Aug 202020
 

Last time, I was looking at the really quite excellent St. Aubin 10 year old from Mauritius, which was a cane juice, pot-still, decade-old rhum, a type we don’t see very much of – to my memory only the Saint James Coeur de Chauffe comes close, and that wasn’t even aged. St. Aubin certainly seems to like making rums their own way, while New Grove, also from that Indian Ocean island, provides us with rums that seem somewhat more familiar – they flit in profile between El Dorados and Barbadians, I think, with an occasional dash of Worthy Park thrown in to mix things up.

One of the rums I used as a control that day was the New Grove Single Barrel rum from 2004, which in every way tried to maximize its hit points in a way St. Aubin did not, by specifically nodding to the indie scene to establish its chops — relatively high proof (49.9%, a whisker shy of fifty), a millesime from 2004, nine years old, 297 (individually numbered) bottles from a single barrel #151, columnar creole still, aged nine years in Limousin oak…well, you get the point. 

Although cold stats alone don’t tell the tale, I must confess to being intrigued, since a primary producer’s limited single-barrel expressions tend to be somewhat special, something they picked out for good reason. That felt like the case here – the initial smell was delicious, of burnt oranges and whipped cream (!!), a sort of liquid meringue pie if you will. It negotiated the twists and turns of tart and mellower aromas really well: honey, fruits, raisins, green apples, grapes,and ripe peaches. There was never too much of one or the other, and it was all quite civilized, soft and even warm

Alas, the nose was the best part – the palate strained, it tried, but just couldn’t keep up. Certainly it was workmanlike and tasted well, firm, solid, warm; it showcased some citrus, salted caramel, vanilla and cumin, plus peaches and apricots and faint molasses, just lacking somer of that exuberance and verve the nose had primed me for. The fade was about on that level too – aromatic, a little tangy, some vanilla, bon bons, spices, and again that chocolate-orange vibe I enjoyed quite a bit. I don’t know if that’s a Mauritius thing, just that it was a tasty end to the drink.

Back when I tried New Grove’s 8 YO in 2014, I commented rather dismissively on the strength and hinted at its middle-of-the-road taste which seemed geared to please rather than excite. By the time Lazy Dodo came out a few years later (a very nice blend) I was more in tune with what New Grove was doing. No further issues of anonymity or strength afflicted the 2004 which is a ways better than either of the other two…although it still had its weaknesses, however minor.

I mean, the rum is, overall, quite a good one.  The tastes were strong and crisp and well defined, and it could be sipped easily and enjoyed at any time.  Yet somehow it lacked a pinch of that excellence and uniqueness which would have staked out its own claim to excellence, the sort of thing that made the St. Aubin so good – though by no means should this be regarded as either a criticism, or a failure on their part, for the rum was perfectly delectable in its own way. 

Scores aside, what this pair of rums clearly demonstrates is that the Caribbean doesn’t hog all the glory or possess all the cool kids’ rums – it just seems that way because they get more press.  But if you were to ever start looking elsewhere, beyond the regular and the comfortingly familiar, then take a chance and go further afield. Mauritius in general is a good place to look and New Grove specifically wouldn’t be the worst place to land.

(#754)(85/100)


Background history

Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar, has been at varying times composed of more islands and fewer, and either Dutch, English or French…though Arabs and Portuguese both made landfall there before. Its strategic position in the Indian Ocean made both French and British fight for it during the Age of Empires, and both remain represented on the island to this day, melding with the Indian and Asian cultures that also form a sizeable bulk of the population. Sugar has been a mainstay of the local economy for centuries, and there were thirty seven distilleries operational by 1878 — the first sugar mill dates back to 1740 in Domain de la Veillebague, in the village of Pampelmousses, with the first distillery starting up two years later: they sold their product mainly to Africa and Madagascar.

New Grove, a rum making concern founded by a Dr. Harel, dates back to 1852 and is intimately connected with another major Mauritius family, the Grays. The Harel family have moved into other concerns (like the Harel-Mallac group, not at all into agriculture), but other descendants formed and work for Grays – one of them sent me the company bio, for example, and three more sit on the board of directors.

Grays itself was formed in 1935 (the holding company Terra Brands, was established in 1931 by the Harels and the first still brought into operation in 1932) and are a vertically integrated spirits producer and importer.  They own all stages of local production, from cane to cork, so to speak, and make cane spirit, white rum, a solera and aged rums, for the Old Mill and New Grove brands which were established in 2003 for the export market. This explains why the SBS Mauritius 2008 rum, for example, noted on its label that it came from the Grays’ distillery.

Aug 172020
 

Mauritius is another one of those rum producing areas that flits in and out of our collective rumconsciousness, and seems to come up for mention mostly (and only) when a blogger checks out a new indie expression (SBS and Velier spring to mind). Cognoscenti might recall Penny Blue, New Grove, Chamarel or Lazy Dodo rums from the graveyard of reviews past, but honestly, when was the last time you saw one yourself, tried one, or even bought one?

St. Aubin is one of the Indian Ocean island distilleries that have been gathering some goodwill of late and should not be left out of anyone’s purchasing calculations, and with good reason: they taste pretty damned good, and they have a long history of both pot and column still production stretching back two centuries. If distribution can be sorted out beyond Europe, and there’s a resumption of the rum festivals where one can find their products, then we can hope their reputation ticks up more than it has so far.  This particular rum is the top of their line, being a limited edition of not only a set number of bottles (2,080) but from a particular harvest (2003), cane juice source, completely copper-pot-still distilled, aged a solid ten years and aimed at a wider audience by tamping it down to 43%.  Based on those specs it’s practically a must-have, 

Certainly the 2003 10 YO does its next-best relative the St. Aubin Grande Reserve (which is itself a combo of 30% pot still 10YO from 2004 and 70% rested 7YO column still juice) quite a bit better, simply by not diluting its own core fully-pot-still essence. This is key to understanding how good the 2003 smells, because it noses cleaner, crisper, even a shade lighter…and quite a bit more is going on under there.  What was, in the other aged expressions, a sort of sweetness is more delicate here, closer to sugar cane sap and sugar water than the slight heaviness often attendant on molasses based rums. There are aromas of flowers, masala spice, cloves and a dash of cinnamon. And leaving it standing to open up, one gets additional hints of coffee grounds, unsweetened chocolate, and a nice delicate vein of vanilla and citrus. 

