Jan 222019
 

Haiti is unique as a nation because it is where the only successful slave revolt in the world took place, at the turn of the 18th century. Sadly, it is now the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and successive dictatorships, foreign interference and natural disasters have left the place in shambles.

That any businesses manage to survive in such an environment is a testament to their resilience, their determination, their ingenuity….and the quality of what they put out the door. The country has become the leading world producer of vetiver (a root plant used to make essential oils and fragrances), exports agricultural products and is a tourist destination, yet perhaps it is for rum that its exports are best known, and none more so than those of Barbancourt, formed in 1862 and still run by the descendants of the founder.

Until the mid 20th century, Barbancourt was something of a cottage industry, selling primarily to the local market.  In 1949 they relocated the sugar cane fields of the Domaine Barbancourt in the plaine du Cul-de-Sac region in the south east, and by 1952 ramped up production, increased exports and transformed the brand into a major producer of quality rum, a distinction it has held ever since.  

The rhum, based on sugar cane juice not molasses, used to be double-distilled, using pot stills in a process similar to that used to produce cognac (Dupré Barbancourt came from the cognac-producing region of Charente which was undoubtedly his inspiration); however, nowadays they use a more efficient (if less character-driven) three-column continuous distillation system, where the first column strips the solid matter from the wash and the second and third columns serve to concentrate the resultant spirit…so what is coming to the market now is not what once was made by the company.

Haiti has no shortage of other rhum producing companies – but smaller outfits like Moscoso Distillers or LaRue Distillery are much less well-known and export relatively little, (and back-country clairins are in a different class altogether)…and this makes Barbancourt the de facto rum standard bearer for the half island, and one of the reasons I chose it for this series. This is not to dismiss the efforts of all the others, or the the artisanal quality of the clairins that Velier has brought to world attention since 2014 — just to note that they all, to some extent, live in the shadow of Barbancourt; which in turn, somewhat like Mount Gay, seems in danger of being forgotten as a poster boy for Haiti, now that the pure artisanal rum movement gathers a head of steam.

The current label of the 8YO

Barbancourt’s rhums are not issued at full proof: they prefer a relatively tame 40-43%, and every possible price point and strength is not catered to.  The company has a relatively small stable of products: the Blanc, the 3-star 4 Year Old, the 5-star 8 Year Old and the flagship 15 year old (Veronelli’s masterful 25 year old is a Barbancourt rhum, but not issued by them).  Though if one wanted to get some, then independent bottlers like Berry Bros., Bristol Spirits, Duncan Taylor, Cadenhead, Samaroli, Plantation and Compagnie des Indes (among others) do produce stronger and more exacting limited offerings for the enthusiasts.

Yet even with those few rhums they make, whatever the competition, and whether one calls it a true agricole or not, the rhums coming from Barbancourt remain high on the quality ladder and no rumshelf could possibly be called complete without at least one of them.  After trying and retrying all three major releases, my own conclusion was that at the intersection of quality and price, the one that most successfully charts a middle course between the older and the younger expressions is the 5-star 8 year old (I looked at it last way back in 2010, as well as one earlier version from back in the 1970s) which remains one of the workhorses of the company and the island, an excellent mid-level rum that almost defines Barbancourt.

It does display, however, somewhat of a schizophrenic profile. Take the nose, for example – it almost seems like a cross between a molasses based rum and an agricole.  While it certainly possesses the light, herbal aroma of a cane-juice distillate, it also smells of a light kind of brown sugar and molasses mixed up with some bananas and vanilla (it was aged in French oak on Haiti, which may account for the latter). There’s also a sly briny background, combined with a pleasant hints of nougat and well polished leather, plus the subdued acidity of green apples, grapes and cumin.  Not all that intense at 43%, but excellent as an all-rounder for sure.

What the nose promises, the palate delivers, and yet that peculiar dichotomy continues.  It’s soft given the strength, initially tasting of caramel, toblerone, almonds and vague molasses and vanilla (again).  Brine and olives. Spices – cumin, cinnamon, plus raisins, a certain delicate grassiness and maybe a plum or two (fruitiness is there, just understated).  Nope, it doesn’t feel like a completely cane juice distillate, or, at best, if feels like an amalgam leading neither one way or the other, and the close sums all that up.  It’s medium long, with salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, a bit of raisins and plums, a fine line of citrus, a little cinnamon dusting, and a last reminder of oaky bitterness in a relatively good,  dry finish.

