottle shape, in good company with just a handful of others worldwide. It’s from a country that few if any of your boozing friends will have tried any rums from, so there’s that “I tried it first” cachet you can pin to your biscuit chest. And, if pedigree is your thing, it does go back many decades, and bears the title of “Coronation” for a reason.

The Nepalese rum called Kukhri is, first and foremost, named after the country’s most identifiable edged weapon, one that is considered both weapon and tool, and made famous by the Ghurkas who have served in the British army for over two centuries. The rum brand was created in 1959 by the Nepal Distilleries Ltd in Kathmandu, and initially made with pot stills – nowadays it comes off a multi-column still, from molasses, at 42.8%, and is available in three varieties – standard, Coronation and spiced. All of these are aged in wooden oak vats for around eight months.

The question of whether it has been added to arises immediately upon nosing it.  I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand by saying it’s “simple” – but there are just a few strong flavour-types coiling around: chocolate, caramel, coffee grounds, bananas and molasses, some baking spices, tobacco, and lots of prunes and dark ripe cherries.The whole aroma is quite thick and sweet with very little balance of lighter or acidic notes.

Ditto for the taste.  It says it’s 42.8% on the label but my hydrometer tested the rum as 34.58% (so ~31 g/L of something has been added), and it comes as no surprise, then, that when rubbing it between thumb and forefinger it feels sticky, and when sipped, it’s overly sweet. Again, chocolate, molasses, caramel, overripe fruits and tobacco, plus a hint of red wine and flowers, not enough to matter, really. The finish is ultimately not really interesting: soft, unexceptional, sweet, fruity and musky and no, several sips make no appreciable difference.

The Coronation is firm enough, just not interesting enough, and it’s just too sweet (even for me).  While I completely accept that the rum was not made for the modern palate or — initially — to appeal to any but its regional audience where sweeter rums are much more common (India’s and Thailand’s rums are examples of what pleases), the fact is that it is unlikely to catch on outside its area of origin.  This is something I suspect the company knows, because in 2018 they relaunched the brand around Asia, marketing both its historical cachet and its cocktail potential to the bar crowd.

And yet, the Coronation rum itself was supposed to be special. It was launched in 1974 to commemorate the coronation of 12th King of Nepal King Birendra, and went into wide release the following year, but nothing I read anywhere suggested the blend itself was seriously tweaked or elevated to make the rum a more memorable one. As the tasting notes above make clear, it is distinctive and famous not because of any intrinsic or masterful quality of its own, but because of that now-iconic 375ml knife-shaped bottle it comes in (supposedly hand made), and to this day it remains a popular souvenir, and is exported widely. 

Too bad what’s inside doesn’t quite come to the level of its presentation, which is a near-complete victory of style over substance.  Some will buy it for that purpose alone – hell, I’m one of them, though perhaps I can weasel out of it by claiming writer’s privilege – and for sure it’ll be a great conversation starter and a cool-looking bottle to trot out at party time. Sometimes, I guess that’s all we can ask for in a rum, and in this case, that’s almost all we’re getting.

(#661)(72/100)

Jun 032019
 

The Kiyomi white rum is made by the Helios Distillery, the same outfit in Japan that makes the very tasty five year old Teeda rum we looked at before. Formed by Tadashi Matsuda in the postwar years (1961) at a time of economic hardship and food privation for Okinawa , the decision was made to distill rum because (a) it could easily be sold to American soldiers stationed there (b) Okinawan sugar was readily available and (c) rice, which normally would have been used to make the more popular local sake, was needed as a food source and could not be spared for alcohol production.

That the company succeeded is evidenced by the fact that it is still in existence, has expanded its operations and is still making rums.  The two most popular are the Teeda 5 YO and the Kiyomi Unaged White, which do not share the same production process: while both source Okinawa sugar cane which is crushed to juice, the Kiyomi rum is fermented for longer (30 days instead of two weeks) and run through a double column still (not the pot).  It is then left to rest (and not aged) in steel tanks for six months and gradually reduced from 60% ABV off the still, to the 40% at which it is bottled.

