Nov 172019
 

Rumaniacs Review #103 | 0676

The Clément XO was one of the first top end agricoles I ever tried, one of the first I ever wrote about, and one that over the years I kept coming back to try. It evoked memories and recollections of my youth in Guyana which alone might justify its purchase price (to me, at any rate). There’s something undefinable about it, a trace of its heritage perhaps, the blend of the three rums that made it up, millesimes from what were deemed exceptional years – 1976, 1970 and 1952. 

The Clément 1976 is the first of the three I’ll be looking at, and its cost is now in the €400-range (more or less) – the last time I saw it was several years back in Charles de Gaulle airport, and it was out of my price range (plus, I was going in the wrong direction). It is AOC certified, aged at Clément’s facilities on Martinique for 20 years, and remains available for purchase, if not review. Its claim to fame nowadays is not about its participation in the blend of the XO (this is recalled by few outside the geek squad and the agricolistas), but the fact that it’s from so far back in time. It came out the same year as the AOC itself (1996), which is why it is so conspicuously noted on the bottle. 

Colour – Gold

Strength – 44%

Nose – Rich, sweet and fruity – generous would describe it well. It wasn’t hot or spicy (a given for its strength), just warm and quite easy. Peaches in syrup, vanilla, almonds, and bags of herbs which spoke to its cane juice origins – basil, cumin, cloves – plus a neat through-line of lemon zest. That burning sugar and faint trace of molasses I remember from the XO is alive and kicking here, even after twenty years of ageing.

Palate – If it isn’t a contradiction in terms, I’m going to call it “delicately rich” because that’s what ti is.  It tastes of vanilla, woodsmoke, various red and yellow fleshy stoned fruits – peaches, mangoes, cherries, all ripe – plus the crisp tartness of green apples and lemon zest, and the soft salty warmth of avocados and brine. The burnt sugar remains in the background, but hardly takes part in the proceedings any longer.

Finish – Long and fragrant, combining soft ripe fruits with tarter, more acidic ones – cherries, gooseberries and peaches.  There also a hint of maple syrup, cloves, almonds, toffee, salted caramel ice cream, and a merest trace of lemon.

Thoughts – The whole of the XO is greater than this part.  It actually tastes of a rhum that’s younger, and doesn’t entirely have that rounded and mellowed feel of an ultra-aged tropical product.  It’s crisp and clear and complex to a fault, yet after two decades one is surprised that it isn’t…well…better.

(#0676 | R-0103)(84/100)

Sep 122019
 

This is a rhum to drive you to tears, or transports of ecstasy, because it’s almost guaranteed that either you’ll regret you never tried it (though you’ll only know that after you do), or fall in lust with it immediately, then bang yourself over the head for not buying more when you did.  It’s a white rhum screwed tight to a screaming 60%, unaged, and made, Lord save us, from St. James’s old pot stills — which created a juice so unlike anything else from the island that people crossed themselves when they saw it, it couldn’t be labelled as an AOC, could not even be designated as Martinique rhum, and all we get is the almost embarrassed note that it’s made from “French Antilles.” 

White rhums like this have a strong and cheerfully disreputable DNA, going back right to the beginning when all the various estates and plantations had was leaky, farty stills slapped together from cast-aside copper, steel dinner plates and maybe a leather shoe or three. We’ve had primitives like this before – the Sajous and the Paranubes come to mind, Sangar from Liberia, MIM from Ghana, South Africa’s Mhoba, the Barik rhums from Moscoso’s jury rigged column still, and even Habitation Velier’s Foursquare and TECA whites, and that mastodon of the L’Esprit from Guyana.  Yet I assure you, this innocent and demure looking pale yellow-white was on a level all its own, not just because of its origins, but because it hearkens back to rum’s origins while not forgetting a single damn thing St. James have ever learned in over two hundred years, about how to make sh*t that knocks you flat.

And also because, man, did this thing ever smell pungent — it was a bottle-sized 60-proof ode to whup-ass and rumstink.  A barrage of nail polish, spoiling fruit, wood chips, wax, salt, and gluey notes all charged right out without pause or hesitation, spoiling for a fight. Even without making a point of it, the rhum unfolded with uncommon firmness into aromas of sweet, grassy herbals.green apples, sugar water, dill, cider, vegetables, toasted bread, a sharp mature cheddar, all mixed in with moist dark earth, sugar water, biscuits, orange peel. And the balance of all of them was really quite good, truly.

Could the palate live up to all that stuff I was smelling? I got the impression it was sure trying, and it displayed an uncommon lack of roughness and jagged edges for something at that strength (the L’Esprit 85% white had a similar quality, you’ll recall).  It slid smoothly across the tongue before hijacking it with tastes of sugar water, white chocolate, almonds cumin, citrus peel and brine. Then, as if unsatisfied, it added ashes, warm bread fresh from the oven, ginger snaps, cloves, soursop…in all that time it never crossed into something excessively sweet or allowed any one element to dominate the others, and while it lacked the true complexity of a rhum I would call “great”, it didn’t fall much short either, and the finish wrapped things up with a flourish – warm, really long, with ginger, cinnamon,  herbs, citrus peel and bitter chocolate and sea salt.