The oak influence takes on a more dominant note on the palate, which is initially sweet, dry and intense.  There’s bitter chocolate, caramel, cinnamon and a vague grassiness more sensed than actually experienced, plus citrus peel, chocolate oranges, cumin and the slightest hint of cilantro.  Plus some Fanta and 7-up, which I was not expecting, but no entirely unhappy to taste.  The whole drink is clean, crisp and dry, and the gradually emergent and assertive herbals and tart notes make it a pretty nifty neat pour.  Finish is not too shabby – medium long, mostly bon-bons, caramel, light flowers and lemon meringue pie.

The cost of this ten year old rum released in 2014 is in the €140 range (when it can be tracked down – I found that price in the Mauritius duty free, but not much elsewhere) and this is one of those instances where even with the modest strength, I think it worth picking up if you’re in funds.  Because on top of how well it noses and tastes, those stats are impressive – pot still, ten years tropical ageing, cane juice distillate, its own peculiar terroire, something not from the Caribbean….that’s pressing a lot of buttons at once.  Too often we uncritically and unthinkingly fork out that kind of coin for regularly issued blends, just because of the associated name. The new and the unknown needs to be tried on its own terms as well, and here, I think that for what St. Aubin provides us with and what we get out of it, it’s well worth pausing to try, to share, and to buy. 

(#753)(86/100)


A brief history

The Domaine de St. Aubin, named after the first sugar cane mill established by Pierre de St. Aubin in 1819 or thereabouts, is located in the extreme south of Mauritius in the Rivière des Anguilles, and has been cultivating cane since that year – however the date of first distillation of spirits is harder to pin down – it’s likely within a few decades of the original opening of the sugar factory (there are records of the Harel family starting a distillery which is now New Grove in the 1850s, which also makes the Lazy Dodo brand). In the late 1960s the Franco-Mauritian Guimbeau family – who made their fortune in the tea trade for which Mauritius is also renowned – acquired the estate and retained the name, and gradually developed a stable of rums produced both by a pot still (which produces what they term their “artisanal” rums) and a relatively recent columnar still for larger volume agricoles. 

Jan 022020
 

The actual title of this rhum is Chamarel Pure Sugar Cane Juice 2014 4 YO Rum, but Mauritius doesn’t have license to use the term “agricole” the way Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion and Madeira do.  And while some new producers from the Far East and America seem to have no problem casually appropriating a name that is supposedly restricted to only those four locations, we know that Luca Gargano of Velier, whose brainchild these Indian rums are, would never countenance or promote such a subversion of convention.  And so a “pure sugar cane juice” rum it is.

Now, Mauritius has been making rhums and rums for ages – companies like New Grove, St. Aubin, Lazy Dodo are new and old stalwarts of the island, and third parties take juice from International Distillers Mauritius (IDM) to make Penny Blue, Green Island or Cascavel brands, mostly for sale in the UK and Europe.  But there’s another distillery there which has only recently been established and come to more prominence, and that’s Chamarel, which was established in 2008 (see historical and production notes below). I hesitate to say that Velier’s including them in their 70th Anniversary collection kickstarted their rise to greater visibility – but it sure didn’t hurt either.

Brief stats: a 4 year old rum distilled in September 2014, aged in situ in French oak casks and bottled in February 2019 at a strength of 58% ABV.  Love the labelling and it’s sure to be a fascinating experience not just because of the selection by Velier, or its location (we have tried few rums from there though those we tried we mostly liked), or that strength, but because it’s always interesting to see how such a relatively brief tropical ageing regimen can affect the resultant rum when it hits our glasses.

In short, not enough.  It sure smelled nice – peaches in cream to start, sweetly crisp and quite flavourful, with lots of ripe fruit and no off notes to speak of; waves of cherries, mangoes, apples, bubble gum, gummi-bears bathed in a soft solution of sugar water, cola and 7-up.  It’s a bit less rounded and even than Velier’s Savanna rum from the Indian Ocean still series, but pleasant enough in its own way.

It’s on the palate that its youth – with all the teenage Groot this implies – becomes more apparent.  There’s peanut butter on rye bread; brine and sweet olives, figs, dates, leavened with a little vanilla and caramel, but with the fruits that had been evidenced on the nose dialled severely back.  It’s dry, with slightly sour and bitter notes that come forward and clash with the sweet muskiness of the ripe fruits.. This gets to the point where the whole taste experience is somewhat derailed, and while staying relatively warm and firm, never quite coheres into a clear set of discernible tastes that one can sit back and relax with – you keep waiting for some quick box on the ears or something.  Even the finish, which was dry and long, with some saltiness and ripe fruits, feels like a work in progress and not quite tamed, for all its firm character.

So somehow, even with its 58% strength, the Chamarel doesn’t enthuse quite as much as the Savanna rhum did. Maybe that was because it didn’t allow clear tastes to punch through and show their quality – they all got into into a sort of indistinct alcohol-infused fight over your palate that you know has stuff going on in there someplace…just not what. To an extent that it showed off its young age and provided a flavourful jolt, I liked it and it’s a good-enough representative of what the distillery and Mauritius can do. I just like other rhums the company and the island has made better — even if they didn’t have any of Luca’s fingerprints over it.

(#689)(81/100)


Other Notes

La Rhumerie de Chamarel, located in a small valley in the south west of Mauritius, is one of the rare operational distilleries to cultivate its own sugarcane, which itself has a history on the island going back centuries. The distillery takes the title of a small nearby village named after a Frenchman who lived there around 1800 and owned most of the land upon which the village now rests. The area has had long-lived plantations growing pineapples and sugar cane, and in 2008 the owners of the Beachcomber Hotel chain (New Mauritius Hotels, one of the largest companies in Mauritius), created the new distillery on their estate of 400 hectares, perhaps to take on the other large rum makers on the island, all of whom were trying to wean themselves off of sugar production at a time of weakening demand and reduced EU subsidies. Rum really started taking off in post 2006 when production was legalized – previously all sugar cane had to be processed into sugar by law. 