I’ve never been completely clear as to what effect a resting period in neutral-impact tanks would actually have on a rum – perhaps smoothen it out a bit and take the edge off the rough and sharp straight-off-the-still heart cuts. What is clear is that here, both the time and the reduction gentle the spirit down without completely losing what makes an unaged white worth checking out.  Take the nose: it was relatively mild at 40%, but retained a brief memory of its original ferocity, reeking of wet soot, iodine, brine, black olives and cornbread. A few additional nosings spread out over time reveal more delicate notes of thyme, mint, cinnamon mingling nicely with a background of sugar water, sliced cucumbers in salt and vinegar, and watermelon juice. It sure started like it was out to lunch, but developed very nicely over time, and the initial sniff should not make one throw it out just because it seems a bit off.

It was much more traditional to taste – soft, gentle, quite easy to sip, the proof helping out there. After the adventurousness of the nose which careened left and right and up and down like your head was a pinball machine, this was actually quite surprising (and somewhat disappointing as well).  Anyway it lacked any kind of aggressiveness, and tasted initially of glue, brine, olives, gherkins and cucumbers – the ashes and iodine I had sniffed earlier disappeared completely. It developed with the sweet (sugar water, light white fruits, watermelon juice) and salt (olives, brine, vegetable soup) coming together pleasantly with light florals and spices (cinnamon, cardamom, dill), finishing off with a sort of quick and subdued exit that left some biscuits, salt crackers, fruits and rapidly disappearing spices on the tongue and fading rapidly from memory.

This is a rum that started with a flourish but finished…well, not in first place.  Though its initial notes were distinct and shown off with firm emphasis, it didn’t hold to that line when tasted, but turned faint, and ended up taming much of what made it come off as an exciting drink at the inception. That said, it wasn’t a bad one either: the integration of the various notes was well done, I liked most of what I did taste, and it could as easily be a sipping drink as a mixer of some kind.  What makes it noteworthy in this respect is that it doesn’t entirely become some sort of anonymously cute and light Cuban blanco wannabe you forget five minutes after putting down the glass, but retains a small spark of individuality and interest for the diligent. A shame then, that all this makes you think of, is that you’re holding an unfulfilled and unfinished promise — a castrated clairin  if you will — in your hand. And that’s a crying shame for something that’s otherwise so well made.

(#630)(82/100)

May 302019
 

In any rum festival, if you are moving around with a posse or simply keep your ears open, there’s always one or two new or unknown rums that create an underground buzz. You drift from booth to booth, tasting, talking, writing, thinking, listening, and gradually you separate voices from the din, that quietly remark “Check out that one over there” or “Did you hear about….?” or “You really gotta try…” or a simple, disbelieving “Holy crap!”

The Whisper Antigua rum was one of those, Lazy Dodo another; in various years there was the Toucan white, the Compagnie’s Indonesian rum,  the first edition of Nine Leaves, the first new Worthy Park rums…and in Paris 2019, it was the Teeda five year old made by the Japanese Helios Distillery, which I heard mentioned up and down the aisles by at least five separate people on the very first day (along with the Madeirans, the Cabo Verde grogues and Mhoba)

Helios has been around since 1961, when it was called the Taiyou distillery, and made rum from sugar cane grown in Okinawa itself (the climate favours it and all rum made in Japan uses cane from there) to cater to the locally-based Americans of the US post-war civil administration – and so as not to use rice which was needed for food to make alcohols like sake. In 1969 as the fortunes of the company and Okinawa improved, the name was changed to Helios and over the next two decades it branched out and gained licenses to make sake, shōchū, awamori (an Okinawan local spirit made from rice), whiskey and, in 1996, beer, which became one of its primary products with amawori and for which it is now best known.  Yet they started with and always made a sort of cheap blended rum (both white and lightly aged), and in the last few years expanded that into an aged product they named Teeda (an Okinawan word for “sun” – goes well with Helios, doesn’t it?), which is a blend of rums of five to fifteen years old aged in ex-bourbon barrels, I am led to understand, and pot still distilled. No caramel or other additions, a pure rum.