Until 2019, the Coeur de Chauffe — “the Heart of the Distillation” — was an underground cult rum limited to no more than 5000 liters per year, sold only on Martinique itself. It is, in point of fact, not an AOC rhum at all since it is a pot still product. Having tried it twice now and come to grips with its elemental nature, I think of it as a throwback, an ancestor, an old-style white agricole from Ago. I appreciate it’s a rhum that will likely find only a niche audience and is not for the sweet-toothed who love gentler products; but anyone who loves his juice should one day try sampling something like this, if only to experience new tastes, or old ones expressed in different ways.  I drank it with St. James’s own more traditional Fleur de Canne 50% and some of DePaz’s work — yet somehow, even though they were all good, all tasty, it’s this one I remember for its fire and its taste and its furious energy. Clearly something so pungent and unique could not be kept hidden forever, and for all those looking for something interesting, perhaps even an alternative to some of Jamaica’s funky bad boys, well, here may just be the droid you’re looking for.

(#656)(86.5/100)

Jul 252019
 

We hear a lot about Damoiseau, HSE, La Favorite and Tros Rivieres on social media, while J.M. almost seems to fall into the second tier of famous names. Though not through any fault of its own – as far as I’m concerned they have every right to be included in the same breath as the others, and to many, it does. 

Situated in the north of Martinique, J.M. began life with Pére Labat, who was credited with commercializing and proliferating the sugar industry in the French West Indies during the 18th century. He operated a sugar refinery at his property on the Roche Rover, and sold the estate to Antoine Leroux-Préville in 1790 – it was then renamed Habitation Fonds-Préville.  In 1845, his daughters sold the property again, this time to a merchant from Saint-Pierre names Jean-Marie Martin. With the decline in sugar production but with the concomitant rise in sales of distilled spirits, Jean-Marie recognized an opportunity, and built a small distillery on the estate, and switched the focus away from sugar and towards rum, which he aged in oak barrels branded with his initials “JM”. In 1914 Gustave Crassous de Médeuil bought the plantation from his brother Ernest (it would be positively karmic if Ernest was a descendant or relative of Jean-Marie, but it remains unknown), and merged it with his already existing estate of Maison Bellevue.  The resulting company has been family owned until recently, when Spiribam, the Hayot-family-controlled drinks conglomerate that also owns Clement and St. Lucia Distillers, bought a majority shareholding and put an end to one of the last independent single domaine plantations on Martinique.

The company makes various general blended rhums like the whites, the VO, VSOP and XO, as well as a ten and fifteen year old rum. The 45% ABV XO is one of the core range of rums JM produces, no particular year of make (otherwise it would be stated on the label and noted as being a millesime), always a minimum of six years old, made in quantity, consistent in taste and quality, and pretty widely available.

Right off, I enjoyed the smell when the bottle was cracked: luscious, well rounded ytet also a tad sharp – let’s call it crisp for now – with bags of soft tangerine zest, honey, vanilla and fudge.  It lacked much of that true herbal, grassy aroma which characterizes an agricole, yet its origin in cane juice was clear, hovering behind softer hints of marshmallow smores, caramel and white chocolate.

Palate, more of the same, with a few extra herbs and spices thrown in for good measure, quite firm and bordering on sharp.  So, some dill, cardamom, cloves, wet grass, dusky flowers (like lilies but thankfully fainter), plus softer tastes of peanut butter (the crunchy kind), caramel bon bons, rye bread and a sharp cheddar.  The finish was the bow tie, not adding anything much, just summing up the notes: medium long, warm, a tad sharp with less florals and more coffee grounds, oak and cinnamon.

This was good drinking, good sipping. I particularly liked the fact that the J.M.’s  inherent qualities kinda crept up on me without hurry: at first there was nothing bad about it, nor anything amazing, just decent quality – one could as easily mix it as sip it. Then a few extra notes began to sound, a few more joined in, and when it all came together at last I was left with a rhum that didn’t seem to have a whole lot of world-beating points of excellence – but what it had, it presented with aplomb. I finally came to the conclusion that the J.M. XO was a good rhum for both general audiences and those on a budget, a near perfect middle of the road product which didn’t seem like it was reaching for anything…but made one realize, after the party was over, that every target it was aiming for, it hit.

(#645)(83/100)

Feb 252019
 

Just to reiterate some brief details about HSE (Habitation Saint-Étienne), which is located almost dead centre in the middle of Martinique.  Although in existence since the early 1800s, its modern history properly began when it was purchased in 1882 by Amédée Aubéry, who combined the sugar factory with a small distillery, and set up a rail line to transport cane more efficiently (even though oxen and people that pulled the railcars, not locomotives). In 1909, the property came into the possession of the Simonnet family who kept it until its decline at the end of the 1980s. The estate was then taken over in 1994 by Yves and José Hayot — owners, it will be recalled, of the Simon distillery, as well as Clement —  who relaunched the Saint-Étienne brand using Simon’s creole stills, adding snazzy marketing and expanding markets.

