Aug 182019
 

The French islands provide a reviewer with a peculiar problem when trying to pick a single rum as being a “Key” anything. This is largely because Martinique and Guadeloupe are alone in the world in possessing such a gathering of world-famous rum distilleries in such a concentrated geographical space (a comparison to Islay, say, is not entirely out to lunch). Several Caribbean islands have a single large distiller (St. Lucia, Trinidad) or two (Grenada) or a few (Cuba, Barbados, Jamaica), and Haiti of course comes up for special mention — but none have so many whose names resound through the rumiverse.  So how to pick just one?

The selection of the first of what will be several candidates from the French islands – because to limit oneself just to one or two or even three is to do the entire subset of agricole rums an enormous disservice – is made even more difficult by the fact that Guadeloupe is not seen as a “pure” agricole maker. This is primarily because, of course, they sometimes mess around with both molasses and cane juice styles of rhum, and have never actively sought the AOC designation which so enhances the street cred of rhums from Martinique.

But even so, I like the rhums of Guadeloupe (Grande Terre and Basse Terre and Marie-Galante) — a lot. To me, the work of Gardal, Karukera, Bielle, Longueteau, Severin, Bellevue, Montebello, Pere Labat, Reimonenq, Capovilla and Damoiseau are as good as any the world over, and behind them all still reverbrates the majestic quality of Courcelles, the one that switched me on to agricoles all those years ago when the Little Caner was not yet the Big Caner and I was just getting serious about French island hooch.

So why start with Damoiseau?  The easiest answer is to say “Gotta begin someplace.” More seriously, it’s certainly one of the better known brands from there, the leading producer on Guadeloupe; back in 2016 I remember Josh Miller awarding their white 55% first place in his agricole challenge; years before that, Velier gained confidence to issue more full proof rums by releasing their excellent 1980 version at 60.3% (the first such strong rum in their portfolio); Matt Pietrek suggested the Damoiseau 4 year old Réserve Spécial VSOP was a great rum to have for under US$45 and a good ambassador for the country’s rum-making tradition; and lastly, I simply have good memories of most of their work I’ve tried.  But for me, the VSOP is a bit young and rough, and my affection is given to the very slightly older version which we shall get into without further ado.

Made from cane juice and then aged in ex-bourbon casks, Damoiseau has the occasional peculiarity (in my eyes, at least) of making aged rhums that don’t always or completely showcase the crisp herbal sweet grassiness we have come to associate with agricoles. Here, that isn’t the case at all…up to a point. The cane-juice-derived 5YO, which is near to standard strength (42% ABV) and therefore very approachable by those who want to dip their toes, is remarkably clean and yet still full-bodied for that strength. Immediately there is vanilla, a little oakiness, pears, prunes and the light notes of some pineapple slices.  Also cane sap and sugar water, flavoured with a dusting of cinnamon. And, oddly, a nip of molasses, brown sugar and caramel in the background, which I can’t explain, but find pleasing nevertheless.

The palate isn’t quite as sterling as the nose, though still a cut above normal: a little thin, perhaps – blame it on the 42%, which is, let’s face it, somewhat lacklustre against the shining vibrancy of the whites, so often torqued up to 50%. The rhum tastes a little dry, a little briny, with vanilla, dates, prunes, blackberries and dark grapes leading in, followed by some florals, crisp oak notes, breakfast spices, cereals…and again, that strange hint of caramel syrup and molasses poured over fresh hot pancakes flitting behind all the other tastes.  It’s a perfectly nice drink for all that, and the finish is a fitting conclusion: nice and long with oily, salty and tequila notes, to which are added light oakiness, vanillins, fruits and florals, nothing specific, nothing overly complex just the entire smorgasbord sailing into a serene conclusion.

Personally, I’d suggest that some extra strength would be useful, but by no means does that disqualify the Damoiseau 5 Year Old as a good all-rounder, equally at home in a mix of some kind or by itself. You can tell it’s been aged, it’s slightly sweet and has the requisite fruits and other flavours combining decently, and the rhum navigates its way between a light and heavy profile quite nicely. That slight touch of caramel or molasses was something I liked as well  — if memory serves, it was a similar ”contaminant” that prevented the 1980 from being released as appellation-compliant and that was why it was sold to Velier, but whether in this instance that’s deliberate or my imagination is anyone’s guess. All I can say is that for me it was there, and it did not detract but enhanced.

