Feb 112019
 

Rumaniacs Review #091 | 0598

Overproof rums started out as killer cocktail ingredients, meant to boost anything they were put into by, I dunno, a lot. For many years they were pretty much the bruisers of the barflies — low-life, lightly-aged mixers (or occasionally unaged whites) which only islanders drank neat, largely because they had the least amount of time to waste getting hammered.  Still, as time passed and cask strength rums became more fashionable (and appreciated), the gap between the strength of a cool aged casker and an overproof shrank, to the point where a 75% bottling of a “regular” rum that’s not labelled as an overproof is not out of the realms of possibility – I know several that stop just a bit short of that.  

One of the old style overproofs is this rum from the Takamaka distillery located on Mahe, the main island of the 115-island archipelago comprising the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean off East Africa. The company is of relatively recent vintage, being formed in 2002 by the d’Offay brothers, Richard and Bernard d’Offay, and sourcing sugar cane from around the island – they are, according to their website’s blog, one of the few distilleries in the world that make rum from both juice and molasses.  They have two copper pot stills and a columnnar one, and this white rum, now discontinued and replaced with the 69 Rhum Blanc, is an unaged, unfiltered column still distillate with possibly a touch of high ester rum from the pot still. I’ve read on a Czech site that the rum is triple distilled from cane juice and then diluted, which cannot be confirmed, but seems reasonable based on the profile

Colour – White

Strength – 72% ABV

Nose –  Sweet and light soda pop, like a 7-Up…with fangs. Tons of herbs here, grass, thyme, mint, light lemon zest. Sugar water.  Light fruity esters. Bananas, nutmeg, cardamom.

Palate – Fruit juice poured into my glass, clean and light.  There’s the crispness of green apples, cane juice and red cashews, melding well with the tart creamy sweetness of ginips and soursop.  Herbs remained – parsley, dill and mint. It was hot and delicately sweet, presenting with force, yet it also reminded me somewhat of a tequila, what with a background of brine and olives and a faint oily texture on the tongue

Finish – Quite good. Long, dry, spicy, fruity, redolent of bananas, red currants, blackberries, watermelon and sugar water.  

Thoughts – It’s really quite a good rum, and I’m sorry to see it’s no longer being made. Before I got a response from Takamaka Bay, I thought the column still produced this from cane juice spirit (this was later confirmed). It’s a mixer for sure, though anyone who finds it and tries it neat won’t be entirely disappointed.  It’s a fiery, flavourful white which may now no longer be made, but lives on in its slightly lesser-proofed brother…which I have a feeling I’ll be looking for quite soon.

(84/100)

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.

 

Dec 222018
 

We don’t much associate the USA with cask strength rums, though of course they do exist, and the country has a long history with the spirit.  These days, even allowing for a swelling wave of rum appreciation here and there, the US rum market seems to be primarily made up of low-end mass-market hooch from massive conglomerates at one end, and micro-distilleries of wildly varying output quality at the other. It’s the micros which interest me, because the US doesn’t do “independent bottlers” as such – they do this, and that makes things interesting, since one never knows what new and amazing juice may be lurking just around the corner, made with whatever bathtub-and-shower-nozzle-held-together-with-duct-tape distillery apparatus they’ve slapped together.

Balcones, a central Texan outfit from Waco named after a fault line running through the southern half of the state, is a bit more than the kind of happy backyard operation my remarks above imply — they are a primarily whiskey distilling operation, started a decade ago, and their website has a great backstory about how it all started in an old welding shop under a bridge in Waco into which, after some refurbishment, they installed copper pot stills from Portugal, and shoehorned a whisky distillery inside. And after a few years, they began to make rum as well, because, well, “We like to drink rum so why not give it a shot?” as Thomas Mote the distillery manager cheerfully remarked to me.

Okay, so let’s see if they succeeded. Consider first the nose.  For all of the 63.9% it’s quite warm and smooth: it started out with a musky scent of damp earth, a sort of mustiness that reminded me a of a warehouse chock-a-block full of old cardboard boxes, brine, salt and sweet olives.  Then it became somewhat more bourbon-like – raisins, molasses, fleshy fruits starting to go off, then caramel, nuts, butter, vanilla and ice cream. It smells curiously indeterminate – which is why detailed fruity notes can’t be listed – you know there’s a lot of stuff here, but it’s tough to come to grips with them individually.