What makes the Barbancourt 8 YO so interesting — even unique — is the way the makers played with the conventions and steered a center line that draws in lovers of other regions while not entirely abandoning the French island antecedents. It reminds me more of a Guadeloupe rhum than an out-and-out agricole from Martinique, with perhaps a pinch of Bajan thrown in.  However, it’s in no way heavy enough to invite direct comparisons to any Demerara or Jamaican product.

So, does it fail as a Key Rum because of its indeterminate nature, or because it lacks the fierce pungency of a clairin, the full grassy nature of a true agricole?

Not at all, and not to me.  It’s a completely solid rhum with its own clear profile, that succeeds at being drinkable and enjoyable on all levels, without being visibly exceptional in any specific way and sold at a price point that makes it affordable to the greater rum public out there. Many reviewers and most drinkers have come across it at least once in their journey (much more so than those who have tried clairins) and few have anything bad to say about it.  It’s been made for decades, is well known and well regarded — not just because it’s from Haiti, but because it also has a great price to value ratio. There’s a lot of talk about “gateway” rums, cheaper and sometimes-adulterated rums that are good enough to enjoy and savour, that lead to more and better down the road. It’s usually applied to the Zacapas, Zayas, Diplos and younger rums of this world, but if you ever want to get more serious about aged agricoles, then the Barbancourt 8 YO may actually be one of those that actually deserves the title, and remains, even after all these years, a damned fine place to start your investigations.

(#592)(84/100)


Other Notes

In a curious coincidence, a post on reddit that did a brief review of this rhum went up just a few days before this was published. There are some good links contained within the commentary.

Jan 202019
 

The Jack Iron rum from Westerhall is a booming overproof issued both in a slightly aged and a white version, and both are a whopping 70% ABV. While you can get it abroad — this bottle was tried in Italy, for example — my take is that it’s primarily a rum for local consumption (though which island can lay claim to it is a matter of idle conjecture), issued to paralyze brave-but-foolhardy tourists who want to show off their Chewbacca chests by drinking it neat, or to comfort the locals who don’t have time to waste getting hammered and just want to do it quick time. Add to that the West Indian slang for manly parts occasionally being iron and you can sense a sort of cheerful and salty islander sense of humour at work.

Truth to tell, the Jack Iron is not strictly a Grenadian rum – even back in the 1990s and probably for long before, it was distilled and slightly aged (three years) at Angostura’s facilities in Trinidad, before being shipped to the Spice Island for final blending and bottling. It had its antecedents in local moonshine brewed in the Grenadines to between 70% and 90%, sometimes spiced up, sometimes not, with water used as a chaser, and was usually referred to as “Jack”. (Apparently there is a 99% version of this rum called “Carriacou 99%!” floating around as well, available only on the eponymous island).

Since we’re talking about an overproof column still product made in an industrial facility with minimal ageing, the pale straw colour is understandable, and one does not go in expecting too much. This makes the initial aromas of the Jack Iron somewhat surprising, because they’re actually quite good. It smelled light, sweet and almost delicate, like raspberries dumped into pear-infused water. However, this is deceptive: it lures you into a false sense of security, and actually it’s the fin of the shark that gotcha. Much more heated and forceful aromas become noticeable after the alcohol burns off – olives, brine, gherkins, some relatively mild fruit (watermelons, pears, papaya) but none of the heavy fleshy ones.

Everything turns on a dime when it’s tasted, where the full force of the proof is brought to bear. It’s hot, fiery, fierce. Alas, that heat also takes much of the taste away as well, so all you get is sharp bite without soft taste (the Neisson L’Esprit 70⁰ Blanc found a way around this, somehow, but not here). Essentially almost all the tastes bar a few that slip through, are killed cold stone dead and it takes some real effort to discern candy floss, very light fruits (same as the nose), vague vanilla, some florals, and even the Angostura 5 YO is better than this (while being much weaker). This does not appreciably change even when water is added, by the way, and while the finish is suitably epic, and you can pick out some marzipan and vanilla and watermelon juice (and that’s if you reach), at the end it’s just long and hot and sharp. And, I confess, boring.

To some extent this rum reminds me less of Angostura’s lightly aged offerings were they to be beefed up, than of the the Marienburg 90 from Suriname, and also St. Vincent’s Sunset Very Strong. The nose is really kind of nice – delicate, herbal, floral, like a velvet-wrapped stilletto; unlike the palate, which is just a sledge, simple, bludgeoning, direct, without subtlety or complexity of any kind. Of course it’s a mix, not a sip, and it would certainly ratchet up anything into which you dump it, so there’s that I suppose.