So at the end, the 5YO ticks all the boxes we look for in such a rhum. Young as it is, it’s a tasty, unique product from Damoiseau; it’s of reasonable strength — and therefore doesn’t frighten those now moving out of their comfort zones and getting into different styles, with some stratospheric ABV or a profile of off-the-wall lunacy; and best of all for those who just want to nibble at its edges without biting the whole thing, the price point is right on the midpoint between two other candidates for the position. It’s slightly more expensive than the VSOP, but more elegant; and cheaper than the 8 YO but more versatile.  Any of these three could be a rum that celebrates Guadeloupe, but for my money and what I want out of a rhum like this, the 5 YO is the one that nails it.

(#652)(83/100)

Aug 052019
 

Last week when discussing the Karukera “L’Expression” I remarked that something of the agricole-ness, the grassy and herbal notes we associate with cane juice rhums from the French islands, was missing there.  To some extent the same thing could be said of the near-5000 bottles making up the limited outturn from various “select casks” (all fourteen of them) of this Black Bottle edition – but where I gave a guarded recommendation to the 2008 Rhum Vieux, here, I have to be more enthusiastic and say it’s one of the better rhums from Karukera I’ve tried — though not necessarily one of the best agricoles, for reasons that will become clear as we go on.

The brief stats behind it: a rum from Guadeloupe, made in Esperance distillery in the Domaine du Marquisat Sainte-Marie. Column still distillate aged seven years in ex-cognac casks, decanted into 4997 bottles in 2016 at 45%. I’ve also read that the distillate comes from the same canne bleue as the L’Expression, though the 2009 harvest here; and also that it’s grown on Karukera’s estate, not Longueteau’s (the two are neighbours and co-owned). And while I no longer pay much attention to appearance, I must comment on my appreciation for the black bottle and the striking black & white label design, sure to make it stand out on a shelf dominated by brightly-coloured labels from elsewhere.

Anyway, let’s begin.  How was it? Based on how it smelled, I know that some would say it’s weak because of its near standard proofage and initially faint nose, but when sniffing it, I would say it’s actually closer to subtle.  This is a rum that takes some concentration to come to grips with, because the aromas start quietly, gently and then become increasingly crisp over time, and the experience is the better for it. There’s wood and vanilla, strong black tea and anise, which gradually develops more fruity aspects, probably from the cognac barrels: pears, mangoes, oranges, both sweet and tart.  I particularly enjoyed the late-blooming, rather delicate spices – cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg, ginger plus more vanilla – and the twist of citrus zest and winey notes that suffused the overall aromas.

The palate is different though – not quite a one-eighty, but certainly a shift in direction.  Here the delicacy and subtlety was shoved aside and a more forceful profile emerged, warmer and firmer within the limitations of the proof, and all that in spite of the slightly herbal and grassy notes that were now more clearly discerned. Initially I tasted bitter chocolate, cherries in syrup, pears, mangoes, burnt sugar, black grapes, raspberries, cherries, nougat and even some background traces of molasses and honey and caramel.  Combined with those spices – nutmeg and vanilla and cinnamon, again – plus lemon zest and gooseberries, it melded tart and soft, intriguing enough to make one want to hurry through, and help oneself to more. I mean, there was really quit a lot going on here, if perhaps too much of the sweet influence of the cognac and the odd bitter tang of woodiness. The finish was fine — dry, again quite fruity, and rather short, mostly repeating the hits, more of the fruits than anything else, but always with that mellow chocolate and honey remaining in sight.

The Black Bottle 2009 has real quality and delicate sensibilities, and it adhered to many of the markers of a good rhum from anywhere: balance, complexity, a murmuring initial profile that builds to a reasonably complex palate and a decent finale. What it wasn’t was original, unique:  it didn’t showcase the island or the estate in any specific way, and the woodiness and cognac casks really held a dominance over the final product that could have been tamed more. It’s therefore too good to dismiss as “just another agricole” (as if that were possible with any of them): but just distant enough from perfect to deny it full admittance to the pantheon.