This particular rum, then, comes from a company with a long history and impeccable Martinique pedigree.  It is an AOC millésimé – a rum issued in relatively small quantities, from the output of a specific year’s production, considered to be a cut above the ordinary (2005 in this case) and finished in Sauternes casks.

Given that it is nine years tropical ageing plus another year in the Sauternes casks, I think we could be expected to have a pretty interesting profile — and I wasn’t disappointed (though the strength did give me pause).  The initial smells were grassy and wine-y at the same time, a combination of musk and crisp light aromas that melded well. There were green apples, grapes, the tart acidity of cider mixed in with some ginger and cinnamon, a dollop of brine and a few olives, freshly mown wet grass and well-controlled citrus peel behind it all.  

Well now.  That was a pretty nifty nose.  How did the palate rate?

Very well indeed, I thought.  It was a smooth and solid piece of work for its proof point, with clear, firm tastes proceeding in sequence like a conga line – light acetones and flowery notes to begin with, then bubble gum, ripe cherries and plums.  The profile proceeded to display some sharpness and herbals — citrus, cider, well-aged sharp cheddar, a touch of apricots and almost-ripe peaches together with softer honey and ginger. What distinguished it and made it succeed, I think, is the delicate balancing act between sweetness and acidity (and a trace of salt), and even the finish – grapes, honey, cane juice and wet grass for the most part – displayed this well assembled character. It impressed the hell out of me, the more so since I walked in expecting so much less.

The other day I wrote about a similarly-aged, light rum from Don Q, which I remarked as being somewhat too easy and unchallenging, bottled at a low 40%; and while competently made, simply not something that enthralled me.

On that basis, you might believe that I simply disdain any and all such low-proof rums as being ultimately boring, but now consider this 41% agricole from Habitation Saint-Étienne as a response.  It emphatically demonstrates to anyone who believes standard strength can only produce standard junk, that a rum can indeed be so relatively weak and still have some real quality squirming in its jock. And with respect to the HSE 2005, that’s a statement I can make with no hesitation at all, and real conviction.

(#602)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • This rhum should not be confused with the others in the “Les Finitions du Monde” series (like Chateau La Tour Blanche or Single Malt finish labelled as exactly that), which are also 2005 millesimes, but not bottled in the same month, have other finishes, and different labels.
  • According to Excellence Rhum, this 2005 edition is the successor to the 2003 Millesime which is no longer produced.  
  • The outturn is unknown.
  • Nine (9) years aging, plus from 12 months of finishing in Château La Tour Blanche barrels, 1st Cru Classé de Sauternes.
Jan 092019
 

Rumaniacs Review #088 | 0587

You’d think that a rhum issued less than fifteen years ago would still be reasonably available – you’d be wrong. This amazing leather-labelled, oak-aged 15 year old agricole from J.M. (Martinique) is almost impossible to find, and if you do, it’s not cheap.  It’s long since vanished from J.M.’s online shop, and I finally ended up tracking a bottle down in Switzerland, where it was a fetching a cool five hundred bucks or more, which just goes to show it’s not just other people’s money the Swiss are squirrelling way.  One can only wonder how many (or how few) bottles of J.M.’s juice made up this millésime, or how good it was, for it to disappear so completely.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 45.8%

Nose – Starts off with a small bang of rubber and acetones. Then sweet peppers, floral notes; turns out it’s also chock full of strawberry bubble gum, vanilla, herbs, apple cider, unripe papaya, cherries and something deeper and darker that stays well in the background….spoiled mangoes, maybe.  Really nice, but it doesn’t reveal its secrets easily.  You could nose this for an hour (which I did) and still come up with some last wispy and near-unidentifiable note.  Because it’s just lovely, a nice departure from heavier Jamaicans, Guyanese or Bajans.

Palate – Not quite as rich as the nose, which is a factor of the strength. Okay, I’ll cut it some lack for now, let’s see how that works out. Flowers, sweet fruits, vanilla, leather and aromatic pipe tobacco. Watermelon, grass and sugar water, also dill, rosemary and sage.  The rum’s textire is smooth and warm, there’s very little sharpness here, and the balance among all these subtle flavours is damned fine.

Finish – Not too inspiring, somewhat weak and nothing really new.  It’s light and breathless as if, having used up all its energy providing the nose and palate, it had little left to cough up.  Flowers, light fruits, watermelon and pears, and a little vanilla.

Thoughts –  Some concentration and work required here, but it’s rewarded right up to the finish.  It’s all very light, that’s all – and has a snappy sort of crispness that makes every flavour stand out clearly – you could spend a whole afternoon sipping casually away and then wonder when the bottle went dry. The close is disappointing though, and leaves one wanting more – it’s too good to be indifferent to it, but too indifferent to be really good.  Other than that, this is a really fine piece of work by J.M. — the way it smells and tastes, and possibly the limited outturn, goes a long way to explaining how come the thing is so rare…and so expensive.

(85/100)


Other notes

I’ve written about other J.M. rhums before this and provided some brief biographical notes of J.M.’s background in each, but if you want more details, the Wonk-in-Residence has his usual in-depth recap here, and here.