On the palate, after exercising all the usual precautions for a rum this strong (take a rather small sip until things settle down, because the taste is sharper than the nose leads one to believe and remember, it’s a 63.9% saloon brawler that does its very best to clean the bar counter and rip your face off at the same time), I sensed a salt-rye-fruit-bourbon soupcon of flavours on the palate: a combo of salt, sweet and sour — vegetable soup, sour cream, maggi cubes and deep caramel and vanilla notes, all at once, circling each other for dominance and advantage. The fruits – papayas, very ripe peaches in syrup – were set off by muscovado sugar and light molasses without much citrus lending a sharper note (though there was some) and to which was added hazelnuts, some sweet olives and brine, dark chocolate, cherries, fading out quietly (and lengthily) to a pleasant, warm, aromatic conclusion redolent of cherries, flambeed bananas and molasses, but nothing significantly different from the tastes that had preceded it.

Balcones was swiftly and remarkably forthcoming to all the usual inquiries, noting that it was 100% pot still and used a blend of Barbados-Style Lite Molasses and Blackstrap from Louisiana and Guatemala respectively, fermented for 4-5 weeks (much longer than anything else they make), and they play around a bit with yeast and an undisclosed dunder process to add to the flavour profile. Ageing is between 2-4 years and the rum is made in annual batches of a few thousand bottles at most, and no additives of any kind (“oak and time!” they told me proudly).

Still, taking apart those tasting notes, a number of things jump out. The caramel and vanilla and molasses notes are not precisely domineering, but very much in evidence, to the point of taking over — there’s a sort of dampening effect of the musky and more solid flavours which prevent sharper, crisper, clearer ones (fruits and citrus and florals) from emerging properly and engaging. The range of tastes on show lacked the complexities one expects of even a lightly aged rum, and yes, it actually has a profile reminiscent of a rye or bourbon, maybe a tad richer and sweeter and more congener-rich….more rum-like, if you will. It’s a pretty nifty drink for that strength.  It reminds me of my first encounter with Potter’s Dark, yet it also presents as simpler than it could have been, which makes me ask myself, as I always do with such a profile and which seems to be somewhat of a characteristic of many of the US rums I’ve tried, what is it they really want to be making and was too much whisky lore infusing the rum?

I’ve remarked before that most new and smaller US distilleries seem to be more interested in making whiskies and produce rums as something of an afterthought. Whether not not that’s the case here, Balcones has evidently given the matter quite a bit more thought than usual, and come up with a product that deserves real attention (the business with the yeast and dunder points there). It’s unquestionably a rum; it’s got real fire in its jock; it’s rum-like enough to please, while also original enough to encourage a double-take, and an all-round powerhouse fun rum. I think I’m going to keep an eye on these guys going forward – there’s some interesting stuff going on in Waco, and I hope that they expend their production to a larger stable, aged more, in the years to come.  Certainly their initial full proof rums give us a lot of reason to appreciate what they’ve done so far.

(#581)(81/100)


Other notes

The Special Release is issued annually since 2013 (twice in 2014), but identifying the year is difficult.  To the best of my knowledge, mine is from the 2016 season.

Dec 162018
 

When we think of independent bottlers, all the usual suspects out of Europe usually come to mind — Velier, Rum Nation, L’Esprit, the Compagnie, the whisky boys up north who indulge themselves in the odd single cask expression from time to time, SMWS, Bristol Spirits, and the list goes on.

These well-known names obscure the fact that smaller operations — stores and even individuals — can and do in fact issue single barrel offerings as well.  For example, Kensington Wine Market in Calgary does it with whiskies quite often; a bunch of redditors recently got together and bought a cask of a 2005 Foursquare rum; and in the case of the rum under review today, K&L Wines out of California bought a single cask of Uitvlugt Savalle-still juice from an independent warehouse in Scotland, and issued it in the States.

