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. 
Feb 032020
 

The Okinawan Helios Distillery came to greater attention (and reknown) of the western rum scene in 2019, when they presented a white rum and a 5 Year Old that were impressive right out of the gate.  Perhaps we should not have been surprised, given that the company has been in the business since 1961 – it is supposedly the oldest such distillery in the country. Then, it was called Taiyou, and made cheap rum blends from sugar cane, both to sell to the occupying American forces, and to save rice for food and sake production. In the decades since, they’ve branched out, but always continued making the good stuff, and you can’t be in rum for nearly sixty years and not pick up a thing or two. To me, the only question is why they waited so long to move west make a splash.

Aside from beers and awamori, for which they are better known in Japan, rums make up a good portion of the portfolio, with the 5YO and white leading the charge – both, as noted, are pretty good.  But in the back room skunkworks there was always the desire to go further, and age longer, as I was told in Paris in 2019 when a commercially-complete but as-yet-officially-unbottled sample was passed over the counter for me to try.  Most distillers would go in easy increments up a graded “age-curve” – you know, 10 years old, maybe 12, or 15 or something like that. Not these boys. They went right up to 21 and planted their flag firmly there.

And they had reason to. The rum was a noser’s delight, soft and yet firm, with a remarkably well balanced amalgam of caramel, ripe (but not overripe) fruits, cola, fanta, citrus…and that was just in the first thirty seconds. I stared at in some wonder – I’d never seen or tried a Japanese rum this old, and had thought that perhaps the company’s experience in making aged whisky would make it more malt-like than rum-like – but no, this thing was uniformly all round excellent. As if to prove the point, when I left it standing and came back to it there were also notes of bitter chocolate, Danish butter cookies, sweet aromatic tobacco, leather, and smoke. And behind all that, like a never-materializing thundercloud, there was a vaguely rank and hogo-y meatiness, sensed rather than directly experienced, but rounding out the nasal profile nicely.

Clearly twenty one years of careful maturation in ex-bourbon barrels had had its effect, and had sanded off the rougher edges evident on the aromas of both the Teeda 5YO and the white.  Did this continue when tasted?  

Photo (c) Nomunication website.

Yes indeed. Granted 43% was hardly cask strength (the 48% official version would likely be more emphatic), but the tastes were as smoothly crisp as anyone could hope for, with a creamy, salt-buttery lead-in that was almost silky.  The wood influence was clear – vanilla, smoke, leather – yet not overbearing; the bitter tannins run which could have run amok in something this old were tamed well. Standard and well-defined notes of an aged Caribbean molasses-based rum paraded across the palate one after the other – stoned ripe fruits, caramel, toffee, strong black tea, port-infused tobacco – and bags of delicately handled spices like cinnamon and cumin jeteed around them.  These were set off by cola, and light licorice and meaty hints, just enough to make themselves known, before the whole thing came to an end in a gentle finish of all these flavours coming on to the stage for one last bow in a sort of integrated unison that had me asking for seconds and thirds and vowing to get me a bottle when it finally became available.

That bottle has now been released. One of 2500, says Nomunication, and they mention a price tag of 28,000 yen, which is about ‎€240. I imagine it’ll be a bit more expensive by the time it gets over to America or Europe when taxes, tariffs and transport are tacked on — but I think it’s really worth it, especially since it’s stronger, and older than anything we’re likely to see from Japan that isn’t a whiskey. Tasting it, I was reminded of a well-made Damoiseau, or other rums from Guadeloupe – with it’s own quirks and originality, not adhering to a regimen or a strictly enforced code, but simply made with passion and without additives and with a whole lot of skill, in a country that keeps making ‘em better al the time.

(#697)(90/100)


Other Notes

  • The official release of the  21 Year Old Rum is 48% ABV, while the sample I tried was 43%, one of three bottles made for the festival circuit in 2019.  I was told back then that no changes were envisaged to what I was sampling – the blend had been “locked” – aside from tinkering with the strength; so I’ll take it on faith that any difference between what I based my notes on and what’s out there for sale, is minimal.
  • The 5 Year Old review has a brief background on the distillery and some notes on its methods of production. As far as I know this is a rum from molasses, and comes from a stainless steel pot still.
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
Apr 172019
 

You just gotta love Yoshiharu Takeuchi, who hired a brand ambassador, travel agent, accountant, general manager, master distiller, janitor, chief cook and bottle washer, the cook, the baker and candlestick maker, and still only has a single employee in his Japanese rum-making outfit Nine Leaves – himself. And lest you think he’s a dour, serious, penny-pinching cost-cutting ninja who’d prefer to be making a Yamazaki single-handedly or something, you can take it from me that he’s a funny, personable, dynamic and all-round cool dude, a riot to hang out with in any bar in any country. Oh yeah, and he makes some pretty damned fine rums.