Jan 072019
 

After the initial flurry of articles attendant on the forming of the first new distillery / rum brand in Martinique in, oh, I don’t know, forever, there’s been a surprising drop in attention for A1710. The big guns like Neisson, Bally, HSE, Trois-Rivieres, Depaz et al, with decades (or centuries) of brand awareness underlying their name and fame, continue to issue their excellent agricole rums, of course, but it’s almost like A1710 dropped by the wayside.  Yet this tiny outfit makes rums with a lot of zip, zap, zowee and swoosh, and should not be ignored just because it’s small.

A1710 is the first attempt in a long time to shake up Martinique’s well known rum industry, being created in 2016 as a micro-distillery for Habitation Le Simon (not to be confused with the distillery of Simon, though they’re close by), which rubs shoulders with Clement on the mid eastern side of the island.  The estate’s roots go back to 1710 when the founder, Jean Assier, arrived on the island (hence the “A” in the title) and founded the sugar plantation, which seems to have been family owned and operated as a sugar estate ever since. Yves Assier de Pompignan, the 50-year-old who created the brand and founded the distillery in 2016, first made a career in stationery and office supplies before accepting his True Calling, perhaps channelling the family heritage — a great-grandfather owned the current factory of Saint-James, a grandfather owned of rum brand, his father is a cane agronomist and he has connections with the Hayot family as well.

What distinguishes the small distillery is that it did not chase the AOC designation (they have creole column still, ferment juice for around five days and reap cane year round, to name some points of divergence), and its organic focus, which eschews the more mechanized bulk approach taken by bigger competitors.  I usually nod and smile at such statements, but when the results are as good as these, who am I to rain on their parade? Besides, it’s canny – there’s a market for such niche products made as free from technological interference as possible, and I’m sure A1710 knew and bet on that. 

And after all is said and done, the white rum they make is excellent.  Just nosing this 2017-issued 54.5% product makes that clear: it’s sparkly, sprightly sugar water with a light tinge of brine. Olives, nail polish remover, turpentine, floor wax, freshly sawn lumber and sawdust.  Cider gherkins and apple cider. Very impressive because it never loses sight of the creole still origins and even after half an hour it still coughs up some earthy notes, well polished leather and a lovely thread of green apples.

Moving on, the flavour profile on the palate is nothing short of impressive. It comes smooth and warm across the tongue, providing warm notes of sugar water, watermelon, papaya, licorice, sweet bonbons, grass, and pungent lime leaves in a thai curry.  The rhum displays real potency without overcrowding the taste buds with either too much power or excessive complexity, a perfect combo of sweet and salt and herbals in a complex interplay of citrus, grass, cilantro and 7-up. It’s almost cachaca-like, minus the bitterness of strange Brazilian woods. The finish was okay but things start to slow down here, and it (fortunately) stops just shy of being bland – the heat carries off some of the taste and closing aromas but there was lime leaves, gherkins and sugar water, getting sweeter and more delicate (but always crisp) over time. It reminded me a lot of the J. Bally Blanc agricole, but was a smidgen better, I’d say.

When Cyril of DuRhum rendered one the first online opinions of A1710 and both their 2016-edition whites and aged rum selection, he wrote honestly (and disparagingly) about the flowery marketing push and the price, especially the aged ones. Fast forward a year or two and the online-store costs for the 2017 white written about here are pretty much in line with others of their kind; and the marketing, well, every company under the sun trumpets its niche advantage and special something – I yawn through the usual adjectives and hyperboles anyway so it doesn’t trouble me unless it’s an out-and-out falsehood and has no real info behind it. Putting that aside, what I appreciated about A1710 was the courage it took to open the eighth distillery on the island at all, against some formidable competitors.  What emerged at the other end was a white rum of real quality which possessed a solid taste profile and whether known or not, can take its place without apology alongside all the other blancs that may be better known and sell more. That’s a real achievement, for a company this young.

(#586)(85/100)

Dec 182018
 

White rhums – or blancs – were not products I paid much attention to back in the day, but over the last five years they have continually risen in my estimation, and now I consider them one of the key building blocks of the entire category.  Not the lightly-aged, blandly filtered and softly murmuring Spanish-style cocktail staples, you understand – those I regard with relative indifference. No, I mean stuff like the Mexican Paranubes, the Haitian Le Rocher, the Guyanese Superior High Wine, Japanese Nine Leaves Clear, Tahitian Mana’o White or the Surinamese Toucan White, to say nothing of the new crop out of Asia – Samai, Issan, Laodi.

What elevates these blancs and all their cousins above the regular run of whites is the way they often maintain a solid connection to the distillate of origin and the land from which they came.  They are usually unaged and unfiltered, commonly around 50% or better. Sometimes they’re raw and pestilential and shockingly rude, at other times they’re almost placid, hiding their bright tastes and clear profiles behind a wall of easy and deceptive complexity that takes time to tease out properly (and for both reasons causes them to be occasionally under-appreciated, I think).