(#648)(86/100)


Other notes

Cyril of duRhum felt that the L’expression (89.5 points) was better and the Select Casks was too cognac-y (84). WhiskyFun really liked the Select Casks (88), more than L‘Expression (85)

Jul 312019
 

Karukera, that small distillery on the eastern side of the left wing of Guadeloupe also known as Basse-Terre (in the Domain of Marquisat de Sainte–Marie) used to release bottles with an AOC designation — it was clearly visible on the labels of the Millesime 1997 and the Rhum Vieux Reserve Speciale I went through some years ago.  However, by the time 2016 rolled around this apparently had been discontinued, since the “L’expression” 8 year old bottled in that year shows no sign of it. 

While Guadeloupe as a whole has always been somewhat ambivalent about going the whole hog with the AOC, no-one can doubt that their rhums do not suffer from any lack just because they are or are not part of the protocol.  The rhum under review today, for example, is quite a good product, made as it is from cane juice of the famed high sugar-content canne bleue (which also makes a rip-snorting white), column-still distilled, a firm 48.1% ABV, and released to some fanfare in early 2017, during which several prizes came its way.

That said, I did find it somewhat…odd. For one thing, though the nose initially presented as nicely sweet and deep — with pineapple, fresh baked bread, toffee, nuts, bon bons, nougat, vanilla, licorice and salted caramel in particular perking thinks up — there was a background hint of molasses that I couldn’t pin down – what was it doing there, y’know?  There was also some cumin, ginger, fennel and rosemary, a good bit of citrus zest (lemon), so it was a pleasant rhum to smell, but overall it displayed less of the grassy, sap and dry watery aromas that would normally distinguish any agricole. 

Unlike many aged agricoles that have run into my glass (and down my chin), I found this one to be quite sweet, and for all the solidity of the strength, also rather scrawny, a tad sharp.  At least at the beginning, because once a drop of water was added and I chilled out a few minutes, it settled down and it tasted softer, earthier, muskier. Creamy salt butter on black bread, sour cream, yoghurt, and also fried bananas, pineapple, anise, lemon zest, cumin, raisins, green grapes, and a few more background fruits and florals, though these never come forward in any serious way. The finish is excellent, by the way – some vague molasses, burnt sugar, the creaminess of hummus and olive oil, caramel, flowers, apples and some tart notes of soursop and yellow mangoes and maybe a gooseberry or two.  Nice.

So yeah, like I said, it’s good, but a little confusing too — initially, not much seems to be happening and then you realize it already has, and sorting out the impressions later you conclude that what you were getting was not entirely what you were expecting. For my money, it was not anything outstanding. I personally preferred the 2004 Double Maturation a lot more – that one was intriguing and complex, and navigated salt and sweet, soft and crisp, in a way this one tried to, but didn’t. The nose and the palate were at odds not just with each other but themselves, in a way, and it was overly fruity-sweet.  That’s not enough for me to give it a bad score, just to make me look elsewhere at the company’s rhums, for something that might erase the memory of a Hawaiian pizza which the L’Expression so effortlessly brings to mind every time I sip it.

(#647)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • Big thanks to Cyril of DuRhum for the sample
  • A smaller 1500-bottle outturn of the 2008 millesime was released for La Maison du Whisky’s 60th Anniversary in the same year, at 48.4%.  A 2008 Batch 2 was released at 47.5% with 3500 bottles but the year of bottling is unknown – it can be distinguished by a blue portion of the label, missing on the one I tried here.
  • My bottles from 2012-2013 show an AOC moniker on the labels, which is not there now.  The website also makes no mention of it, so I am left to conclude that it no longer conforms to the AOC designation. If anyone has some details, please let me know and I’ll update the post.
Jul 182019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#643)(87/100)

Mar 262019
 

Rumaniacs Review # 095 | 0611

As noted in the biography of the Domaine de Séverin, what we’re getting now from the new owners is not what we were getting before.  The company’s distillery changed hands in 2014 and such rums as were made back in the day immediately became “old”, and more obsolete with very passing year.  From the old style design of the labels, I’d hazard that this one came from the 1990s, or at the very latest, the early 2000s, and I have no background on ageing or lack thereof – I would imagine that if it slept at all, it was a year or less. Over and beyond that, it’s a decent blanc, if not particularly earth shattering.