The sugar cane is grown onsite and cut without pre-burning between July and December. The harvest is transported directly to the distillery and the crushed sugarcane juice filtered and taken to steel tanks for fermentation after which the wash is run through a copper Barbet-type plate column still (for white rums), or the two-column 24-plate still they call an alembic (for aged and other rums). In all cases the rums are left post-distillation in inert stainless steel vats for three months before being transferred to ageing barrels of various kinds, or released as white rums, or further processed into spiced variations.

May 022019
 

Like those tiny Caribbean islands you might occasionally fly over, the Maria Loca cocktail bar in Paris is so miniscule that if you were to sneeze and blink you’d go straight past it, which is what happens to us, twice. When Mrs. Caner and I finally locate it and go inside, it’s dark, it’s hectic, it’s noisy, the music is pounding and the place is going great guns. At the bar, along with two other guys, Guillaume Leblanc is making daiquiris with flair and fine style, greeting old customers and barflies and rumfest attendees, the shaker never still. Even though he doesn’t work there, he seems to know everyone by their first name, which to me makes him a top notch bartender even without the acrobatic or mixing skills.

In a dark corner off to the side are wedged Joshua Singh and Gregers Nielsen, a quartet of bottles in front of them.  Part of the reason they’re here is to demonstrate the Single Barrel Selection of their Danish company (named “1423” after the number on that first barrel of rum the outfit ever bottled back in 2008) and how they fare in cocktails. Nicolai Wachmann and Mrs. Caner have been drafted to help out and I’m squished in there as well to do my review thing and take notes in the Little Black Book (since the Big Black Book didn’t fit into my pocket when I was heading out).

Three of these bottles are formal SBS releases by 1423, and there’s a Jamaican, a Trini and one from Mauritius. The fourth is a white-lightning tester from (get this!) Ghana, and I haven’t go a clue which one to start with. Nicolai has four glasses in front of him and somehow seems to be sipping from all four at once, no help there. Mrs. Caner, sampling the first of what will be many daiquiris this evening, and usually so fierce in her eye for quality rums, is raptly admiring Guillaume’s smooth drink-making technique while batting her eyes in his direction far too often for my peace of mind. Fortunately, I know he’s engaged to a very fetching young miss of his own, so I don’t worry too much.

“Any recommendations?” I ask the rotund Joshua who’s happily pouring shots for the curious and talking on background about the rums with the air of an avuncular off-season Santa Claus.  How he can talk to me, pour so precisely, have an occasional sip of his own, discuss technical stuff and call out hellos to the people in the crowd all at the same time is a mystery, but maybe he’s just a better multi-tasker than I am.

“Try the Jamaican,” he advises, and disappears behind the bar.

“Not the Trinidadian?” I ask when he pops back up on this side, two new daiquiris in his hand.  Mrs. Caner grabs one immediately, and, with the skill born of many vicious battles getting on-sale designer purses in the middle of frenzied mobs of other ladies, fends off Nicolai’s eager hands and shoves him into the wall in a way that would make a linebacker weep.  He looks at me like this is my fault.

“It’s not a Caroni, so you might feel let down,” Josh opines, handing the second cocktail glass to another customer. “It’s Angostura, and you’re a rumdork, so…” He shrugs, and I wince.

Since I’m writing an on-again, off-again survey of rums from Africa (50 words and I’m done, ha ha), the Ghana white rum piques my interest, and I turn to Gregers, who is as tidy and in control as ever.  I suspect he lined up his pens and papers with the edge of his desk in school. “The Ghana, you think?”

He considers for a moment, then shakes his head and pours me a delicate, neat shot of the Mauritius 2008. “Better start with this one.  It’s a bit more…mellow. And anyway, you tried the Ghana last year in Berlin. If you need to, you can try it again later.”

The rum winks invitingly at me.  I take a quick moment to snap some pictures of the bottle, thinking again how far labels have come in the last decade.  Velier started the trend, Compagnie des Indes provides great levels of detail, and others are following along, but what I’m seeing here is amazing. The label notes the distillery (Grays, which is a famed family name as well – they make the New Grove and Lazy Dodo line of rums but not the St. Aubins); the source, which in this case is molasses; the still type – column; distillation date – 2008; bottling date – 2018; and other throwaway details such as the non-chill-filtration, the port wine finish, the 281-bottle outturn, and the 55.7% ABV strength.  I mean, you really couldn’t ask for much more than that.

I nose the amber spirit gently, and my eyes widen.  Wow. This is good. It smells of toblerone, white chocolate, vanilla and almonds but there are also lighter and more chirpy notes swirling around that – gooseberries, ginger shavings, green grapes, and apples. And behind that are aromas of dark fruit like plums, prunes and dates, together with vague red-wine notes, in a very good balance. Musky, earthy smells mix with lighter and darker fruits in a really good amalgam – you’d never confuse this with a Jamaican or a Guyanese or a Caroni or a French island agricole.  I glance over at Mrs. Caner to get a second opinion, but she’s ogling some glass-flipping thing Guillaume is doing and so I ask Nicolai what he thinks. He checks glass #2 on his table and agrees it is a highly impressive dram, just different enough from the others to be really interesting in its own way. He loves the way the finish adds to the overall effect.

As I’m scribbling notes into the LBB, I ask Gregers slyly, “Is there anything you’ve been told not to tell me about the rum?” He is like my brother, but business, blood and booze don’t always mix, trust is earned not freely given, and I’m curious how he’ll answer. Nicolai’s ears perk up and he pauses with his nose hanging over the third glass.  Though he doesn’t talk much, his curiosity and rum knowledge are the equal of my own and he likes knowing these niggly little details too.