I’ve been writing about Nine Leaves since I first tried their various rums back in 2014: the Clear, and “Almost <<pick your season>>” French- or American-oak-aged rums (most of which were aged, at best, for six months and issued once or twice a year), and have gradually realized that due to the peculiarities of Japanese tax laws, it’s simply not in their interest to make rums greater than two years of age, and so probably never will. Yoshi-san has therefore always concentrated on making minute, infinitesimal improvements to these young ‘uns, until 2016 when he changed direction and put out the first Encrypted rum, riding the wave of finishes and double maturations that have almost come to define Foursquare and have been copied here and there by other distillers like DDL and English Harbour.

The Encrypted rums were subtly, quietly excellent. It surpasses my understanding that to this day they have not made much of a wave in the rumworld (unless you count Velier’s 70th anniversary edition, which Yoshi jokingly calls the “Encrypted 2½”), though sales must be brisk otherwise why would Nine Leaves keep making them, right? The Encrypted II from 2017 was a blend of copper-pot-still rums slightly over two years of age: some were aged in ex-bourbon casks, some in PX Oloroso, and then blended, with a resultant strength of 58% ABV. That’s it, and the results just keep getting better over time.

Consider the way it smelled. With pot still distillate and two different cask types, one would expect no less than an intriguing smorgasbord, which this provided, in spades: the pot still component was quite subdued, starting off with a little brine and olives, a light touch of nail polish remover and acetones; indeed, the vaguely herbal nature of it almost suggested an agricole wannabe than the molasses rum it actually was. Letting it open a little is key here: after several minutes the other aromas of light vanilla and caramel were joined by smells of apples, green grapes, cumin and lemon peel, and only after some time did heavier fruit like peaches in syrup begin to make their appearance, with a neat balancing act between the various components.

The real treat was how it tasted. Short version? Delicious. Much as the nose managed to make a curious combination of agricole and molasses rum work together without going too far on one side or the other, the palate took flavours that might have been jarring and found a way to make them enhance each other rather than compete: it was hot and briny, tasting of gooseberries, green grapes and unripe mangoes, then balancing that off with unsweetened cooking chocolate, licorice, nougat and bon-bons, which were in turn dusted lightly with cinnamon and almonds, before closing off in a nice long finish of nuttiness, caramel, vanilla, a hint of wine and even (I kid you not) tumeric.

It’s amazing how many flavours Nine Leaves wrings out of their distillate without messing around with additives of any kind. When I see major houses doctoring their rums and their blends in order to appeal to the sweet-toothed mass market, then justify their actions (assuming they bother) by mentioning lack of resources to age distillate for long periods, the desire of their customers, the permissive legislation etc etc etc, I want to sigh and just point them in the direction of a rum like this one, aged for so short a time, not part of any family tradition or national heritage, not needing any adornment to showcase its quality. This thing is simply a solid, tasty rum, familiar enough not to piss off the Faithful, while also different enough to elicit nods of appreciation from those who’re looking for a variation from the norm. Not many makers can find the balancing point between such different aspects of the production process — Nine Leaves has shown it can be done, and done well, by taking the time to get it done right.

(#616)(87/100)

Dec 302018
 

Take this as less a review, than a description of my experience with a rum I didn’t know what to do with.

*

I have been sitting on this review for over a year, alternately confused and disgusted and wondering and puzzled.  It was a rum like nothing I’d ever had before, tawdry and smelly and meaty, an open sewer of a rum, a discarded tart’s handkerchief, yet I could not believe it could actually be so.  No reputable company – no company period – would willingly release such a product into the wild without reason, so what was I missing? Was it me and a degraded sense of smell and taste? Was it – as initially described in my notes – one of the worst hogo-laden bastards ever made, was it a contaminated sample…or a vanguard of the the taken-to-weaponizable-extremes dunder detonations of the New Jamaicans?

It took the Velier-issued NRJ TECA specifically for me to go back to this one sample (sent to me by that connoisseur of Asian rum junkies, John Go, who I’m sure is grinning at my experience) and give it another shot a year later, and perhaps it was also the complete faith I had that Luca Gargano would never release a substandard rum, which made me finally come to grips with the TECA’s Japanese equivalent and understand that perhaps they had been ahead of the curve all along. Or perhaps not.