Colour – White

Strength – 50% ABV

Nose – Starts off with plastic, rubber and acetones, which speak to its (supposed) unaged nature; then it flexes its cane-juice-glutes and coughs up a line of sweet water, bright notes of grass, sugar cane sap, brine and sweetish red olives.  It’s oily, smooth and pungent, with delicate background notes of dill and cilantro lurking in the background. And some soda pop.

Palate – The rhum does something of a right turn from expectations. Dry and dusty, briny and sweet.  Vegetable soup and maggie cubes mixes up with herbal / fruity notes of cucumber, dill, watermelon juice and sugar water.  Somehow this crazy mish-mash sort of works. Even the vague hint of caramel, molasses and lime leaves at the back end add to the pungency, with the dustiness of old cardboard being the only off note that doesn’t belong.

Finish – Warm, smooth, light, oily, a mix of sugar water and 7-up which is the faintest bit dry.

Thoughts – Guadeloupe is free to mess around with molasses or cane juice, not subscribing to the AOC that governs so much of Martinique, and the bottle states it is a rhum agricole, implying cane juice origins.  Maybe, though those odd commingling tastes do make me wonder about that. It’s tasty enough and at 50% almost exactly strong enough.  But somehow, through some odd alchemy of taste and preference, the odd and uncoordinated way the sweet and salt run apart from each other instead of providing mutual support, it’s not really my glass of juice.

(82/100)

 

Mar 212019
 

Rumaniacs Review # 094 | 0610

Séverin is a small distillery in the north of the left “wing” of Guadeloupe (called Basseterre), whose history can be divided into three parts: 1800-1928 when different owners held the small estate and grew various agricultural crops like pineapples and sugar, 1928-2014 when the Marsolle family held it and created the marque of Domaine de Séverin for their rhums, and the post-2014 period when the distillery (but not the whole estate) was sold to a local businessman called Jose Pirbakas. Although there was a cessation of operations after the takeover due to differences in management and operational philosophies (for one thing, all rhum prices were jacked up by 45% in 2014), rhums from Séverin are now once again available, primarily in France, and sporting a new, redesigned bottle and label.

That label is key, since the older ones such as on the bottle I had, are no longer in use and therefore serve as a useful determinant as to whether one is buying a pre-takeover rum (which is a Rumaniacs candidate), or a post 2014 version, which is not.

While it is not explicitly stated on the label, the Vieux is about three years old. Séverin have always played around with different casks in their aged rhums (cognac for the most part), but in this case it is very likely that standard oak barrels were used to age the rhum, which itself derives from a creole column still.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 45% ABV

Nose – Clearly Séverin, like many producers on Guadeloupe, played around with both molasses and cane juice for its raw material. Here, the deeper aromas of molasses, coca-cola and nougat steer us towards molasses as the base. There were hints of cinnamon and light coffee grounds, some smoke and vanilla, quite easy-going but also reasonably aromatic.

Palate – A very pleasing profile, if not quite as sharply distinct as anything you’re getting from Martinique with its strict AOC guidelines. Coke, molasses, bitter chocolate and nougat charge out from the gate. There is also some brine, olives and coffee, and coiling around in the background are some vague floral and light fruity notes which provide a pleasing backdrop for the heavier flavours

Finish – Somewhat weak, a flash in the pan, over quickly. Closing notes of cumin and cinnamon, caramel, damp brown sugar, vanilla.

Thoughts – Reminds me somewhat of rums from Mauritius or the Seychelles. I like these indeterminate products that steer an interesting line between a pure molasses product and one made from juice – it’s like they take a bit of the characteristics both without leaning to either side too much. That makes them good rums to drink, though this one is not so exceptional that I’d want it on my top shelf. Still, it was made recently enough that I suspect one can still find it, and if so, it’s worth picking up for more than just historical value.

(80/100)

Oct 112018
 

In the last decade, several major divides have fissured the rum world in ways that would have seemed inconceivable in the early 2000s: these were and are cask strength (or full-proof) versus “standard proof” (40-43%); pure rums that are unadded-to versus those that have additives or are spiced up; tropical ageing against continental; blended rums versus single barrel expressions – and for the purpose of this review, the development and emergence of unmessed-with, unfiltered, unaged white rums, which in the French West Indies are called blancs (clairins from Haiti are a subset of these) and which press several of these buttons at once.