Which brings me to the 55% ABV Habitation Saint-Étienne (HSE) Rhum Blanc Agricole that was distilled in Martinique in 2016 and bottled in 2018 (it rested in steel tanks for the duration and can therefore be seen as unaged). We haven’t talked about HSE for a while, but that doesn’t mean that the Martinique brand has been resting on its laurels, because it continues to produce much good rhum – all AOC compliant – and even taken the whites in a new direction. In this case, perhaps channelling Velier’s Uitvlugt East Field 30 from all those years ago, they selected a special type of sugar cane (canne d’or says the bottle, or “gold cane”, varietal designation R570) not just from their sugar estate in the middle of Martinique, but from a specific part of it – the Verger and Coulon plots of land, issued as a rhum they call Parcellaire #1.  So it’s a sort of micro version of HSE as a whole, showcasing a very small part of its terroire.

Aside from HSE, Longueteau, or the new kid on the island block — A1710 and their white La Perle — such atomized drilldowns into smaller subunits of an estate are almost unknown…but they are intriguing to say the least (even though it may all just be cool marketing – I like to think otherwise). Fortunately the way it smelled and tasted skated over such concerns.  The nose, for example, was quite fragrant, starting off with slightly rotten fruits (bananas), rubber, sawdust, set to a background of soft wax candle, all very restrained. Overall it was a little sweet and relaxed, and as it opened, additional notes of nuts, cereals, almonds and nougat came forward. There was also a hint of olives, brine, pineapple, sweet green peas and ripe oranges in an excellent melange that combined themselves very well, without any single aspect being particularly dominant.

Blanc agricoles’ tastes are usually quite distinct, showing variation only in the details.  This one was slightly different — very smooth, very light, the usual herbs and light citrus and grasses starting things off, just less crisp than one might be expecting. This seemed to be kind of nothing-in particular, but hold on a bit — the other, more complex flavours started to creep out.  Dill, sugar water, olive oil, cucumbers, watermelon, light pimentos and gherkins, all sweet enough not to be off-putting, salty/sour enough for some character. I thought it was really quite tasty, giving aged offerings from the same house some serious competition, and finishing things off with a fade that provided last memories of sweet sugar water, light delicate notes of cumin and watermelon and papaya.

Does that all work? Are the specific plots of origin really that clear? I suggest that as a showcase for such a tiny bit of land, for the general rum drinker, not really.  The differences between the regular run of blancs from HSE and this one can be chalked up to miniscule divergences deriving from batch variation rather than anything so refined.  Admittedly though, I’m not a professional sommelier, and lack the experience such people bring to sensing gradations of wine hailing from neighboring vinyards in France – so someone with a more finely tuned snoot may take more away from this than I did.

But I liked it.  I liked it a lot. Above, I wrote that really good whites are either cheerfully rude or deceptively polite:  this one tilts slightly more towards the latter while still remembering its objurgatory antecedents. It’s a enormously drinkable dram, near perfect strength, with wonderfully delicate and strong tastes mixing up both sweet and salt in a terrific white rhum.  You could drink it alone or mix it as you please, and you’d enjoy it either way, with nothing but a nod of appreciation for what HSE have achieved here with such seeming effortlessness. And for its price? This thing may just be an undiscovered steal.

(#580)(86/100)


Other notes

The Habitation Saint-Étienne is located almost dead centre in the middle of Martinique.  Although in existence since the early 1800s, its modern history properly began when it was purchased in 1882 by Amédée Aubéry, an energetic man who combined the sugar factory with a small distillery, and set up a rail line to transport cane more efficiently (even though oxen and people that pulled the railcars, not locomotives). In 1909, the property came into the possession of the Simonnet family who kept it until its decline at the end of the 1980s. The estate was then taken over in 1994 by Yves and José Hayot — owners, it will be recalled, of the Simon distillery, as well as Clement —  who relaunched the Saint-Étienne brand using Simon’s creole stills.

Nov 192018
 

It was the words “Grand Arôme” that caught my eye: I knew that term.  “Galion”, which I seemed to remember but didn’t, quite. And “Martinique,” hardly seeming to go with either.  It had no brothers and sisters to its left and right on the shelf, which, in a shop stocking rows and rows of Plantations, Rum Nation, BBR, Saint James, Bally, HSE, Dillon, Neisson and all the others, struck me as strange (that and the rather “poor-relation-from-the-backcountry” cheap label and tinfoil cap).  What on earth was this thing?

I bought it on a whim and cracked it in the company of some other agricoles that night and did not one lick of research until after it was done: that was probably the right decision, going in blind like that, because here is a rum which lurks behind the Martinique canon the same way the bottle did on that shelf, and it’s rare enough these days to find a rum you didn’t know existed, especially from an island with so many different rhums of its own that are well known.

Rums and rhums titled “Grand Arôme” are high-ester products much associated with French island rhums in general (Reunion Island’s Savanna HERR in particular) and have a lot in common with the New Wave of Jamaican rums we’re currently seeing from Hampden, Worthy Park and others, with their own classification titles like Plummer, Wedderburn and Continental Flavoured.  They are all branches from the same tree – hooches with boosted ester counts to make for a enormously flavourful product.