It excites equal parts curiosity and admiration, and not just because of the retro-cool label – although that’s quite attractive. I mean, it’s not as if the US is known for independent bottlings – they’re much more into going the whole hog and creating entire new distilleries (however small). The rum is twenty years old (1994-2014), a robust 52.8% and for once seems not to have been sourced from Scheer.  The name “Faultline” is what K&L uses for its own bottlings, and I gather that The Two Davids of K&L happened to be in Scotland in early 2014 and found two Demeraras (Enmore, Uitvlugt) and a Jamaican Hampden mouldering away, and manned up and bought the lot to issue as was – not a trivial exercise for them, since (as they put it), these casks were “much more expensive than single malt whiskies despite the fact that they’re half as desirable.”

Half as desirable?  To American audiences maybe, but I submit that were they to try this thing, the scales would be rather more evenly adjusted.  The nose of an Uitvlugt rum, deriving as it does from a Savalle column still, is a great counterpoint to the woodsy Enmore and PM and Versailles rums (the UF30E remains one of the best Guyanese rums ever made, in my own estimation) — here it delivered quite well. It began with a nose of old leather shoes, well polished and long broken in. It provided smoke, a faint rubber background, and after opening up, the light florals of a fabric softener and freshly sun-dried laundry.  There were more traditional aromas of caramel, vanilla, molasses, cumin, tea leaves and aromatic tobacco, with rich deep fruits (peaches, apples, apricots) dancing around these smells, but never overwhelming them.

The palate was also very approachable and tasty. Soft and warm, tasting of brine and red Moroccan olives (they’re slightly sweeter than the green ones); leather and wooden floors, old and well worn and well polished, so to speak. Fruitiness is again generally light – green grapes, peaches, some lemon zest, raisins – resting well on a bed of salty caramel, butter and cinnamon.  Overall, not too concentrated or overwhelming, and the strength is just about perfect for what it does. It teases and doles out delicate, clear notes in a sort of delicate assembly that invites further sipping, and the finish goes in yet other directions: dry and somewhat tannic, hinting at strong black unsweetened tea, oakiness, some raisins and stewed apples, toffee, toblerone and coffee grounds. Plus a last whiff of those fruity hints to round things out.

There’s not really a true periodic stable of such rum releases by K&L who are more into an “as and when” approach, and therefore such bottlings are, I submit, more like personalized number plates lending street cred to the issuer…something like vanity rums. Fun to get, fun to drink, interesting to have, great to taste, cool to point to — but not really meant to build a brand or a rum-issuing company: K&L is after all a liquor emporium, not an outfit specializing in indie bottlings. So a rum like this serves to draw attention to the store that sells them, providing a sort of exclusive cachet that you can only get if you shop there.  Well, that’s fair, I don’t rain on capitalism – but it does make that kind of release something of a one-off. It doesn’t support a wider array of brands or draw attention to other rums released by the same company, since there aren’t that many to be going on with.

That doesn’t invalidate the Uitvlugt 1994 though.  It’s lovely. It exists, smells the way it smells, tastes as it does, and is a real nice piece of work. I think what it points to is something often ignored by the larger American rum tippling public and the press —  that they have the same potential to issue good single-barrel, limited-edition, cask-strength rums as anyone else…and come up with something pretty nifty at the back-end when they try. This rum, limited as it is and even with its price tag, is really quite good…and single barrel or not, I’m sure the Davids weren’t disappointed with what they got.  I know that I wasn’t.

(#579)(85/100)


  • Big thank you to Quazi4Moto for the sample. It’s taken a while, but I got to it at last.
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.
Nov 292018
 

Now here’s an interesting standard-proofed gold rum I knew too little about from a country known mostly for the spectacular temples of Angor Wat and the 1970s genocide.  But how many of us are aware that Cambodia was once a part of the Khmer Empire, one of the largest in South East Asia, covering much of the modern-day territories of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Viet Nam, or that it was once a protectorate of France, or that it is known in the east as Kampuchea?