Blancs are often unaged, unfiltered, derive from cane juice, are issued at muscular strengths, and for any bartender or barfly or simple lover of rums, they are explosively good alternatives to standard fare – they can boost up a cocktail, are a riot to drink neat, and are a great complement to anyone’s home bar…and if they occasionally have a concussive sort of strength that rearranges your face, well, sometimes you just gotta take one for the team in the name of science.

The Longueteau blanc from Guadeloupe is one of these off-the-reservation mastodons which I can’t get enough of. It handily shows blended milquetoast white nonsense the door…largely because it isn’t made to sell a gajillion bottles in every low-rent mom-and-pop in the hemisphere (and to every college student of legal age and limited means), but is aimed at people who actually know and care about an exactingly made column-still product that has a taste profile that’s more than merely vanilla and cloves and whatever else.

Doubt me?  Take a sniff. Not too deep please – 62% ABV will assert itself, viciously, if you’re not prepared. And then just think about that range of light, crisp aromas that come through your schnozz.  Speaking for myself, I noted freshly mown grass, sugar cane sap bleeding from the stalk, crisp apples and green grapes, cucumbers, sugar water, lemon zest, brine, an olive or two, and even a few guavas in the background.  Yes it was sharp, but perhaps the word I should use is “hot” because it presented an aroma that was solid and aggressive without being actually damaging.

Taste? Well, it’s certainly not the easy kind of spirit you would introduce to your parents, no, it’s too badass for that, and individualistic to a fault.  Still, you can’t deny it’s got character: taking a sip opens up a raft of competing and distinct flavours – salt, olives, acetones, bags of acidic fruit (green grapes and apples seem to be the dominant notes here), cider, lemon zest again, all toned down a little with some aromatic tobacco and sugar water, cumin, and even flowers and pine-sol disinfectant (seriously!).  That clear and almost-sweet taste runs right through into the finish, which is equally crisp and fragrant, redolent of sugar water, lemons and some light florals I couldn’t pick apart.

There you are, then. Compare that to, oh, a Bacardi Superior, or any filtered white your barman has on the shelf to make his usual creations.  See what I mean? It’s a totally different animal, and if originality is what you’re after, then how can you pass something like this by? Now, to be honest, perhaps comparing a visceral, powerful white French island rhum like this to a meek-and-mild, easygoing white mixing agent like that Bacardi is somewhat unfair — they are of differing styles, differing heritages, differing production philosophies and perhaps even made for different audiences.

Maybe. But I argue that getting a rum at the lowest price just because it’s the lowest isn’t everything in this world (and in any case, I firmly believe cheap is always expensive in the long run) – if you’re into this curious subculture of ours, you almost owe it to yourself to check out alternatives, and the Longueteau blanc is actually quite affordable. And for sure it’s also a beast of a drink, a joyous riot of rumstink and rumtaste, and I can almost guarantee that if you are boozing in a place where this is begin served, it’s one of the best blanc rhums in the joint.

(558)(85/100)


Other Notes

Jul 122018
 

These days, anyone finding a rum three decades old had better hold on to it, because they’re getting rarer all the time.  As prices for the 1970s and 1980s rums climb past the fourth digit, locating one can be an equally fortunate and frustrating exercise…depending on how it turns out. As to why Velier chose to issue two rums of the same distillation and aging dates, at two different strengths, well, we know he has done this before, most famously with the entire Caroni line and some of the pre-Age Demerara rums.

Of course, it’s possible that Velier in this instance worked on the principle of taking a the entire outturn and bottling some at cask strength and the remainder at a more quaffable proof appealing to a broader audience.  That’s reasonable, I guess (L’Esprit does the same) – yet although the 54% Courcelles 1972 and this 42% version share the same years, there’s a difference in that the 54% was laid to rest in steel vats for nearly two additional years, and both are referred to as the dernière distillation which suggests that a bunch of barrels were involved, each with its own peculiarities.

And those peculiarities are important because they make this softer rhum individual on its own merits and different from its brawnier frere. Take the nose for example: it’s lovely and sweet, light without actually being delicate. It presents bags of light fruit – pears, ripe apples, watermelons, cherries – that go on forever, to which are added soft red-wine notes, honey, thyme and a drizzle of hot caramel on vanilla ice cream.  In a way it reminds me a lot of the Savanna 15 Year Old Porto Finish from Reunion (haven’t written about this yet), but somewhat deeper even so, because the scents grow richer over time in spite of its relatively low proof point and their overall mildness.