Like many overproofs, complexity is not what it’s about — it’ll never be an international festival favourite, being the sort of rum best had in the local backcountry or on a bartender’s back shelf. It goes down much better only after a couple of shots (with chaser), when just about everything somebody says becomes a masterpiece of scintillating wit or a blindingly intelligent insight. Just be aware that such a state of affairs doesn’t last into the next morning’s headache, which is really not the rum’s fault, but your own, if you had gone late into the night with your squaddies, daring to drink it like a Grenadian.

(#591)(74/100)

Jan 172019
 

Rumaniacs Review # R-089 | 590

This spite of a light white — to give it its full name, the “Clarke’s Court Superior Refined Grenada Light Rum” – should not be confused with either the current version of the Superior Light being released at 40%, or the best selling and much better Pure White at 69%.  The one here is an older version of the rum, column distilled (Ed Hamilton’s 1995 book Rums of the Eastern Caribbean mentions a two-column still in operation around that time), aged for under a year, filtered to clarity and meant as a low level mixer.  You could argue that it’s meant to take on the Bacardi Superior with which it shares several characteristics, and perhaps it’s a holdover from the light rum craze of the sixties and seventies when cocktails made with such rums were all the rage.

As always when dealing with rums from even ten years back, there’s a dearth of information about the various iterations over the years and decades, and I lack the resources to go to Grenada and ask in person. Still, given that I bought this as a mini, and part of a single lot of rums dating back at least ten years, the “2000s” range of when it was made appears reasonable — and since there are other, more current 43% Superior Light rums from Clarke’s with Grenada shown as green on the label, it may even pre-date the turn of the century.  It’s unlikely that the recipe is seriously different.

Colour – White

Strength – 43%

Nose – Dusty herbal smell, very light, with faint notes of curry and massala. Fennel and rosemary, and a whiff of cardboard.  Provides some brine, sweeter fruity hints (pears, white guavas), and coconut shavings after some minutes.  Quite a vague nose, mellow, unaggressive, easy going.

Palate – Does something of an about face when tasted – turns slightly oaky, which is odd sicne it’s only been aged for a year or less, and then filtered to nothing afterwards.  As with the nose, probably best to wait a little – then some shy nuances of sugar water, apples and pears peek out, accompanied by coconut shavings again, and a touch of raw sugar cane juice.

Finish – Short, light, breezy, faint.  Mostly light fruits, flowers, and pears.

Thoughts – These kinds of whites are (or were) for easy beachfront sipping in a fruity cocktail of yesteryear, or in a local dive with a bowl of ice and a cheap chaser, to be taken while gettin’ tight in the tropical heat over a loud and ferocious game of dominos.  Nowadays of course, there are many other options available, more powerful, more intense, more pungent — and a rum like this is unlikely to be found outside back-country beer-gardens, tourist bars or in an old salt’s collection.  I mourn its loss for the lack of information on it, but not for its milquetoast taste.

(70/100)

Jan 152019
 

Before considering the €300+ price tag, or grumbling about Rum Nation’s penchant for adding something extra to (some of) its rums, give the last Supreme Lord Jamaican rum from 1991 a whiff, a sniff and a snort. Sip a dram. Take your time with it. Enjoy. Because it’s simply outstanding, and even in concert with eight other Jamaicans that were on the table the day I tried it, it held up in fine style.  

Part of that derives from the extended “sherry finish” — though since it spent eleven years in oloroso casks I’d suggest it’s more a double maturation in the vein of Foursquare’s Exceptionals than a finish of any kind. And that influence makes itself felt right away, as scents of sweet rich honey, fleshy stoned fruits (peaches, apricots), raisins, leather, oak and vanillas in perfect balance boil out of the glass. There’s quite a bit of funk – sharp green apples mixing it up with rotting bananas – just less than you’d expect.  And here’s the peculiar thing — one can also sense molasses, caramel, a slight tannic tang and a flirt of licorice, and when that comes sauntering through the door, well, you could be forgiven for thinking this was actually a slightly off-kilter Demerara instead of something from Monymusk.