“Nope. Any question you have, we’ll answer.” Gregers and Joshua exchange amused looks. Truth to tell, there are two omissions which only a rum nerd would ask for or actively seek out.  I wonder if they’re thinking the same thing I am. So:

“Additives? You don’t mention anything about them on the label.”  And given how central such a declaration is these days to new companies who want to establish their “honesty” and street cred, an odd thing to have overlooked – at least in my opinion.

Joshua doesn’t miss a beat. He confirms the “no additives” ethos of the SBS line of rums, and it was not considered necessary to be on the label – plus, if some weird older gunk from Panama or Guyana, say, were to be bottled in the future and then found to be doctored by the original producer, maybe with caramel, then 1423 would not have egg over its face, which makes perfect sense.  Then, before I ask, he and Gregers tell me that this rum is actually not from a single barrel but several casks blended together. Well…okay (there’s full detail in “other notes” below, for the deeply curious).

The bar is getting noisier, more crowded.  Pete Holland of the Floating Rum Shack just turned up and is making the rounds, pressing the flesh, because he knows, like, everyone – alas, his pretty wife is nowhere in sight. Jazz and Indy Singh of Skylark are in-country but must have missed this event because no sign of their cheerful bearded forms. Yoshiharu Takeuchi of Nine Leaves is in center-court, telling a hilarious R-Rated story I cannot reprint here (much as I’d like to) of how he was mugged in Marseilles while taking a leak in an alleyway, and Florent Beuchet of the Compagnie is mingling – I shout a hello at him over the heads of several customers.  He waves back. The cheerfully bearded and smiling Ingvar “Rum” Thomsen (journalist and elder statesman of the Danish rum scene) is hanging out next to his physically polar opposite, Johnny Drejer (tall, slim, clean-shaven); Johnny and I briefly discuss the new camera I helped him acquire, and some of his photographs and the state of the rumiverse in general. There are probably brand reps and other French rumistas in attendance, but I don’t recognize anyone else and the ones I do know are AWOL:  Laurent is still on his round the world expedition with his family (but not the poussette), Cyril doesn’t attend these things and I don’t know Roger Caroni by sight. All I can see is that everyone is enjoying themselves thoroughly and the loud hum of intense and excited (and perhaps drunken) conversation is electric. The energy level of the bar is off the scale.

Guillaume has finished his cocktail twirling demo and lost my wife’s attention, I note happily. He’s mixing more drinks for another small group of people who just wandered in. Mrs. Caner is now deep in conversation with Nicolai about his marital status and that of her entire tribe of single female relatives. After landing me like a prize trout all those years ago, my pretty little wife has developed a raging desire to “help out” any single person of marriageable age — and she’s seen Hitch like forty-seven times, which doesn’t help.  Anyway, they’re both ignoring the rums in front of them, so I roll my eyes at this blasphemy and continue on to the tasting.

And let me tell you, that Mauritius rum tastes as good as it smells, if perhaps a little sharper and drier on the tongue than the aromas might suggest. It really is something of a low-yield fruit bomb.  Raspberries, strawberries, lemon peel, ginger and sherbet partied hard with the deeper flavours of prunes, molasses, vanilla, nuts, chocolate mousse, ice cream and caramel…and a touch of coca cola, tobacco and seaweed-like iodine.  There’s even a sly hint of brine, thyme, and mint rounding things off, transferring well into a lovely smooth finish dominated by candied oranges, a sharp line of citrus peel, and a very nice red wine component that completes what was and remains, a really very good drink.  It is like a curiously different Barbados rum, with aspects of Guyana and Jamaica thrown in for kick, but its quality is all its own, and hopefully allows the island to get more press in the years to come. For sure it is a rum to share around.

With some difficulty, I manage to catch Mrs. Caner’s eye and pass the glass over to her, because I think this is a rum she’d enjoy too.  Somehow even after all the daiquiris she’s been getting, her eyes are clear, her speech is unslurred, her diction flawless, and I may be biased but I think she looks absolutely lovely.  As she tries the SBS Mauritius, I can see she appreciates its construction as well and she compliments Joshua and Gregers on their selection. “This is great,” she remarks, then provides me with a whole raft of detailed tasting notes, which I have mysteriously lost and none of which somehow have made it into this essay.

Nicolai, over in his corner, is happy to cast some other comments on to the table regarding the SBS Mauritius, all positive.  We all agree, and I tell Gregers, that this is one fine rum, and if I could, I’d buy one, except that I can’t. My wife, having delivered herself of her earth shaking opinion, immediately beelines over to the bar area where Guillaume’s fiancee and sister have just arrived, most likely because she’s had enough of all the testosterone in our corner and wants some real conversation with people who are specifically not certifiable about rum.

L-R – Nicolai, Gregers, Guillaume, Joshua and one of the bartenders from that evening whose name I did not get, sorry.

I want some fresh air so Joshua and I go outside the bar for a smoke (the irony does not escape us).  The nighttime air of Paris is crisp and cool and I remember all the reasons I like coming here. We discuss 1423 and their philosophy, its humble beginnings more than ten years ago, though that remains outside the scope of this essay.

“So, the Mauritius was pretty good,” I remark, pleased to have started off this fest (and 2019) on a good rum, a tasty shot.  He courteously does not ask for my score which for some obscure reason is all that some people want. “What do you think I should try next?”

He smiles, reminding me once again of Santa Claus in civilian clothes and taking a breather from gift giving, mingling with the common folk. “Oh the Jamaica, for sure.  That’s a DOK, PX finished, pot still aged in 40-liter barrels…and let me tell you, there’s some really interesting stories behind that one -”

I stop him. My fingers are twitching. “Hang on.  I gotta write that down. Let’s go inside, pour a shot, and you can tell me everything I need to know while I try it.  I don’t want to miss a thing.”

And while it’s not exactly relevant to the Mauritius rum I’m supposed to be writing about here, that’s pretty much what we ended up doing, on a cool evening in the City of Lights, spent in the lively company of my beautiful wife, and assorted boisterous, rambunctious geeks, reps, writers, drinkers, bartenders and simply good friends. You just can’t do a rum tasting in better surroundings than that.