Tasting a rum like this is a mixed experience – one appreciates the subtlety, but strains to pick apart the notes. That said, it’s quite good, with lovely clear and clean notes of light fruitiness – pears again, watermelon again, some grapes, raisins and ripe mangoes, set off by softer nuances that speak of nougat, white chocolate, a flirt of coffee, rosemary, caramel, vanilla, thyme and some florals. It also has a background of honey that I quite enjoy with a profile like this because it strengthens the whole in a quiet kind of way, provides a bed for the rest of the flavours to emerge onto and do their thing. About the weakest point of the whole experience may be how it ends – the finish is short and faint, a zephyr following from a stiff breeze, with just some barely discernible floral and fruity hints and a bit of orange zest and tart yoghurt, and then it’s all over.

After writing up my notes, I keep coming back to how differently it presents when rated against the 54% version – it’s like they are different branches from the tree, growing in different directions while still conforming to underlying and similar standards (many of the tasting components, for example, are quite similar). The 42% iteration, I have to somewhat reluctantly note, is less when placed next to its masterful stronger sibling.  On its own, with nothing else to compare it to, it’s quietly, subtly brilliant and will not disappoint the casual drinker. But side by side, its potential clarion call is muted and dialled down, it is deferential and says much less…and when it does, it whispers.

(#528)(86/100)


Other notes

  • The Courcelles distillery in Grande Terre (one of the two “wings” of Guadeloupe island) was established in the 1930s and closed way back in 1964 when the then owner, M. Despointes, transferred the inventory and equipment to another distillery, that of Ste Marthe. They continued using Courcelles’s pot still and distilled this rum in 1972.  This is probably the last year any Courcelles distillate was made – I’ve never been able to find one produced more recently.
  • Distilled in 1972 and set to age in 220 liter barrels until 2003.  Outturn is unknown
  • The profile does not suggest an agricole, and since Guadeloupe is not AOC compliant, it probably derives from molasses. The taste certainly suggests it.
  • About that strength differential – in my essay about the Age of the Demeraras, I remarked that the first three releases of Velier Demeraras were all issued at standard proofs because Luca was nervous about moving too fast with releasing >50% cask strength rums.  I suspect that he had similar feelings about the 42% version of the Courcelles, which was why it was bottled first – two years later, just when he was putting out the full proof Skeldons in 2005, he went full bore with the rest of the Courcelles stock and never looked back.
Mar 252018
 

#500

In one of those odd coincidences that crop up from time to time, I was polishing up my essay for one of Damoiseau’s ultra-premium halo rums – a 31-year-old inky bad boy from 1953 which is usually too rare or too pricey for most to bother with – when Single Cask posted his own in-depth evaluation.  We had a good laugh over that one, but in a way it’s good too, because while one person’s review of a single rum is fine, a better opinion can be formed with several people putting their snoots and their pens in.

Age-wise, the 1953 from Guadeloupe does not class with the ur-rum of the Aged Canon, the Longpond 1941 58 year old from Jamaica. Yet it is nearly as old as the 1972 37 year old Courcelles which was the first to truly switch me on to French Island rhums, and which is the oldest such aged product I’ve yet found – others, such as the Bally 1929 and Clement 1952 and the St James 1885 were made before 1953, but are younger. Whatever the case, it is a blast from the past, something we should try if we can just to get a sense of the evolution of rum and rhum and ron over the decades. And yes, also because it’s so damn cool to have something from the fifties.

So what was happening in 1953? The Cold War was in full swing, of course, Eisenhower was inaugurated as #34, Mossadegh was overthrown, Stalin died, Kruschev lived. The Kenyan Mau Mau uprising was going on while the Korean conflict “ended.” Everest was conquered.  Watson and Crick announced DNA, Ian Fleming published the first James Bond novel, the first Playby came out, and Jacques Tati released the whimsical classic M. Hulot’s Holiday (a favourite of mine, along with Playtime). The rationing of cane sugar in the UK came to an end. The Brits suspended the British Guiana constitution and occupied the country militarily so as to make it safe for democracy.  And this rum came off the still in Damoiseau’s facilities.