I don’t know how much of the blend was five years old and how much was greater, but whatever they did, the results were great.  The pot still component was particularly aggressive right out of the gate (even with a relatively staid 40% ABV strength) – yes it had a pronounced initial rumstink of sweet fruits and rinds decomposing in the sun, rotting bananas and paint remover, but there was also fanta and soda pop, a clear sweet line of bubble gum and strawberries, apricots, cherries, very ripe yellow mangoes, all tied together with brine, olives, and a really rich vegetable soup chock full of noodles and green onions (seriously!).

Palate…hmmm.  Different, yet decidedly intriguing and original without straying too far from rum’s roots. It was supple and firm on the tongue, sweet and almost gentle – I sensed iodine, minerals, wet charcoal, ashes, redolent of that woody and yeasty fresh-baked sourdough action of shōchūs I’ve had, which worked…sort of. Gradually that released additional muskier flavours of licorice, molasses, vanilla, even red olives.  It was also musty, with all the pungency of a barn made from old wood and long abandoned. Whatever fruits there were took a back seat, and only really came into their own on the finish which, though short, was creamy and sharp both at once, and allowed final notes of ripe cherries and apricots to make a final bow before disappearing.

What to make of something like this?  A Caribbean rum it was clearly not, and it was quite separate from the light rums from South America; neither did it conform to India’s rich and sweet rums like the Amrut, and it had little in common with the feral whites now coming out of Asia.  Given that in many cases Japanese rum makers are often adding rum to their lineup of whiskies or sake or shōchū as opposed to starting rum distilling from scratch, I argue that too often the profiles of those drinks bleed over into the way their rums taste (Seven Seas, Ryoma, Cor Cor and Ogasawara are examples of this, with Nine Leaves a marked exception).

Yet I liked this thing, quite a bit.  It was like a dialled-down Islay mixing it up with a Jamaican pot-still bruiser (with a Versailles acting as referee), and was, in my estimation, something of an original to sample, blending both the traditional “rummy” flavours with something new.  It skated over many of the issues mentioned above and came out at the other end with a really mellow, rich, tasty, different rum, the likes of which I have not had before. Even with the few weaknesses it had — the balance and integration of the disparate components were not completely successful, and it could have been stronger for sure — there’s nothing here that would make me tell you to walk away.  Quite the reverse, in fact – this rum is absolutely worth a try, and it makes me glad I listened to the buzz.

(#629)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks and a hat-tip to Yoshiharu Takeuchi and Manabu Sadamoto for help with the background notes
  • A 2019 RhumFest masterclass video of Ms. Matsuda (grandaughter of the founder of Helios) can be found on FB in English, with a running French translation.  This confirms the pot still comment (it is stainless steel) as well as noting that fermentation is 2 weeks, leading to a 60% distillate from the still; white rum is rested in steel tanks for about six months, while aged rums are put in oak casks for the appropriate period
May 262019
 

The Sampan Vietnamese Rhum is made by the Distillerie d’Indochine: and Antoine Pourcuitte, a long haired Frenchman who seems to be channelling Fabio and who lives in Vietnam, is the man who bootstrapped his desire to make good rums into a business that combines a small hotel and bar close to the beach with a distillery he pretty much built himself (officially it opened for business in late 2018). This newly constructed establishment, which produces one of those excellent white rhums which must be causing the French islands conniption fits, is his brainchild… and it can take its place proudly in the league of small and new fast moving ops who are taking a pure rhum approach to distillation in Asia.

Vietnam’s common tipple of choice is rượu (ruou), a local artisanal spirit somewhat akin to arrack of Indonesia, made from fermented rice or molasses or cane juice and run through backroad, backwoods or back-alley alembics and home-made stills that puff and fart and produce some low grade (but very palatable) moonshine. Like in other rural regions of the world which have a long history of indigenous small-scale spirits manufacture – Africa, Haiti and Mexico come to mind – these are largely individual enterprises not regulated or even acknowledged by any authority.