Because for the unprepared (as I was), the nose of this rum is edging right up against revolting. It’s raw, rotting meat mixed with wet fruity garbage distilled into your rum glass without any attempt at dialling it down (except perhaps to 40% which is a small mercy). It’s like a lizard that died alone and unnoticed under your workplace desk and stayed there, was then soaked in diesel, drizzled with molten rubber and tar, set afire and then pelted with gray tomatoes.  That thread of rot permeates every aspect of the nose – the brine and olives and acetone/rubber smell, the maggi cubes, the hot vegetable soup and lemongrass…everything.

And much of that smell of sour funk persists on the taste (you better believe I was careful with it, even at standard strength), though here I must say it’s been transmuted into something more bearable.  It’s hot and thin and sharp, reminding me of Chinese 5-spice, coriander, aji-no-moto and ginger with a little soy and green onions sprinkled over a good fried rice, plus sugar water and watery fruits like papaya and pears.  Under it all is that earthy and musky taste, not so evident but always there, and that to some extent spoils the overall experience – or enhances it depending on your tolerance for high levels of dunder in your rum. The finish was relatively short and intermediate, with some teriyaki and sweet soya and very faint molasses…and the memory of that lizard.

All right so that sounds like crap right?  Sure it does. My initial sentiments were so negative I was afraid to score the damn thing.  I had never had an experience of such intensity before, of such off-the-wall tastes that I could not seriously associate with rums.  And for the record, nobody else I spoke to (those who had tried it) felt the same way about it.

So it became a question of seeing who made it and how it was made, to see if that shed any light on the matter. I talked to a few of my correspondents in Japan and came up empty.  Yes they knew of the rum, no they had not heard any reports of anything such as I described, and no there was nothing particularly unusual about the production methods employed by Kikusui Shuzo distillery on Honshu, using Shikoku sugar cane which they process on a column still and age for three years.  In fact, these boys are the ones making the Ryoma 7 year old rum, which I remembered having similarly odd (if not as feral) smells and tastes, but much gentler and much better integrated into the overall drink. Seven Seas rum is now imported into Germany, but I can’t entirely rid myself of the feeling that it’s really not meant for the export market, which might explain why it’s not mentioned much.  On the other hand, maybe rum reviewers are keeling over left and right after a sip but before they get anything to print, so who knows?

Anyway, enough of the snark.  Bluntly, I tried the Seven Seas in 2017 and didn’t like it and felt it was over the top, a badly made product that was off on balance, complexity and taste.  In 2018 Velier’s National Rums of Jamaica convinced me there was method behind the madness, I had perhaps been ignorant and too harsh and that something in the production methodology paralleled the high congener and ester levels of the TECA, even if I could find no confirmation of the matter.  Because of the uncertainties I’m going to officially leave it as unscored, because I feel my original 65 was too low but I don’t know enough and feel too ambivalent to rate it higher. Assuming my ideas are correct, then I’d ramp it up to 74….but no more. Even properly made as a true rum, it’s not enough to convince me I want to buy the bottle. I’m fully prepared to accept that my experience may have been unique to me; and I love the funky Jamaican style — but neither point is quite enough to make me want to risk this Japanese rum a third time.

(#585)(Unscored)

Jun 132018
 

#520

Since we’re talking about Nine Leaves again, let me just issue this brief review of another of the 2016 editions, the American Oak 2 year old.  This was something of a departure for the company and its genially low-key one-man owner, master blender, accountant, chief salesman, procurement officer, distiller, bottler, secretary, and maybe even floor cleaner, and the departure is in that it’s aged for so long.  

Most of the time Yoshiharu Takeuchi (who holds all of the positions noted above plus maybe a few others) releases rums in a six month cycle for the Angel’s Half expressions, and annually for the unaged “Clear” ones. This one is, however, aged for two years – it was the first “real” aged edition he made, and it was put to rest almost at the same time Nine Leaves opened for business.  Why two years? Because it’s the maximum a rum can be aged in Japan, he told me, before heavier taxes start to kick in, noting also that this is why for the moment older rums will not be part of the Nine Leaves’ stable.

Be that as it may, the 50% 2YO pot still rum should be seen as a companion piece to the Encrypted, which came out in the same year, and was also two years old.  However, the Encrypted was a two year old finished blend (of four rums), and this rum was a straight two year old without any other barrels aside from the American oak. I tried it together with the that and the Angel’s Half 6-month from last week, at the same time… and somewhat to my surprise, I liked this one best.

The nose rather interestingly presented hints of a funky kind of fruitiness at the beginning (like a low rent Jamaican, perhaps), while the characteristic clarity and crisp individualism of the aromas such as the other Nine Leaves rums possessed, remained.  It was musky and sweet, had some zesty citrus notes, fresh apples, pears and overall had a pleasing clarity about it. Plus there were baking spices as well – nutmeg and cumin and those rounded out the profile quite well.