And you could sense that on the nose, which was one to drive Cyrano de Bergerac into conniption fits.  It lacked the smooth warmth of an aged product, but whether it did or didn’t spend time sleeping in wood, it reeked like a white monster from Haiti, even at the low strength.  Olives, brine, licorice, black pepper, some vanilla, prunes and pencil shavings were immediately noticeable, in a sort of delirious free-for-all for dominance, followed by a lessening intensity over time as it opened up and provided some secondary aromas of vanilla, bags of fleshy fruits (peaches, apricots, prunes, plums, citrus), very light caramel and some aromatic tobacco. Not entirely original, but very very pungent, which for a rum issued at 43% was quite impressive – it was certainly more interesting than the light Cuban-style San Pablo or milquetoast Dictador Best of 1977 I happened to have on hand.  Actually, that smell it reminded me rather less of an agricole than of a Jamaican, with all the funk and rotten bananas and midden heaps (akin to the Long Pond TECC but nowhere near as intense).

The pattern repeated itself as I tasted it, starting off sharp, uncouth, jagged, raw…and underneath all that was some real quality. There were caramel, salty cashews, marshmallows, brown sugar (truly an agricole? I wrote in my notes), plasticine, wax crayons, brine, olives, sugar water, pineapple, raisins, a solid citrus heft to it, and again a lot of varied ripe fruits (and some not so ripe that were just beginning to go off).  It was kind of sweet and salt and sour all at once – practically a roadmap to the esters it squirted from every pore. But what was nice about it, was that if left to rest, it turned out to be smooth enough to sip while retaining that edge of raw quality that would make it a great mixer, and it’s got all the character of profile which the San Pablo (both the Gold and the White) so conspicuously lacked.  Even the finish demonstrated that – it was short, but quite intense, with lingering notes of citrus, light anise, molasses, fruits, raisins and a last hint of salt.

My initial scribbles, transcribed here verbatim, read “Can’t tell what this is, need more background work. Says from Martinique, but it backs away from the crisp/clean agricole party line; seems more like a Jamaica-Martinique stepchild?” (Yeah, I really do write like that).  Because to me, it presented as a hybrid at the very least, suggesting intriguing paths for rum makers – a combination of agricole and molasses rum, made perhaps en passant, but certainly not lacking in brio, aggro or tempo.

So what is it? A local rum made for the backcountry and not for export?  A trial balloon of sorts to suss out the market? A failed attempt at something different, an experiment that somehow got loose from the lab? A bottle of the chairman’s private stash that got smuggled out in someone’s trousers?

Not quite.  It’s Martinique’s answer to the Jamaican bad boys, made by the last remaining sugar factory on Martinique, Usine du Galion, which has the added distinction of also being the last distillery on the island to make rum from molasses (they source cane from around the island, from areas not AOC labelled). It’s mystifying why there’s such a lack of awareness of the Galion rum itself, but on reflection it’s perhaps not so surprising, because — according to the estimable Benoit Bail and Jerry Gitany who I contacted about this odd lack of profile — the commercial bottled rum is peanuts to them. Their real core business is sugar, and that part of the operation is huge, their primary focus. They installed a column still in the factory to make rum in bulk, which is then almost all exported to Europe, used primarily in the tobacco/candy/pastry industries and pharmaceuticals (probably perfumes).

Map of Martinique distilleries courtesy of Benoit Bail

There are only two Galion rums I’m aware of at this point: a white I’ve never seen at around 50-55%, and this one at 43%, which, according to Nico Rumlover’s enormously informative article here, is made from molasses, fermented with the addition of vinasse for anything between eight to sixteen days in wooden vats, using indigenous yeasts in a continuous cycle through the columnar still.  Apparently it is unaged, with a small amount of caramel added to give the brown colour and generally limited to the ester midrange of around 500 g/hlpa – squarely in the no-man’s land between Wedderburn (200-300 g/hlpa) and Continental Flavoured (700-1600 g/hlpa).

And it’s a hell of a rum, I’ll tell you that – Matt Pietrek in his article on “Beyond Jamaican Funk” mentioned Galion and what they were up to, but missed this under-the-radar rum and suggested that if you wanted French Island ester bombs, Reunion was the place to go.  You might still have to, since the Galion is either available only at the factory, as a blender’s sample from Scheer in Amsterdam (at a whopping 61% ABV), or in some small, dusty forgotten shelf somewhere in Europe. But if you can pick it up, think of it as a high ester funk bomb that could be seen as a cheerfully insouciant French bird flipped at Jamaica; it proves emphatically that you don’t need to go all the way to the Indian Ocean to get yourself some, and provides a really cool comparator to those flavourful rums from all the other places we are only now getting to know so well.

(#569)(85/100)

Sep 262018
 

Few are unaware of the existence of the J. Bally 1929 – for those who troll the online shops it remains one of the few very old bottlings from inter-war Gilded Age times to remain available…if one has over two grand kicking about to buy it.The Bally 1924, on the other hand, is a whole lot rarer – I can’t remember the last time I saw one coming up for discussion, let alone sale. And one could argue that its heritage is much more gold-plated – it’s the first vintage from J. Bally. I’ve tried quite a few from this bottler, one dating back to the 1960s, but to try the very first?  That might be worth a kidney right there.