(#620)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • In one of those curious coincidences, the Fat Rum Pirate penned his own four-out-of-five star review of the same rum just a few days ago. However, the first review isn’t either of ours, but the one from Kris von Stedingk, posted in December 2018 on the relatively new site Rum Symposium. He was also pretty happy with it
  • Background on the rum itself:
    • Joshua met with a rep from Grays from Mauritius a few years ago at the Paris Rhumfest; he brought a number of different cask samples from the warehouse. 1423 ended up choosing two, which were about 9 years at this time
      • The first was aged seven years in a 400-liter French Limousin oak, followed by two more in Chatagnier (Chestnut).
      • The second was again aged seven years in a 400-liter French Limousin oak, followed by two years in Port.
    • 1423 ordered both of them but ended up receiving 400 liters of the Chatagnier cask and 120 liters of the Port both now with another ageing year in their respective casks. All of this was blended together when delivered to Denmark and the 2018 release was basically the first 200 liters, all tropical aged. The remaining 320 liters are still in the Denmark warehouse waiting for a good idea and the right time to release.
Dec 042018
 

Ten years ago, the 151s were regarded with the sort of wry caution with which one approaches a crazy old uncle who may lash out with either invective or drool at any moment, depending on the circumstances.  They encouraged adverbial density, were the strongest rums available to the rumworld, and used exclusively as cocktail bases and mixing agents. Myself, I was always a little amused by their ferocity and used their elephantine profiles as an excuse to write reviews that didn’t take themselves too seriously (like the BacardiLemon HartCavalier, or Appleton 151 reviews, for example).  But what else to do? I mean, back then we had no access to or real knowledge of the cask strength rums that now so dominate the upper echelons of quality rums, and to consider a 151 as anything else but a throwaway effort made to bag the overproof crown and/or to concoct crazy strong cocktails would be to mis-state what they meant to us.

As the years passed, overproofs more or less fell out of the mainstream, even out of favour, replaced by exactingly made full proof rums, some of which are approaching that kind of strength, though comparatively rarely. I can’t remember the last time I saw a review of a 151 aside from Habitation Velier’s new white (not that there were that many to begin with) and mention of any is passing rare.  But me, I never forgot them, and still hold fond memories of their harsh fury, and when I saw a Tilambic 151 sample for sale, well, what’s a reviewer to do?

Cracking it, you’d certainly exercise all the usual cautions, as one would with the SMWS Long Pond 5.1 (81.3%), the Sunset Very Strong (84.5%) or the Marienburg White (90%).  Because like all of those, the Tilambic is frenetic, unapologetic and massively alcoholic – it smokes, it seethes, it exudes badass from every pore: you can almost hear the tinkling plink of minigun shell casings piling up around your feet as you pour. To smell, it’s sharp and extremely hot, spicy and slightly sweet, redolent of raw molasses and sweet corn in a can (weird, I know), to which some light lemon zest and caramel has been mashed in with an oaken club wielded by The Rock. Which – you might be surprised to discover – is actually not bad at all.  I was certainly expecting less.

As for the palate, well, it’s a monster (yeah, big surprise). Briny with olives, pimentos, hot hot hot.  A lot carries over from the nose, but there’s more too, once you adjust to the force with which it attempts to tattoo “151” on your tongue. It has, both before and after a few drops of water, some strawberries, green apples, sawdust, light pencil shavings, licorice, mustard, vanilla and a ton of oak ameliorated by a sly little citrus line.  But it also doesn’t attempt to do too much; and unlike some indie caskers at this level, is not that complicated – in that relative simplicity lies much of its appeal, if your taste runs into high proof drinks. It all gets summed up very nicely on the finish, which is oaky, spicy, briny, dry, with a little fruit and some licorice, vanilla, caramel, and then it’s gone. Probably leaving you gasping.

So who makes this thing? We know about St. Aubin, Lazy Dodo, New Grove and Chamarel, all of which channel the old rum making traditions of the island. But the company that makes this one, Green Island, is actually a UK company which licenses International Distillers Mauritius to provide their rums – IDM also makes marks like the Flamboyant,Cascavel and the well known and positively regarded Penny Blue rums, as well as a number of Green Island starter rums.  So not so much an artisanal rum maker as a local spirits conglomerate, like DDL in Guyana or Angostura in Trinidad. The Tilambic 151 is made on a column still, aged for varying times (“up to seven years”) and has no additives, flavourings, colourings or filtrations.

That puts the it squarely into the mixing category, as are most lightly aged rums of this kind.  That it has more qualities than defects is to its everlasting credit, and our relief. I mean, this thing could take out two defensive linemen in full pads just by cracking the seal – but it was surprisingly light and flavourful too, especially after resting for a while to burn off the alcohol.  And even if it wasn’t genetically enhanced by a team of imported Swiss scientists who had seen King Kong one too many times, I can’t dismiss it out of hand – because for all its coarse and brutish power, it really was quite an interesting rum, with some positives and very few negatives. For a 151, that’s really quite an achievement.

(#575)(78/100)


Other Notes

  • The name “Tilambic” is a creole name for the local farmers’ stills, which they use, much like the Haitians do, to make their own personal hooch.
  • Steve James over at the Rum Diaries took a look at the rum back in 2014, which gives you some idea how long it’s been knocking around.
Feb 102018
 

#487

Yeah! It screams as you sip it, seeming to want to channel a heavy metal rock star in his prime as he puts together a yowling riff on his axe and squeals impossibly high notes into the mike like his huevos were getting crushed. Pow! Biff! Smack! went the rum on the nose.  Holy pot still Batman, what the hell was this?  I smelled hard, I blinked tears, I coughed out rhum fumes and a hundred flies died on the spot. The maelstrom of clear aggro swirling madly in my glass made me think that if I’d had the St. Aubin Blanc four years ago I would have suspected the clairins of copying them.  This rhum was a hellish, snorting magnificent, pummelling nose: olives, brine, vinegar, acetone, salt beef and garlic pork (“wit’ plenty plenty ‘erb,” as my Aunt Sheila would have said), gherkins, sugar water, and more olives, presenting like a real dirty martini.  Wow.  Just…wow.  Though bottled at a relatively bearable 50%, it was fierce and pungent and tasty and wild and definitely left the reservation far behind, just like the white Jamaicans and clairins did.