Palate, short version, yummy. Some sugar water, vanilla, cereals and those spices again, cider and apple juice.  No brine here, no olives, more like a kind of tartness, akin to unsweetened fresh yoghurt. And a minerally iodine peat-bog taste lurked in the background, which fortunately stayed there and wasn’t so aggressive as to derail the experience.  It was quite smooth, with some edge and rawness, but well controlled, closing things off with a finish that was quiet, clear and relatively easy, redolent mostly of acidic fruits, apples, cider, oranges and a bit of vanilla.  That’s a rather brief set of tasting notes, but I assure you, the experience was well worth it.

When I posted the Angel’s Half notes last week on reddit, one person asked me whether what I described was typical for Nine Leaves.  Based on these three Nine Leaves rums from 2016, I’d have to say yes – but even with rums so relatively similar and from the same tree, there were points of individuality that made them distinct in their own right.  Of the three, this one was my favourite – it provided reasonable complexity, clarity, enjoyment, retained its sprightly youth and vigour, while suggesting how the ageing sanded off the rough edges.  For a two year old rum made on the other side of the world, this thing is quite an achievement, and demonstrates yet again that a rum doesn’t have to be aged up to wazoo or come from a famed Caribbean estate to make a solid and favourable impression on anyone who tries it.

(86/100)


Other notes

The rum’s label could use some work.  It states it’s an Angel’s half but neither the year nor the ageing are clearly noted, which inevitably leads to some confusion.  Also, the only way to tell it’s different from the 6 month old is the yellow label for the 2YO, as opposed to the white one on the 6-month. I think Yoshi has corrected this in subsequent releases, though one remains perennially unsure what the release quantity is.

Jun 112018
 

#519

Ever since Yoshiharu Takeuchi began his one-man Japanese rum-making outfit called Nine Leaves, I’ve kept a weather eye on his work, and think his two-year-old rums and the Encrypted – both the original and the one issued for Velier’s 70th Anniversary in 2017 – have been remarkably good rums for juice under five (and in some cases under one) years old.

Arguably the aspects of Mr. Takeuchi’s work that have brought him to the attention of a greater audience in the Americas — though he’s been well known, and moving around, in the European festival circuit since 2014 — is the release of the Encrypted as noted above, and his current attendance at the Miami Rum Renaissance in 2018…from where Juan Marcos Chavez Paz, a correspondent of mine and a member of the Consumers Jury for the last couple of years, sent me a note yesterday expressing his amazed admiration for the quality of what Nine Leaves does with such short ageing periods.

Aside from the occasional two-year-old, Nine Leaves’ bread and butter is the regular outturns of rums which he puts to rest for a mere six months before bottling, in either American oak or Limousin casks. He calls them “Angel’s Half”, which I think is a understated and humorous play on the strength, the ageing and the pilferage of the angels. What this brief stint in the barrels accomplishes is to preserve much of the unaged fire of a white spirit, while also getting the benefit of what Martin Cate would call “light ageing.”  However, since these are coming out twice a year, it’s a tough task to try and get them all…the distillery opened in 2013 and while it may not seem to be a problem to get a “mere” twenty or so expressions, trust me, it is.

The rum under discussion today is the light yellow Nine Leaves ‘Angel’s Half’ (American oak aged) pot still rum issued in 2016 – not messed around with, bottled at a robust, throat-clearing 50% and as with all the rums from the company I’ve tried so far, it’s a solid, tasty piece of work for something aged less than a year.

And that’s the part at which I kind of marvel.  I honestly don’t know how he stuffs as much into these rums as he does.  The nose, for example, gave an initial sensation of a wet stone and minerals (!!), salt, sweet peas (I’m not making this up, honest), before relaxing with the weird stuff and presenting something a tad more traditional – sherry, brine, an olive or two, watermelon, pears and a light kind of sweetness that’s quite pleasing.  And quite assertive, but without actually crossing over into rough.

The palate was deceptive, because although the dominating flavour at first sip was swank and a freshly sliced watery pear, it evolved subtly over time, in spite of what appeared to be a certain light delicacy behind which reticent flavours hid and never wanted to emerge. Wait a while and take your time, as I did – since, once it opened up, crisp, solid tastes were to be found. Brine, olives, gherkins, cucumbers to start, mellowing out into light fruits, a bit of lemon zest, nutmeg (very faint), guavas and just a suggestion of creaminess I could not nail down more precisely.  Surprisingly, the finish was rather short for something bottled at 50%, and was quite dry, somewhat less than nose and palate suggested could be found. Some watery fruits, a bit of brine, the sweet line of citrus and spice, and that was that.