This bottle being such a piece of heritage, a little history is in order. J. Bally was named after Jacques Bally, a graduate of a top engineering school in Paris, the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (ECP, founded in 1829) – he snapped up the Lajus Plantation on Martinique in 1917, a mere fifteen years after Mount Pelee erupted, when memories of that disaster were still fresh and land prices were cheap (Lajus, founded in 1670, was already in foreclosure, having gone bankrupt after the 1902 disaster). By 1920 he had installed new steam engine, fixed up the salvageable equipment he could and (legend has it) pretty much built his own column still from scratch.  In that same year the nearby Habitation Dariste owned by the the Gronier family went bankrupt and Bally bought it in 1923 and moved the distillery equipment to Lajus to augment his own machniery. In 1930, by which time he was already laying away rum stocks to age, he also had a hand in designing the signature pyramidical and square bottles which became so associated with Bally in later years. The rhums Bally made were very popular, sold well, and the company remained in business until the 1980s when Remy Cointreau acquired it, at which point production was shut down at Lajus and moved to Domaine du Simon where (as far as I know), it’s still being made, with cane from Lajus. Note that in 2003 La Martiniquaise bought out Saint James and Bally (to add to their rum portfolio which already contained the brands of Depaz, Dillon, Negrita and Old Nick) which is why the Remy Cointreau’s webpage makes no mention of either one now.

Aside from being made so long ago, what makes the 1924 special is that it was the initial release of an aged rhum from Bally, and one of the first of its kind in the French West Indies, if not the first. Jacques Bally took inspiration from cognac and eau-de-vie makers in France and was apparently the first to consider ageing Martinique rhums in oak. This provided the initial release of his rums in the 1920s with a depth of quality that made them extremely popular and well-known, and one can just imagine all the other distilleries on the island rushing to copy the idea. The inevitable question arises, how old is the 1924 vintage?  “More than six years,” said Luca in a text to me, and that makes sense if the bottle that houses it was only designed and made in 1930. We can leave it there with only one other great unknown, and that’s how many bottles were released – and nobody knows that any longer, sorry. I hit a brick wall on that one.

Enough of the pedantic stuff. How was it to taste, eliminating all the baggage of history and heritage and rarity the rhum came with? It’s one thing to sing high praises because it’s from so far back, but a cold review is somewhat more challenging, especially considering the august company in which I tried it – the Tasting of the Century in September 2018.  You can bet that I was paying real close attention and took a long time with my glass on this one, if only so I wouldn’t be embarrassed when real writers came out with their own notes.

Nose first: nice! For all its age, the Bally 1924 could have come off the line last year and you’d never know it.  It smelled of fresh squeezed apple juice, pears with oodles of sweet light aromas, flowers, sugar water and watermelon, out of which emerged a nice melange of crushed walnuts, fanta, lemon zest, crisp yellow mangoes and cumin.  If you were tasting it blind you’d swear this was an agricole you could pick up online for some reasonable coin – like the Harewood 1780, it presented a profile not a hundred miles removed from something produced today.

Bottled at 45% ABV, the Bally 1924, for all the noble pedigree granted by being made so far back, in many ways resembled Bally rhums from past decades’ that I went through three years ago. It was slightly sharp on the palate, and as clean and clear as any of its descendants.  Apples, cider, brine and olives came smoothly off the assembly line, bolted on to emergent flavours of pears in syrup, green grapes, spices, more lemon zest, leather, a touch of vanilla and nougat and a vague hint of grass, black tea, earthy musk, and rosemary. The overall balance, cleanliness of the mouthfeel was excellent, and the ageing had definitely sanded down any rough edges – it was quite simply a pleasant drink to have, fading easily into a smooth finish that provided little that was new, just a languorous recap of the highlights – peaches, pears, mangoes, lemon zest, watermelon and sweet flowers and herbs and a pinch of cumin. A neat and near-perfect little agricole, coming together beautifully.

Well. How to score something like this? Well, I’m going to give it a solid endorsement — not that this means anything given its mythical near-unicorn status. But I should note in passing that for all its quality, the Bally 1924 strikes me more as an essay in the craft of agricole than a completely finished product that stands the test of time. It shows what they were before the snapped into focus in the last few decades of the AOC regs.

Perhaps it’s unfair to rate a rhum made nearly a hundred years ago to the standard of today when so much has changed in the interim — and for sure others around the table that day loved it (Matt rated it as his personal favourite for the evening).  To round things up: the Harewood 1780 presented a startlingly modern profile that went in its own brilliant direction way, strong, forceful, distinct; the Skeldon 1978 couldn’t rise above its elder brother but was still quite an amazing drink; and the Saint James 1885 was a rum made in a style quite different from agricoles as a whole, unique and interesting.  The Bally is caught in a limbo between the modern versions of the spirit, and the old ways of the 1885 – that’s in no way a failure, just that the competition is more fierce because we’ve had so many rums that are so similar to it.