And for anyone who enjoys sipping rich Jamaicans that don’t stray too far into insanity (the NRJ TECA is the current poster child for that), it’s hard to find a rum better than this one.  The 55.7% strength is near perfect. It demonstrates great thickness, excellent mouthfeel, admittedly somewhat sweet, but very clean and distinct (which is to say, not near-smothered by a blanket of softening additives which so demeans many of El Dorado’s aged offerings) to allay my concerns about dosing. It tastes of Thai lemon-grass soup or a green curry (both for veggie saltiness and the sharper line of citrus), without ever losing the core heat and fruity over-ripeness of the bananas, soft fruit, black cherries, grapes and that faint whiff of licorice.  It has solid closing notes of hot black tea, more fruits (same ones), and is pleasantly, luxuriously long-lasting, reasonably firm, yet loses none of its snap and vigour.

What puts this rum over the top is the balance and control over the various competing elements of taste and smell; it’s really quite good, and even the finish – which sums up most of the preceding tasting elements – showcases that care and attention paid to assembling the profile.  It’s kind of a shame that only 750 bottles were issued and now, nearly three years after being issued, it retails for so much. But consider: when I tried it, it edged out the SL VII, held its own (and then some) against the Ping 9, Albrecht Trelawny, CDI Worthy Park 2007 8 YO, and cruised with ease past the AD Rattray 1986 25 YO.  If there was one rum that gave it serious competition, it was the EKTE 12, half as old and just as good (and also from Monymusk).

The rum continues along the path set by all the seven Supreme Lords that came before it, and since I’ve not tried them all, I can’t say whether others are better, or if this one eclipses the lot.  What I do know is that they are among the best series of Jamaican rums released by any independent, among the oldest, and a key component of my own evolving rum education.

It is with some sadness that I also note that just as it was the first cask strength SL, it is likely to be among the final ones to be issued, as it represented some of the last barrels of seriously aged Jamaican stocks held by Fabio Rossi.  He retained some Long Pond to make the superlative blended 30 year old a year or two back, and his attention is now more on the Rare Collection which supplant the Aged series…but whether you like the more recent offerings or the older ones, the pricier ones or the entry level iterations, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Supreme Lord rums (as well as their cousins the aged Demeraras), are among the top rums Rum Nation ever issued. And this one ranks right up there with the best of them.

(#589)(89/100)

Jan 122019
 

Hampden has been getting so much press of late that it’s only fair to have a look at the other products of the island, of which, these days, there are no shortages. For a long time these distilleries — with names geeks could recite in their sleep, like New Yarmouth, Innswood, Clarendon, Long Pond Monymusk, Worthy Park, Hampden — laboured in relative obscurity, living in J. Wray’s gargantuan shadow, selling mostly bulk rum abroad, or for the local market.

Somehow, though, the distilleries remained alive, and so did their names, their rums. While I’m by no means disparaging or downplaying the emergent reputations of these distilleries over the last half-decade or so as they began selling rums under their own brands, tropically aged and made in Jamaica (rather than just being a resource for others to tap), I think one of the reasons the layperson is even aware of them is because of the independent bottlers out of Europe, who for decades issued the occasional cask strength or watered down single-barrel release and kept the lesser-known marques of Jamaica alive.  (And that goes especially for WP, which was shuttered from 1960 to 2007.)

Most of the time, such bottlers never bothered with identifying the distillery of origin. Often it was just “Jamaica rum” and that was it. But in line with the recent interest in stills and distilleries (which perhaps originated in the Age of Velier’s Demeraras), the independents became more forthcoming with where their juice originated on the island.

This brings us to the Compagnie des Indes, founded in 2014 by Florent Beuchet, who, with the exception of their blends like the Dominador or Caraibes, has always placed rather more information than less on the labels of their rums – including that first set of cask strength bruisers marked “Denmark only”, which have caused nerds conniption fits and allowed the lucky Danes to preen unashamedly while glugging their personalized full proof juice. This one, distilled in 2007 (the first year of WP’s re-opening after being modernized) and bottled in 2016 at a solid 54.9%, was continentally aged and limited to 307 bottles, all of which ended up in Denmark.

Trying the rum in 2016, against its spectacular 7 year old brother (also from WP’s 2007 output) and again for this review, I was reminded how full proof Jamaican rums seem to step up their game and be ahead of living room strength rums by a country mile. It was lighter on the nose than the RN Supreme Lord 7 and Supreme Lord 8 which were also on the table that day; slightly funkier too, though restrained compared to the rutting jocks of the Hampdens or NRJ rums. Aromas of honey, dates, apricots, tart soursop and green grapes mixed it up nicely with some brine and olives, and a sly hint of flowers emerged after adding a few drops of water.