Mr. Poircuitte, who came to rum via wine and not whisky (something like Florent of the Compagnie) put a bit more professionalism into his company, and production cycle is not too different from the Caribbean islands, all in all.  The cane is all organic, pesticide free, grown in the area around Hội An, in the Qu lang Nam province, harvested by hand and then transported within 24 hours to the distillery, which is 40km away from the fields, for crushing. The resultant juice is fermented for 3 to 4 days, resulting in an initial wash of about 11% ABV, which is then run through their 11-plate single-column copper still that torques things up to around 70% ABV. Three varieties of this rhum are produced, at various strengths: 45% standard, 54% overproof and the 65% full proof.

What’s interesting here is that Sampan does not bottle it straight off the still, but lets it rest for something under one year in inert inox tanks, and this gives the resultant rum – which is not filtered except for sediments – a taste of serious fresh-off-the-still juice.

Consider first the nose of this blanc, which is stuffed into the bottle at a beefy 54% ABV. It’s musty, redolent of freshly turned sod and grass.  I could say it smells dirty and not mean it in a bad way, and that is not all: it also smells briny, olive-y, balanced off with clear, fresh, 7-Up and lemon juice and sugar cane sap, plus a smorgasbord of light fruits like pears, ripe apples, and white guavas, a little vanilla and cookies.  The strength doesn’t hurt it at all, it’s strong and firm without every being too sharp to enjoy as it is.

Thankfully, it doesn’t sink on the taste, but follows smoothly on from what had been discerned on the nose. Here, we didn’t just have a few olives, but what seemed like a whole grove of them. Again it tasted dirty, loamy, and also pungent, with initially clear notes of sweet sugar cane juice and sweet yellow corn, to which are added some lemon sherbet, vanilla and aromatic light fruits (pears, watermelon, strawberries) plus herbs – dill and basil.  Soft and lightly sweet, and there’s a background hint of anise as well, or licorice, really nice. Throughout the tasting it stays firm and assertive on the tongue, with a near silky mouthfeel leading to an exit that is pleasantly long lasting and with closing notes of fruits, vanilla, coconut water, and breakfast spices.

This is a really nice white rhum – it married the freshness of an agricole with the slight complexity of an entry level vieux and the balance between the various elements was very nicely handled. That pungent opening clearly makes the case that even with the resting period, it was an unaged rhum, something like the Sajous, the Paranubes, A1710, Toucan, Barbosa Grogue, HSE Parcellaire or others of that kind – I liked it a lot, and if it didn’t win any medals, I firmly believe it should at least win a few wallets.

Many of the older Asian rhums which have sold  gangbusters in their countries of origin for decades, catered to indigenous tastes, and cared little for western styles of rum.  They were (and are) sometimes made in different ways, using different materials in the process, are sometimes spiced up and almost always light column-still blends issued at standard strength. We are seeing a gradual change here, as a wave of small distilleries are setting up shop in Asia and producing small quantities of some really interesting juice. This one from Vietnam is now on my radar, and I look forward to seeing not only what they come up with in the future, but what that Overproof 65% of theirs tastes like — and if it blows my hair back and my socks off, well, then I’ll consider it money well spent…as I did with this one.

(#627)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The company is named after the slow moving boats similar to Chinese junks, which ply the Mekhong River and the coastal areas around South East Asia.
  • My intial review noted that it was aged for 8 months in ex-French-oak casks, based on my conversation and scribbled notes at the Paris rhumfest (not with Mr. Poircuitte but with his pretty assistant, in the maelstrom of the first day’s crowds) – I was later contacted directly to be advised this was a miscommunication, that the rum rested for 8 months in steel tanks, and so I have amended the post for the correction.
May 222019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#626)(82/100)


Other notes

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

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

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

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

May 202019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#625)(83/100)


Other notes

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