What elevated the experience of drinking it was the sensation of sampling a potent escaped white lightning while at the same time understanding (not without some wonder) that it was totally under the control of its makers (St. Aubin out of Mauritius) and no extraneous frippery of blending or touch of ageing were allowed to mess with the monster’ essential badassery.  Some of the salt  took a back seat here, the olives were toned down, and in their place emerged sharp and clear notes of wax and furniture polish, leavened by bleeding sugar cane juice, watermelon, swank, pears and a bunch of heavier fruits, hot and just starting to spoil, reminding me more of a Jamaican white like the Rum Nation 57%, or the Rum Fire, or that faithful old standby, J. Wray 63%.  Oh but this was not all.  Once it settled its hot-snot profile down to manageable levels, came to a sort of grudging equilibrium among all the fierce competing flavours, there was a last cough of cereal, biscuits, oatmeal, salted butter and a dash of cumin to wrap up the show.  And it all led to a suitably epic finish that neatly summed up all the foregoing — and so cool that the sun did shine 24 hours a day when I was trying it, and, as the song goes, it did wear its sunglasses at night.

See, while furious aggression a la clairin was not quite the blanc’s style, the sheer range of what it presented took my breath away; the balance was damned fine and the range of its flavour profile was impressive as hell.  I’ll be the first to admit that such potent whites are not to everyone’s tastes, and if you doubt that, feel free to sample a clairin or three. But man, are they ever original. They burst with crazy, are infused with off-the-reservation nutso, and when you finish one, shudder and reach for the Diplo, then whether you liked it or not you could never doubt that at least it was original, right?  That and the bitchin’ cocktails they make, is, to me, their selling point.

Because of its pot still origins and because of its relatively manageable strength, I think this thing might just be one of the more approachable whites out there, and I’d really be interested how other drinkers, writers and barflies see it.  I make a lot of jokes at Adam West’s 1960s Batman series with their hokey sound effects overlaid on the TV screen and the campy dialogue, but what we sometimes forget is that after all was said and done, even on that series somebody always got hit and somebody always fell down and there was a cool quip at the end.  I don’t have a cool quip on this one, but guys, I drank it and got hit and just about fell down.

(85/100)


Other notes

There are some background notes on St. Aubin in the Historical series “Mauritius” and “Isle de France” reviews for those who are interested

Jan 282018
 

#483

The History Collection 1715 “Isle de France” Cuvée Spéciale, in spite of being made from cane juice, reminded me rather more of an El Dorado rum than a true agricole, and with the History Collection’s 1814 “Mauritius” Cuvée Grande Reserve we’re looking at today, similar thoughts occurred to me…albeit about a different country. Perhaps that’s the marker of a rum that lingers in the mind and titillates the senses – it reminds you of something, but pinning it down proves elusive…and then it turns out to be quite a distinct product in its own right, as this one is.

So, that said, and similarities aside, it’s instructive to assess the achievement of St. Aubin in producing a rhum that — even at 40%  — was no slouch to sample: it had the same rich and fruity aromas of the Isle de France, brown sugar, cherries in syrup, pineapple, peaches, apricots, vanilla, and to distinguish it from its sibling (perhaps), also a series of coffee and musty, sawdust-y, cereal-y back-end notes.  Sprinkled with raspberries.  What with a hint of chocolate in there someplace, I was actually moving away from comparing the nose to an El Dorado, and relocating myself to Colombia, know what I mean?  This thing was like a crisper Dictador 20 with just enough of the agricole background shimmering through to provide a clue as to its origins.

The nose told a tale that would be repeated right down the line, and what I smelled was pretty much what I tasted, with a few variations here and there.  It was light and clean, yet displaying darker, muskier spicier notes as well: vanilla, coffee, licorice and some sharp tannins, with the musty long-disused-attic tastes remaining.  Some fruits – peaches and cherries for the most part – stayed in the background.  The core was anise and sawdust and unsweetened chocolate, and overall it presented as somewhat dry.  Quite nice — if it fell down at all it was in the finish, which was more licorice and chocolate, thin tart fruits (gooseberries perhaps) and after a few hours, it took on a metallic tang of old ashes doused with water that I can’t say I entirely cared for.

Some background. The date on the bottle (1814) relates to the the Treaty of Paris signed at the end of the Napoleonic Wars by the warring nations of Europe, and it was this treaty which gave Guadeloupe back to France (it had been ceded to Sweden (!!) for a while), but which also formally confirmed Mauritius to be a colony of Great Britain (who had held it since 1810). I was informed that the rhum is cane juice based, 30% pot still 10 year old from 2004, and 70% column still (stored for six years in an inert inox tank), — which therefore does not makes the rum a 10 year old in spite of the bottling in 2014, and so I have had to retitle and amend this post, after checking with St. Aubin directly. Oh and there are 5218 bottles in the outturn, so probably enough for anyone who wants one to get one.

As noted on the Ile de France, by the way, you should expect some dosing here (caramel and “natural flavours”, not sugar, I was informed), and that’s evident after some switching back and forth between a true agricole and this one…not enough to mess it up, but noticeable enough after a while.  On the plus side it gentles the whole experience down a mite, makes it smoother and quieter and more sippable for those who like softer profiles to their rums (plus of course, sweeter ones); on the negative side it dampens and mutes a profile which doesn’t really need that kind of tampering – it’s good enough as it stands.  Underneath the muffling effect of the caramel addition, you can sense what it was and what was there, but it’s like listening to music underwater…the full impact and effect of the symphony is lost. And that’s a shame because I’d be much more interested to see what it was like when pure – based on the quality of what I was sampling, that was probably quite something.