The palate was where it shone. It was warm, spicy and very clear, tasting immediately of brine, light nail polish remover, and also of lemon sherbet and mango ice cream. It presented firmly on the tongue, somewhat sharp without any jagged edges of confusing or conflicting tastes; as it opened it provided flavours of paint thinner, varnish and sweeter acetones, accompanied by light funk, vanilla, slightly bitter oaky tannins, which were in their turn superseded (but not eclipsed) by some caramel and brown sugar, dill and lemon zest. Really good balance, really well put together. It ended with a delightfully long and cruising finish, warm and solid, providing mostly tart background notes of half ripe mangoes, peaches, some caramel, and the vaguely bitter strength of some very strong black tea sweetened with condensed milk.

Worthy Park rums are interesting variations on the Jamaican style. Appletons are well made, elegant blends with a laid back sort of profile, while Hampdens are fiercely luxurious funk bombs, and Monymusk and New Yarmouth seem to exist on another plane of existence altogether (perhaps because they are relatively less well known). Worthy Park rums, though (those that I’ve tried, anyway) are light, crisp and clean, ester-rich, with delicate and precise lines of commingled flavour coiling through each and every one of them, only occasionally exploding into something more aggressive, and usually resting on a softer background that makes for a lovely sip.

Now, their own new tropically aged rums issued over the last few years are small masterworks (I think), yet we should not ignore the sterling efforts of the choices the independent bottlers made either, both before and during the current Jamaican Renaissance. This excellent rum is a good example of why that statement can be made, be absolutely true, and it burnishes and elevates the reputation of a distillery that is finally getting the respect it should have had long ago. I’ll be trying quite a few more of their rums in the months and years to come, that’s for sure.

(#588)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • For further reading on Jamaican rum distilleries, a good starting point is The Wonk’s Jamaican Cheat Sheet.
  • As far as I know the distillation apparatus is a Forsythe’s copper pot still
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)

Jan 022019
 

There must be something about the French that just leads them into starting little rum companies in other countries. There was Hembert Achard and Anne-Francois Houzel who formed Whisper Rums from Antigua; David Giallorenzo of Issan; and Marine Lucchini and Thibault Spithakis of Chalong Bay. And of course there’s Toucan, which, if you recall from my posts of a year ago, is a relatively new entrant to the field of rums, yet distinguished itself (in my eyes at least) by making the really nifty-but-underpowered Toucan No. 4, as well as being from French Guiana, a place we have not seen or heard of enough when it comes to rums.

All these companies are small, discreet and self-effacing…almost humble.  Oh sure, they use social media and have slick, marketing-heavy websites and show up on Facebook feeds off and on – who doesn’t, these days? – but what distinguishes them (to me) is both their relatively low-key digital footprint, and their equally unhyped but surprisingly good young rums.  Especially the white ones, which I simply can’t get enough of. In this case, the 50% blanc.

Toucan makes a vanilla (I think this is No. 1), the Boco spiced rum No. 2, the No. 4 slightly aged rum and but for my money this 50% white is the best of the lot. It’s made from cane juice processed at French Guiana’s St. Maurice distillery, and then shipped to Toulouse where it stays in neutral steel tanks until ready for bottling, after being reduced to 50%.

What’s nice about it is immediately summarized by a nose of uncommon delicacy and (oddly) also of heft.  It smelled of sweet light fruit – pears, watermelon, green grapes – but also of salty brine and olives, furniture polish, and something barely noticeable yet also…meatier.  In that it reminded me of the Novo Fogo, though with rather more emphasis and braggadocio, due in no small part to the 50% ABV it was bottled at.

The palate continued that unhurried unfolding or flavour.  It was smooth and pleasant (with a little nip from the strength, no getting away from that), initially tasting of fanta and 7-up, light citrus peel, pears again, a few indeterminate ripe fruits, and (get this) those salt-and-vinegar pringles chips. It was aromatic and redolent of these, and the salt and the sweet and the fruity notes melded nicely in a minor key that didn’t overwhelm, just led slowly down to a gentle finish which gave last hints of marzipan, sugar water, toblerone and nougat.

I must admit that furiously raw clarity of flavour and a powerful terroire profile is not this rhum’s thing.  In fact, it’s rather restrained, almost demure, with each flavour shyly coiling out of the mix to tease and titillate before quietly subsiding, much like many of those Asian white rums I’ve been trying of late – Issan, Vientiane, Chalong Bay, Laodi. Like them, the Toucan white straddles the divide between too much and too little, between pillow and hammer, and finds the balancing point between them all.  It’s an unassuming but really good white rum, one of an increasing number of unsung heroes of the blancworld which one should try for no other reason than to be pleased by something that wants to do nothing else.