Thinking about the rum as I jotted down my notes, I think the key to the experience is in understanding its rather unstudied and deliberate eschewing of off-the-wall complexity.  That’s not its intention, because there’s not that much going on here, no kaleidoscopic taste-attack to the senses as defined by some of the unaged white rums I’ve written about; in a way it’s a tamed version of those, with more than enough subtlety imparted by the time spent in the barrel to elevate it (now that I consider the matter, in a way it reminded me of the unaged Kōloa Kaua’i Hawaiian Rum I tried back in 2012).  In other words, it’s two steps above merely “simple”; it’s clear and crisp and has the notes it plays, and plays those exceedingly well. I quite enjoyed it.

Conversations like the one I had with Juan makes me glad I invest the time into doing company biographies that provide background for the aficionados, because it’s clear that the interest is there and it’s really just the rums that aren’t always available.  Fortunately Yoshi-san is not slowing down and keeps the quality of his juice very high (Velier would hardly have asked him to contribute to the 70th Anniversary collection otherwise). The chance that one day boredom will set in and I stop trying Nine Leaves’ “sincerely made rums” is small indeed, especially when there’s a range of young stuff like this to be savoured. Here’s a company that will hopefully gain even greater recognition, acclaim and plaudits in the years to come than those they have already earned.

(83.5)


Other notes

  • Unsure whether this one is the Spring or Autumn release, since the label doesn’t mention it. Since I tried it in October, I’m going to suggest it’s Spring.
May 232017
 

#366

Nine Leaves, for whose intriguing rums I have always retained a real fondness, remains a one man operation in Japan, and while I have not written much about them of late, they continue their regular six month release regimen without pause, and have become must-stop booths at the various festivals they exhibit at on the Circuit.  Every now and then they issue an expression somewhat at right angles to their regular “six-month-aged” line, such as the Velier 70th Anniversary edition from 2017, the two-year-old “Encrypted” from 2016 and this one-year-old from 2015, which was the commercial 48% variation of special 58% 60-bottle run for a Japanese hotel, aged in Cabernet Sauvignon wine casks instead of the regular American or French oak.

So, this is a pot still rum, aged for one year, bottled at 48%, and aged in red wine casks.  How active or soaked these casks were, or how much residual wine there was, remains an unanswered question.  The real question for me was, did it work?  Nine Leaves, after all, have made some rather above-average rums by bucking the trend and staying within some very short time-frames for their ageing, but now this one seemed to be inching towards the line that the Encrypted stepped over the following year.  How was it?

Well, nose first.  It moved on quite a bit from the 2015 Clear (which I enjoyed for other reasons). Though it began with some rather startling waxy paraffin aggressiveness, it was not as pungent as the Clear was, and seemed somewhat more tamed, more soothing.  In fact, it presented very much like a young agricole with a few extra aromas thrown in.  The winey notes were there, kept well in the background – more of an accent at this stage, than a bold and underlined statement – and the smell exhibited a sort of clear, sprightly friskiness, of fanta, grapes, cinnamon, ginger and light florals.

That clarity of aromas was very evident on the palate as well.  Even at the slightly beefed up strength it remained light and clear and crisp.  Flavours of light flowers, vanilla, green grapes, lemon zest and olives in brine mixed it up with salt butter and cream cheese. The wine background came forward here, and if it wasn’t bottled at such a proof and had so many other interesting rummy sensations, it might even be considered a port of some kind.  It was quite intriguing and quite interesting, though the finish was a bit of a let down, being very spicy, quite dry, doing something of a turn towards harshness, and didn’t give much up beyond some green grapes and grass, and a few breakfast spices.

Although it was a decent rum, I think it may be a bit too ambitious, and could best be considered an experimental attempt by the playful for the curious (and the knowledgeable), to make something at odds with better known profiles.  The real success stories of such rums seem to be more with finishes than the entire ageing cycle. To some extent it lacked focus, and the wine background, while making its own claim to uniqueness, also confuses — and although I kinda liked it, the amalgam of rum and wine doesn’t gel entirely. If you recall, Legendario and Downslope Distilling went down this road before, much more unsuccessfully – it’s a tough balancing act to get right, so kudos to Nine Leaves for doing as well as they have.  

Anyway, to wrap up, then– points for the effort, a few approving nods for originality, but ultimately also something of a headshake for not succeeding entirely.  Given that there has never been another major attempt to issue a wine-aged young rum from the company, it’s possible that was and remains an experiment which was left alone after the initial release, which is a shame, really, because I would have enjoyed seeing where Yoshi-san took it after a few more tries.

(84/100)