Samai is a Khmer word for modern (it has subtleties and shades of meaning beyond that), and is the name given to a rum brand made by the only distillery in the country, a relatively new effort from a young company. It was formed by Daniel Pacheco and Antonio Lopez De Haro, a pair of young Venezuelan expats in 2014, who (the storyteller in me supposes) missed their home country and wanted to make an effort to bootstrap a local rum industry in a place more used to beer and rice wine and teuk thnout chhou (a whiskey-like spirit similar to Thailand’s Mekhong).

Made from locally grown cane and distilled in a pot still and aged for between one and two years, it is also, I should note, added to – it’s actually something of a flavoured rum, since a touch of honey from Ratanakiri (a province in Cambodia known for its very tasty honeys) is also added.  Too, the ageing is done in american and french oak and sherry casks, and while the company website makes no mention of how this is accomplished, I am assuming that various barrels of rum with these various woods, are all married together for the final product, which gives it an interesting flavour profile, to say the least.

All right, so we have a new distillery, a new rum, and no notes.  Let’s run through it and provide some for the curious.

Nose first.  As befits the strength and the production methodology, it’s soft, salty, and reminded me of fish sauce and miso soup.  It was also musky, musty, dry and kind of thick, with aromatic tobacco, sweet soya and molasses coiling beneath it, sort of a combination of maggi cubes, brown sugar, and raisins – intriguing to say the least.  Some very ripe fruit (babanas, pineapples) that edged towards rottenness, without ever stumbling over into spoilage. I tasted it blind and thought it was a standard proofed (it was), and it reminded me of a cross between a cheap rough darker Demerara rum (say, DDL’s 5YO, Young’s Old Sam or Watson’s) and a low-ester Jamaican.

A higher strength might have not worked as well for this rum, and given it a harshness which would not have succeeded quite as nicely as it did – as it was, it tasted nice and smooth, warm and sweet, with just enough bite behind the demure and easy facade to show it wasn’t 100% milquetoast.  The palate suggested biscuits, cereals, molasses, brown sugar, vanilla, caramel, winey notes, a melange of difficult-to-nail-down fruits – not excessively complex, but enough going on to be intriguing. It accomplished the odd trick of seeming more sweet than it was, partly because of the thickish mouthfeel and texture, and was set off by a few sly touches all its own – some brine, sharpness and that background of syrup, probably from the sherry and honey influence.  It was, shall we say, very pleasant and unintimidating, ending with a quietly impressive and surprisingly long finish, dry, dusty, somewhat sweetish, with a touch of fruit salad set off by cumin and masala.

Well now, what to make of a rum like this? It does not line up directly with any style one can immediately pinpoint, which is part of its attraction — I’d say that it’s geared towards the softer South/Latin American / Cuban or eastern palates (I was reminded of the Batavia Arrack, Amrut and Mekhong rums, for example, but not Fiji or the Japanese).  The Samai Gold rum has perhaps more sweet than lovers of purer Jamaican, St Lucian or Bajan would prefer, but if you’re into DDL’s lower-proofed rums, Plantation rums or other Asian ones, this one would be right in your wheelhouse, and much as I usually sniff at sweeter rums these days, I can’t deny that with its slightly off-kilter tastes, it’s quite a nifty drink, partly because it is, in its own way, something of an original.

Rums like the Samai showcase again the pleasure one can have in exploring iterations in the spirit, in a way that is simply lacking in most others.  It’s like a voyage of discovery that encompasses the whole world — each continent, each country, each distillery that makes rum, has some interesting variation on the theme. The under-the-radar Cambodian rum written about here is intriguingly different, tasty to a fault and gentle enough to appeal to a broader audience.  And all that while maintaining a sort of unique taste profile all its own, adding yet another brick to the impressive and fascinating global structure that is Rum. 

(#572)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • Many thanks to John Go, who supplied the sample.
Nov 272018
 

Thailand doesn’t loom very large in the eyes of the mostly west-facing rum writers’ brigade, but just because they make it for the Asian palate and not the Euro-American cask-loving rum chums, doesn’t mean what they make can be ignored; similar in some respects to the light rums from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama and Latin America, they may not be rums du jour, yet they continue to produce for their own local audiences and sell very nicely worldwide, thank you very much.  There’s a market for the profile, and given the enormous population of Asia, it’s no surprise that they can make rums for themselves, and sell them, without always worrying too much about the hot topics of purity, additives, ageing and terroire that are so much discussed elsewhere.