But you know, whatever the score, there’s a certain cachet, even honour, in having been able to try a quartet of such grail-quest rums, so old, so rare, so absolutely stinking of rum history, so generously shared.  The Tasting of the Century might one day be exceeded (though I can’t for the life of me imagine what rums would comprise version 2.0); but whether that happens or not, I’ll always be happy to have tried the Bally — because it was one of those rhums that pointed the way to the modern era of cane juice rhums, so exactingly made, so proudly issued, so excellent to drink.  The Saint James 1885 might be the doddering grandaddy of the French island rhum style, but the 1924 with its crisp and clear profile taking us back to the beginning of the modern era, is surely its godfather.

(#552)(86/100)


Other Notes

Sep 242018
 

By now just about anyone in touch with the rum blogosphere on social media is aware of the add-on to the Hampden Rums launch hosted by La Maison-Velier in September 2018: the “Rum Tasting of the Century” — though I believe the words “…so far” were were silently tacked on by some of us participants, hoping against hope for another (better, older) one before we get laid to rest like Nelson in a cask of DOK.  Nor are many unaware of the four aged unicorn rums we were privileged to try as part of the Tasting – Skeldon 1978, Bally 1924, Harewood House 1780, and the subject of this revisit, the Rhum des Plantations St. James 1885. 

I’d had the luck and good fortune to sample the St. James before and have written about it as part of the Rumaniacs.  This of course cut me absolutely zero slack with the attending Collective – because for all our camaraderie and friendship (online and off), we’re a cheerfully competitive bunch of people, and like to get our personal opinions settled (no others being as good as our own, naturally) before even acknowledging that someone else may have tried a particular rum in front of us.

Still, we had to get facts, and a lot of our preliminary conversations and subsequent texts and messages revolved around the data points, which are as follows: the rhum was made in 1885 on Martinique, and derived from cane juice that was boiled prior to fermentation.  Although the exact age is unknown, it was certainly shipped off the island before Mount Pelée erupted in 1902 and destroyed all stocks there, so at an absolute maximum it can be 17 years old. This is, however unlikely – few rums or rhums were aged that long back then, and the opinion of the master blender of St James (Mark Sassier) that it was 8-10 years old is probably the best one (Cyril of DuRhum has some additional details in his 2016 review) . Following the eruption of the volcano, the only remaining bottles were in Europe and gradually unsold ones were acquired (many from the cellars of Bardinet) and sent back to Martinique and put on sale.  Luca, who was a brand ambassador for St. James at one time, eventually acquired (or so legend goes) about 300 bottles in the 1980s. One of them, 47% ABV as tested in 1991, stood before us in a conference room in the Four Seasons in London overlooking theThames, awaiting our attention.

The first thing everyone remarked on about this rhum was the colour – a dark dark dark mud brown.  The second thing was the aroma. Without doubt this remained one of the richest rum smells of my own experience: it was redolent of coffee, licorice, coca-cola, bitter chocolate, coconut shavings accompanied by enormous notes of molasses.  There were, after some additional minutes, some light fruits and florals and lemon peel, but overall, it reminded one of nothing so much as a Demerara rum, not an agricole, and a really heavy, thick Demerara at that.

Though my tasting memories of the first 1885 rum I had tried three years earlier had faded somewhat, I still remembered much of the core profile, and these were back for an encore, with the same dull richness that made it so memorable back then. Bitter chocolate, nougat, nuts, grated coconut and coffee led off the charge, with flanking movements of licorice, caramel, coke and the noticeable leather and oak tannins that spoke to some ageing.  Fruits again – pears, orange zest, plums, blackberries. The texture on the tongue was heavy, stopping just short of cloying, and I must remark on the fact that it was overtaken a little too much by the forceful molasses tastes. Still, it was a great sip, and the rum glided smoothly to the finish with last notes of earthy mustiness, roasted chestnuts, molasses (of course), fast-fading fruitiness, dates and chocolate.

What a difference a mere three years makes.  In 2015 my sample of the Saint James 1885 got rated 90, and I commented favourably on its depth and complexity.  Certainly, compared to the rhums against which it was being tried that day (Barbancourt 25 YO and 15 YO, La Martiniquaise Rhum Pur, La Favorite 1990, and J. Bally 6 YO) and my own experience with uber-old spirits to that point, it was a score I have no problems defending.  However, since then I’ve tasted and gone into depth with and written about another 300+ rums, and quite aside from wry commentaries about not having a life, it’s clear that both increased experience and different comparators do make a difference in assessing the same rum years later.

On that basis, I’m going to rank it a few points lower this time, but in truth, the score is meaningless for a rhum this rare and that expensive and from so far back.  I think that for anyone who has opportunity to try a rum made over a hundred years ago, it’s enough to simply say that they drank it. It’s a window into perceiving French island’s rhum before agricoles became agricoles, before the AOC, before the production methodologies of today.  It promotes understanding of how rum has developed and changed over the decades and centuries, and if one is left with a single thought after the fact, it’s that it was and remains an experience to rival few others in our long journey of rum appreciation. That alone might be worth all the points anyone could ever give it.

(#551)(87/100)


Other Notes