I have no idea whether it was pure cane juice distillate or molasses – Guadeloupe has a history of mixing things up, which is part of their attraction for me – but just based on the way it nosed and tasted when run past other aged dinosaurs (the Courcelles, Damoiseau’s own 1980, the Cadenhead Green Label 1975 among others) I’m going to say it had at least some molasses-based spirit in the bag. It was a sort of mud brown opaque liquid that immediately made me remember the St James 1885, and poured thickly into a glass, even at its relatively low ABV of 42%.

But it smelled very nice for all that low power. Really. It had deep fruity flavours of blackberries and prunes, plus a lighter note of strawberries and orange peel, flambeed bananas, and it reminded me somewhat of a Bajan Black Rock rum, what with that underlying series of crisper smells.  Candied oranges, a flirt of caramel, some faint licorice, very ripe cherries added to the fun. However it was deeper than any of those, richer, smokier, and developed over time into a plump and rotund nose that steered you between the darkness of a crazy old fellow like the 1885, and the clarity of Damoiseau’s 1989 20 year old.  Which perhaps says something for bottles that have sat waiting their turn for many many decades.

The palate is perhaps where people will pause and look at the glass a second time.  That it was pungent and warm was beyond question: even at the rather anemic strength, one could easily appreciate the relative smooth profile, pick out some weak brine, prunes, chocolate covered dates, banana cake, strawberries and honey; and to that, over time, was added a few lighter balancing elements of unripe strawberries, maybe a stalk of lemongrass. Overall, what fruitiness there was, was dialled way back and became almost imperceptible, to be overtaken by something more like a mix between tannins and some much-too-strong unsweetened black tea, both a good and a bad thing, depending on your viewpoint.  As for the finish, not much could be said – warm, short and unfortunately weak. That said, here perhaps more could be discerned which were missing from the palate – black tea, honey, raisins, faint chocolate, plenty of crushed walnuts, if too little of the fruitiness I was looking for.

Taking all these aspects together, one must concede that it started well, it’s just that as it opened up, there emerged a sort of woody, smoky, nutty background: this gradually overwhelmed the delicate balance with the fruit which the rhum needed (my opinion), and that to some extent derailed the experience. Too, the flavours melded into each other in a way that a stronger strength might have separated, creating a somewhat indeterminate melange that was tasty, yes, just…indistinct. And not entirely successful.

After the fact, looking at the rhum coldly and practically and assessing it on price alone, I can’t tell you this is a must-have.  It’s the kind that relies on the numbers “5”, “3” and “1” to be taken seriously, but when it comes down to a tasting, it doesn’t quite live up to the hype of the halo…and the numbers become just that, numbers.  As with rums like the Black Tot (or even the St James, Clement or Bally rhums mentioned above), we’re buying to touch the past and reconnect with a sense of real heritage, back when the Cuban style of rum dominated the market, to see how what we drink now came from what was made then. It absolutely is a major product in that sense — just not exceptional, compared to what it costs, compared to what we might expect.

So, the Damoiseau 1953 nails the historical value and cool presentation ethos just fine, and it is different, fascinating, old, pretty good, and if that’s what you want, you’re good to go. You’ll be the belle of the ball showing it off, and all the stares and envious plaudits will surely be yours for the taking (unless someone trots out a Bally). The best thing to do — when you’re in the store looking at it, with your bonus cheque twitching in your pocket — is to ask yourself some very honest questions as to why you want to buy it and then proceed purely on that basis.  I ignored that advice myself, and that’s why you’re reading this review.

(85/100)


Other notes

The Single Cask review is really worth a read.  Also, he noted that it came from some “lost casks” but Herve Damoiseau, when confirming the age as 31 years for me (the rhum was bottled in 1984), didn’t know anything about that.

Feb 262018
 

#0491

Don’t get so caught up in the Velier’s 70th Anniversary bottlings, their dwindling Demeraras or the now flavour-of-the-month Caronis, that you forget the one-offs, the small stuff, the ones that don’t make waves any longer (if they ever did).  Just because the Damoiseau 1980, Courcelles 1972, Basseterre and Rhum Rhum lines don’t make headlines while the aforementioned series do, is actually a good reason to try and find them, for they remain undiscovered treasures in the history of Velier and are often undervalued, or even (gasp!) underpriced.