That’s not to say that Issan, the company that makes this low-key white rum, doesn’t adhere to such principles.  They certainly do. Located just a short distance from the Laotian border in the north east of Thailand, a stone’s throw from the town of Vientiane (which makes its own rum), Issan uses handcut, hand-peeled cane (grown without herbicides or pesticides, sourced from its own farm and from small farmers around the area), its own strain of yeast, and a small copper pot still imported from Europe.  Like the French Caribbean islands, cane is cut and pressed to cane juice and set to ferment within 48 hours (for 3-4 days), and the waste cane is used as both fuel and fertilizer in an effort to be both ecologically sound and environmentally sustainable. The operation is somewhat more primitive than Chalong Bay (for example), but one can’t argue with the philosophy of artisanal production espoused by founder David Giallorenzo, a Frenchman from Abruzzo, who relocated to Thailand to start Issan in 2011 after a career in the financial services industry.

With export licenses taking a year to put together, the still arriving in December 2013, the next year started with just under a thousand bottles of production, and then initial exports were limited to a thousand bottles to France, Italy, Switzerland, Andorra and Belgium.  This was not large, but the company got a boost in 2014 when it won a silver medal in Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition (again in 2016), as well as bronze and gold medals in the Paris Rhumfest in 2015. By 2018, the target was ten thousand bottles of production, new stills had been ordered (for greater capacity) and with continued market increase in Europe and exposure by online magazines and bloggers, its rumprint is sure to escalate in the years to come.

Aged rums (or rhums, if you like) are not a major part of the program at this stage (though they do age their rums for a minimum of six months which suggests some level of filtration), and the one I tried was their 40% white, about which I’d heard quite a bit over the years but never got a chance to try — John Go sent it to me, knowing of my fondness for juice from Asia.  And for a product that was more or less still in swaddling clothes compared to its agricole competition in the Caribbean, it wasn’t half bad.

The nose was very very briny, accompanied with what seemed like an entire basket of olives, and alongside that was the dry mustiness of dried rice paddy and sacking (similar to the TECC and Cambridge Jamaicans, remember those?), yoghurt, and sweet flavours – swank, mangoes, green peas fresh out of the can, very delicate fruits which had to do major lifting to get themselves past the wall of salt.  There was also some faint acidic notes which balanced things off, light citrus (tangerine, let’s say) and also cereals, biscuits and oatmeal cookies and some buttermilk, all of which got slightly sweeter after everything opens up. In other words, it took the aromas of any good agricole, and then went their own unique way with it.

The nose was pretty good — the palate was where it was somewhat weaker. This was, I suppose, to be expected — standard proof rums have to be remarkably intense to get one’s attention these days and that goes as much for whites as any other.  So – it was watery and quite light, in no way aggressive, warm and sweet, and actually quite pleasant. You could mix it, but why bother? It had the light sugar water, light lemon zest, light pears and white guavas, and light spices….cumin, a suggestion of nutmeg, little else aside from a pinch of salt.  There’s a finish of sorts, short, sweet, watery and slightly fruity, and about all that could reasonably be expected.

Still, given that I walked in expecting even less, it was a really enjoyable product, akin to a softer clairin.  My personal experience with Asian spirits suggests they tend to be less in-your-face, smoother, a shade sweeter – sometimes additives perform the function of making it palatable.  As far as I know, Issan issues what comes of the still into the bottle without any messing around except to reduce it to 40% and some filtration, and they do a pretty good job here…I can only imagine what a more potent full proof version would be like (probably knock my socks off, I’m thinking, and if they could get it past Thai legislation which forbids bottling spirits north of 40%, and out to the West, more medals would be in the offing for sure).  