(84/100)


Other notes

As stated above, current versions of the rum are only partly 10 years old, although the components remain the same as older ones – the 10 YO pot still component replaces the 7 YO portion. The label on the bottle I was sold was an older one which is now being changed to eliminate the age statement.  So even if your label says 7, you’re not precisely getting that.

Jan 212018
 

#481

The current focus on the Caribbean’s rums to some extent obscures interesting developments taking place elsewhere – for example the new Madeira rum from Rum Nation, French Guiana’s Toucan…and rums from St. Aubin in Mauritius, which are not particularly new, but certainly lack wider appreciation, perhaps because they don’t make it to the festival circuit as much as others do.  Anyway, this rum, the Isle de France 1715-2015 is part of their “History Collection”, bottled at 40% for a wider commercial market, and commemorates the year of establishment of French rule over Isle de France for the French East India Company — prior to that it was named L’Ile Maurice, and was a haven for pirates, smugglers and the all-round lawless (in which it parallels the Caribbean, maybe) from whom all of us low-rent rum reviewers claim descent when in our cups.

According to my email exchanges with the company, the rhum was produced from the harvest of 2005, and is a blend of two rhums – pot still (30%) aged ten years aged in ex-bourbon barrels, and column still (70%) stored in inert inox tanks; both distillates deriving from cane juice .  As a further note, although sugar was explicitly communicated to me as not being added, caramel and “natural aromas” were – so some variation from the pure is to be expected and I don’t doubt that hydrometer tests will show the dosage.

Certainly the caramel component was noticeable, and not just in the colour, which was quite dark – almost mahogany. The nose presented with sweet toffee notes almost immediately, and what was remarkable about it was also the surprising richness of it all – fruity to a fault, licorice, brown sugar, pineapple and peaches, balanced off (not entirely successfully) with oak and bitter chocolate.  The rhum smelled sweet, like overripe oranges and bubble gum and that to some extent was intriguing…just somewhat overpowering after a while.

Fortunately it smelled more saccharine than it tasted.  The palate was quite good, rather dry, and much more robust than I had been expecting from a standard strength product – sweetish, yes, also containing coconut shavings, pineapple, more peaches, light citrus, caramel and chocolate, coffee grounds, nougat, and – this is where I felt it faltered – also too much vanilla.  The oak took a backseat here, the bitterness of the nose not so much in evidence and the finish was warm, short with bubble gum, licorice and dry, woody notes that were pleasant, just disappeared too swiftly.

Overall, this is quite a pleasant rhum, and strangely enough, given its cane-juice antecedents, it reminded me a lot of the El Dorado rums, particularly the 12 year old, where the dosage was also quite obvious; and it’s somewhat of a kissing cousin to the El Dorado 15 year old with respect to its panoply of flavours, specifically the licorice and chocolate.  I think that attempts may have been made to emulate some of the high ester profile of the Savanna rums without blatantly ripping them off, and the dosage smoothened things out and provided some balance.  At end, it’s a perfectly respectable mid-tier rum which is likely to find great favour in North America, perhaps less so in Europe.

History always fascinates me, so a few details here: the Domaine de St. Aubin, named after the first sugar cane mill established by Pierre de St. Aubin in 1819 or thereabouts, is located in the extreme south of Mauritius in the Rivière des Anguilles, and has been cultivating cane since that year – however the date of first distillation of spirits is harder to pin down – it’s likely within a few decades of the original opening of the sugar factory (there are records of the Harel family starting a distillery which is now New Grove in the 1850s; they also make the Lazy Dodo brand which I waxed lyrical about last year). In the late 1960s the Franco-Mauritian Guimbeau family – who made their fortune in the tea trade for which Mauritius is also renowned – acquired the estate and retained the name, and gradually developed a stable of rums produced both by a pot still (which produces what they term their “artisanal” rums) and a relatively recent columnar still for larger volume agricoles.

It’s a personal opinion of mine that alongside St. Lucia and Reunion, Mauritius is another one of those undiscovered countries we should be watching. Every day we read about the Jamaicans, Guyanese and Bajans; we regularly get another release from the famous rhum makers out of Martinique and Guadeloupe; and we kinda wish we could get more from St. Vincent and Grenada and other smaller Caribbean islands to round out the area, sure. However, let that not blind you to treasures made on the other side of Africa, on this small, rather-off-the-beaten-track island.  Chamarel, New Grove, Penny Blue and Lazy Dodo rums are all good products, enlarging the scope of what rums are — but my advice is, don’t ignore the St Aubin rums either, because however middling my notes are, they have some pretty interesting wares, and deserve a good hard look by those who want something different and tasty, yet also not too far removed from the profiles of better known rums. It’s just close enough to more familiar products to evince a nod of appreciation and vague recall, while being a memory that remains tantalizingly elusive  “Tastes oddly familiar,” I wrote after sampling the Cuvée Spéciale, “But damned if I remember precisely which one.”  And that’s exactly as it should be.

(83/100)

Jan 052017
 

Laid-back, but not lazy

#333

The dodo, as most of us are well aware, is the subject of such well known epigrams as being dead as one; it remains a fixture of popular culture and language, often seen as a symbol of obsolescence, stupidity and (naturally) extinction. It is therefore something of an odd emblem for a rum company to use as its name and symbol, unless it’s considered so firmly associated with Mauritius that bird and island are seen as synonymous (which I don’t believe for a moment). So aside from the officially stated purpose of the logo raising awareness of endangered species, perhaps what we see here is also a sense of humour at work, especially since modern scientists suggest that the dodo was actually quite well adapted to its ecosystem, and it was invasive species and humans that ended up wiping it out – the bird was nowhere near as dumb as we are given to think.

Anyway, as a marketing strategy, that name works like a charm, since, as soon as I saw it in Berlin in 2016, I beelined straight over to try it, because come on, with a title like that, how could I possibly resist? It’s like telling any Guyanese male that there really is a vodka brand called IPR – all of us would instantly buy a case.