One of these delightful short form works by La Casa di Gargano is the Basseterre 1997, a companion to the Basseterre 1995, which I thought had been an excellent agricole (scored 87), if, as I mentioned in the review, somewhat overshadowed by other aspects of Luca’s oevre.  I had sourced them both, but for some reason got sent two of the 1995 and none of the 1997, and was so pissed off that it took me another two years to grudgingly spring the cash for another 1997 (if you’re interested, I gave a Danish friend the extra 1995, unopened).

The two Basseterre rhums have an interesting backstory.  Back in the mid 2000s, Velier had its relationship with Damoiseau in place and Luca, as was (and is) his wont, struck up a friendship with Sylvain Guzzo, the commercial director of Karukera, and asked him to sniff around for some good casks elsewhere in Guadeloupe. In these cynical and pessimistic times we cast the jaundiced eyes of aged streetwalkers at remarks like “he did it for me entirely out of friendship, not money” but knowing Luca I believe it to be the unvarnished truth, because he’s, y’know, just that kind of guy. In any event, some barrels from Montebello were sourced, samples were sent and a deal struck to issue them under Velier’s imprimatur.  Luca is by his own admission a lousy painter, and therefore worked with a young architectural student from a university in Slovenia to design the labels with their abstract artwork and was going to use the Montebello name on them…before that company saw the Velier catalogue, had a lawyer issue a cease and desist order, and that plan had to change on the spot.  So after considering and rejecting the name “Renegade” (maybe that would also have created problems) the label was quickly amended to “Basseterre” and so it was issued.

Anecdotes aside, what have we got here? A Guadeloupe column-distilled 49.2% ABV rhum from the Carrere distillerie more commonly called Montebello, located just a little south of Petit Bourg and in operation since 1930.  Curiously, it’s a blend: of rhum agricole (distilled from cane juice) and rhum traditionnel (distilled from molasses).  Aged…well, what is the age?  It was put in oak in 1997 then taken out of the barrels in 2006 (again, just like the 1997 edition) and placed in an inert vat until 2008 for the two divergent strains to marry.  So I’m calling it a nine year old, though one could argue it sat for 11 years even if it was just twiddling its thumbs for two. And as noted above, there’s a reason why Sylvain’s name is on the back label, so now you know pretty much the same story as me.

Even now I remember being enthused about the 1995, though it had issues with how it opened.  That level of uncouth seemed to be under greater control here – it was somewhat sharp, sweet and salty at the same time, just not in a messy way.  The lighter sweet started to become more noticeable after it began to morph into honey and floral notes, plus anise, a little cumin, and softer, riper fruits such as bananas.  Under that was a nice counterpoint of well-behaved (if the term could be applied without smiling) acetone and rubber and an odd ashy kind of smell which was quite intriguing.  In fine, the nose was a really nice and complex to a fault, quite impressive.

I also had no fault to find with the palate which reminded me right off of creamy Danish cookies and a nice Guinness.  A little malty in its own way. It was very clear and crisp to taste, with brine, aromatic herbs (dill, parsley, coriander), spices (cumin leavened with a dusting of nutmeg), honey, unsweetened yoghurt, and a light vein of citrus, out of which emerged, at the end, some coffee grounds and fleshy, ripe fruits, all of which was summed up in a really good fade, dry and well balanced, that went on for a surprisingly long time, giving up gradually diminishing notes of anise, coffee, fruits and a little citrus.

The rum really was quite a good one, better than the 1995, I’d suggest, because somehow the complexity was better handled and it was faintly richer. It’s great that they are not well known, which keeps them available and reasonably priced to this day, but it’s too bad there were only two of these made, because unlike the Demeraras or Caronis there is not a great level of comparability to go on with.  Be that as it may, the fact remains that these smaller editions of more limited bottlings — which don’t have the hype or the glory of the great series for which Velier is justly famed — are like Stephen King’s short stories tossed off between better known doorstopper novels like “It”, “Duma Key”, “The Stand” or The Gunslinger Cycle. Yet can we truly say that “Quitters Inc” “The Ledge” or “Crouch End” are somehow less?  Of course not. This thing is a sweet, intense song on the “B” side of a best selling 45 – perhaps not as good as the bestseller which fronts it, but one which all aficionados of the band can justly appreciate. And speaking for myself, I have no problem with that at all.

(88/100)


Other notes

  • Outturn is unknown
  • Background history of the company can be found at the bottom of the 1995 review