The Issan isn’t out to change the rumiverse, doesn’t want to reinvent the pantheon of rums (white or otherwise), and is a left-of-straightforward, relatively light, eager-to-please white rum — and deceptive in that you only think it’s weak when you start…then it grows little fangs and shows some aggro, and you realize there’s rather more here than was immediately apparent.  It’s a neat drink, well made, a slow-burn white, perhaps made for those who walk in believing they’re getting a gentle sundowner…and are then suckered into enjoying something just a shade more potent.

(#572)(79/100)

Nov 192018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map of Martinique distilleries courtesy of Benoit Bail

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

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

(#569)(85/100)

Nov 152018
 

Smaller Caribbean islands can be sleepy sorts of places where (partly in my imagination, partly in my boyhood experiences) old, lovingly-maintained Morris Oxfords and Humber Hawks sedately roll down leafy, sun-drenched boulevards reminiscent of the colonial era, and pass rumshops on every corner where men slap down dominos and drink paralyzingly powerful local white lightning with coconut water while discussing Sobers, Kanhai, Lloyd and Lara from the Windies’ long-past glory days with plenty “suck-teet” and “styupsin” and “cuss-up”.

All right so that’s a bit of poetic license, but in my youth, it really was like that up and down the coasts and the banks of the Demerara, and the only difference with any of the Caribbean islands might have been the rums.  Guyana preferred the amusingly named Superior High Wine (three lies in one), in In Jamaica it would be J. Wray 63% white (what else could it be?), Grenada would have gone maybe for Rivers, or Clarke’s white – and in Curacao, it’s not a stretch to think of the rum of choice being the low-strength “Platinum White” from San Pablo. The cars, rumshops, and dominos (maybe even the cricket convo) would probably remain the same all over, though.

The San Pablo rums may indeed be the most popular brand in Curacao as they claim, but to a beady eyed rum junkie, or one raised on more feral blanc sarissas, their Platinum White is mild cheese indeed, milder even than the Gold rum that is its closest sibling, and that one had all the aggro of a somnolent keebler elf.  It is also 40% ABV, and while their website says almost nothing about the production methodology, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that (a) it’s a column still distillate and (b) it’s been aged just a bit before being filtered through charcoal to remove any residual colour…which implies it may actually be the gold itself, minus the brown.

And that creates a rum of uncommon docility.  In fact, it’s close to being the cheshire cat of rums, so vaguely does it present itself.  The soft silky nose was a watery insignificant blend of faint nothingness. Sugar water – faint; cucumbers – faint; cane juice – faint; citrus zest – faint (in fact here I suspect the lemon was merely waved rather gravely over the barrels before being thrown away); some cumin, and it’s possible that some molasses zipped past my nose, too fast to be appreciated.

Taste?  Nope, no joy there either.  It’s warm with the faint prickliness of alcohol, and the flavours were again were tranquil, quiet and inoffensive – almost unnoticeable.  Sugar water, some cane juice, pears, a curl of lemon rind, cumin, and again that curious and meek sense of molasses which never quite came out and announced itself.  And the finish? Nothing there, largely because it was over so quickly that there was no time to sense much behind the diffident sugar water and cucumbers

If one has tried nothing but 40% rums one’s entire life, this may work out better, I suppose.  It doesn’t for me. My personal issue is that the column still light distillate, the standard strength and the filtration eviscerate the most vital and living portions of the rum. I am not demanding a pot still, unaged and unfiltered product (thought they could certainly do worse), just a slightly stronger rum with more character. The Platinum White is made to be, and should be, drunk in a mix of some kind; it may be unfair of me to judge it by more stringent standards such as that of asking that it stand by itself without adornment in a cocktail, but I’ve had better 40% column-still, filtered whites, and feel that for all its uniqueness at being from Curaçao (how many of us can say we’ve had a rum from there, right?), it missed an opportunity to make itself a one-of-a-kind little rumlet with its own profile and character.  A rum which would be gunned down by tourist and local and rumgeek with equal joy and appreciation, over dominos and heated cuss-up in a quiet rumshop somewhere…and a reputation that would be as eagerly sought out as a Rivers, a High Wine or a J. Wray 63%.

(#568)(64/100)


Other Notes

Brief historical notes of the San Pablo can be found in the “Gold Label” rum review.