(#584)(83/100)

Dec 302018
 

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#585)(Unscored)

Dec 282018
 

Just as we don’t see Americans making too many full proof rums, it’s also hard to see them making true agricoles, especially since the term is so tightly bound up with the spirits of the French islands.

Agricole, let it be remembered, is the French term for agricultural rums made from pure sugar cane juice, and called such to distinguish them (not without a little Gallic disdain, to be sure) from traditionnels, or traditional rums, which are made from molasses, a by product of the sugar making process. For the most part, having much to do with the finances, molasses rums are much preferred by producers, because the issues of storage and spoilage which afflicts cane juice (it can go bad in just a few days) – that’s one reason why agricoles are closely associated with actual sugar estates with a distillery nearby – not always easy in a country the size of the USA where there is much greater separation between the two.

In the case of St. George’s, a 1982-established California distillery much better known for its gins, absinthes, vodkas and whiskies, they get their fresh cut cane from Imperial Valley just to the east of San Diego along the Mexican border, and when a load comes in, they crush it immediately, add the yeast and ferment (duration unknown) before running it through a pot still (Josh Miller spoke of a hybrid pot/column still when he visited them in 2013 but St. George’s wrote to me and said “pot” for sure).  The resultant spirit is rested for a short while in stainless steel tanks, with some being drawn off to age for a few years in oak, the rest being bottled at 43%. My version was based on the 2014 harvest according to the sample info, and was therefore issued in that year.

On the nose…oy!  What was this? Vegetable soup, or (take your pick) meatballs, dumplings, dim sum or spring rolls…that kind of thing.  Also vinegar, soy, pickles and fish sauce, a pot of brine and what felt like three bags of olives. Behind all that is a sharp edge, like a red wine gone off somehow, and whatever fruits there were took a reluctant step back – so much so that the first thoughts that ran through my mind as I smelled the rum was it was a low rent clairin that tried for the brass ring but ran out of steam.  Still – nice. Adventurous. Different. I like that in a white rum.

Alas, the palate, after that jarringly original overture that so piqued my interest, seemed to go to sleep, a function of the 43% ABV maybe, and a reminder that pungent rums like unaged whites don’t always succeed when dialled down to a somnolent standard strength.  Still, it did wake up after I ignored it for a bit, and gave a twitch of sugar water and watermelons, fresh-cut pears, vanilla and citrus, very light and very pleasant. Yes there was a sort of creaminess and black bread, behind which lurked the brine and olives (lots of both), but the rum seemed to have problems deciding whether it wanted to be a crowd pleaser or something truly original such as the nose had promised, and the finish – long, dry, salty, lightly fruity, sweetly watery – just followed the palate into a docile conclusion.

Truth is, the whole experience was schizophrenic – it started off with fire and smoke and major f**ken attitude, then just lost its mojo and sagged against the wall.  For all the unbalanced helping of crazy with which it opened, I liked that off-kilter nose a lot better than everything that followed because it showed all the potential that failed to be realized later on. An unaged pot-still white should be a little off-base – anything else and you have a mere cocktail ingredient and there are already enough of those around.

That said, it’s not that I actively disliked the rum…just that I felt there was nothing serious here: nothing badass that dared to offend…or inspire (say what you will about the TECC and TECA rums from NRJ and their barking-mad taste profiles, they had real balles).  So, at end, it’s a light alcohol with great promise (how it smelled) and too little follow-through (palate and finish). Cyril of DuRhum reviewed this same edition, scored it at 77 and provided some great details on the company, and it was tasty enough to make Josh Miller wax rhapsodic in 2013 when he visited the place, tried some and recommended it highly both by itself and in a Ti-punch (you need to read his 10/10 scored review as a serious counterpoint to mine and Cyril’s) – but here I have to be somewhat less enthusiastic based on my own tasting five years down the road.

(#583)(76/100)


Other notes

  • Neither this rum or its lightly aged brother is listed on the St. George’s website.  When I touched base with them, they sadly informed me that because of the difficulty of acquiring fresh cane, they have ceased rum production for “a number of years,” though they remain on the lookout for new and stable sources.  For the moment, they’re not making any.
  • An irrelevant aside to this review is that I inadvertently tried it twice: once in 2017 based on a sample sent to me (totally blind) by John Go; and the second time in 2018, this time one I bought on a whim.  In both cases my tasting notes were practically identical, and so was my score.  I think this is an innovative, intriguing rum from the US which can and should be tried if possible.