Lazy Dodo Single Estate Rum (to give it the full name on the label) is made by the Grays of New Grove Rum fame (run by the Harel family that I wrote about in the New Grove 8 Year Old review) and the Milhade family who are wine makers out of Bordeaux.  What background literature exists suggests that the collaboration is more in the way of knowledge sharing than strict apportioning of labour, since the cane and harvesting and processing and ageing all take place on the Pampelmousses estate in Mauritius, though perhaps the sales network in France owes something to the efforts of the Millhades who have a stronger prescence in Europe. The amber-coloured 40% ABV molasses-based, column-still product is a blend of rums aged 5, 8, and 12 years and aged in both new and used American and French oak barrels (hence the moniker “double maturation” on the label).  Oh, and no additives, so I was informed. It had its coming out parties 2016 in the rum festival circuit and seemed to be quite popular, if one were to judge from the “Sold Out” sign posted up on the second day of the Berlin RumFest.

That didn’t necessarily mean it was a top tier rum, just one that was popular and very easy to drink. Nose-wise it actually presented as rather sweet and had notes of green grapes and pineapple and ripe mangoes, which I thought may have been a little over the top – there was very little of a “standard” profile here, though what was available to smell was in no way unpleasant, just rather mild, even understated.

Similar thoughts passed through my mind on the tasting.  At 40% it was a defanged sort of rum, medium bodied, and the sweetness was retained, with that and the blending rounding off any rough edges it may have started life with.  There were the same grape-like tastes, less pineapple here, and as it opened up (and with some water) vaguely crisper flavours emerged – citrus, red grapefruit, cider, apples, followed by some vanilla, creme brulee and soft toffee notes. It closed off short and warm, with little of the tartness carrying over into the finish, just caramel, some light citrus and nuts, and a touch of vanilla.

While I can’t rave about it, at the end of the day it’s a relaxed, laid back, unaggressive (dare I say “lazy”?) sort of sundowner, nothing earthshaking – at best it made my glass wobble a bit. Aside from enjoying its placid nature I’m merely left curious as to which market it was made for.  The Europeans with their penchant for more forceful drinks and robust profiles trending towards the agricole market? Tourists? Denmark, home of the cask-strength-loving vikings? The North Americans who mostly consider standard proof to be the rumiverse? Connoisseurs, barflys, cocktail makers?  Hard to say.  I consider it a pretty good day-to-day sort of rum, well made and reasonably complex, if lacking anything that specifically screams “Mauritius” about it.  But whatever the case, it probably won’t go the way of its namesake any time soon…it’s too decent a rum for that, and will likely be the bees’ knees for those who succumb to its light and languorous charms.

(79/100)

 

Dec 012016
 

mauritius-club-rum

Too young, too dressed up, when it didn’t need to be

#321

The Mauritius Club Rum 2014 (Sherry Finish) is an interesting essay in the craft, and for my money, slightly better than the Gold of Mauritius Dark rum I looked before. The sherry finishing makes its own statement and adds that extra fillip of flavour which elevates the whole experience in a way that drowning the Gold in port casks for a year did not.  Note that there’s a strange disconnect between what I was told in 2015 by the brand rep, who informed me it was aged three months in oak casks (not what type) and then finished for two weeks in sherry casks; and what I see online these days, where the buying public is informed it is aged for six to eight months in South African wine barrels before finishing in sherry casks.

Well, whatever. Whether three months or six, with or without the sherry ageing, the overall profile strikes me as doing too little and hoping for too much, which is a shame – with a few more years under its belt, this could have really turned heads and attracted attention. The things is, ageing can be either done right and for a decent interval (perhaps three years or more, with many believing the sweet spot is between eight and twelve), or dispensed with it altogether (as with the various unaged whites for which I confess a sneaking love).  Go in the middle with less than a year? Plus a finish?…that may just be pushing one’s luck. It’s heading into spiced or flavoured rum territory.

The reason I make these remarks is because when I started nosing it, believing that 40% couldn’t seriously harm me, it lunged out in a schnozz-skewering intensity that caught me unprepared, the more so when had in a series with the far gentler and warmer and more easygoing muffled blanket of the Gold I’d just sampled before.  To be fair though, once it settled down, there were notes of red wine (no surprise), raisins, caramel, chocolate vanilla, and something vaguely sharper, like those chocolate After-Eight mint biscuits.

The palate was softer, smoother, warm rather than hot, after the initial heat burned away..  Again, lots of sweet wine, and the sherry makes itself felt.  Honey, some nuttiness (I was thinking breakfast cereals like cheerios) plus a little fruitiness, cherries, more vanilla, more chocolate and vanilla.  Truth is, too little going on here, and overall, somewhat uncoordinated and quite faint. A 40% strength can be perfectly fine, but it does make for a lesser experience and dampened-down tastes that a shooter wouldn’t capture and a mix would drown and a sipper would disdain.  The finish was okay for such a product, being short and easy, warm, redolent of nuts, more cheerios, honey and a very faint note of tannins. There was some character here, just not enough to suit my preferences.

I know it sounds like I’m dissing the rum, but not really – as noted above, I liked it better than the Gold of Mauritius Dark even though it was younger, which I attribute to a better handling of the blend, and the sherry influence.  Still, it must be said that the rum displayed something of schizoid character, too young and raw to be tamed with the port/sherry for the few months it aged, yet being promoted as being more than an unaged starter (that would lower expectations, which may have been the point).  Moreover, when any maker puts a moniker of a single year on the bottle — “2014” in this case — it creates an impression of something a little special, a “millesime” edition of a good year…and that’s certainly not the case, as it’s simply the year the rum was made.  And lastly, I argue — as was the case with the Gold — that by mixing it up with these external and rather dominating influences, the potential to experience a unique rum originating from a unique location with a very individual taste, was lost — to our detriment.

So after this experience, I resume my search for the definitive rum from the island, the big gun that will put Mauritius on the map and allow us to use it as a quasi-baseline. Something that isn’t mixed, adulterated, finished or otherwise tampered with.  I know it’s out there somewhere – I just have to find it. This one isn’t it.

(79/100)

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