Jul 012019
 

M&G out of Cabo Verde, as noted in the review of their tasty little white, stands for Musica e Grogue, a hat tip to the love of island music and island rum that characterized the founders, Jean-Pierre Engelbach (with his fascinating involvement in the dramatic and musical arts over the decades), and Simão Évora, a local Cabo Verde grogue producer and music-devotee. Using one of the five grogue producers in the tiny village of Tarrafal (population = 450, stills = 5, a stat that fascinates everyone who’s read it) they produce two main products, the white, and a slightly more out-of-nappies version, the Velha which stands for “aged” in the local vernacular.

Essentially, the Velha is just their white grogue that’s been allowed to sleep a while longer.  It has the same 10-15 day natural fermentation of organic, cane-derived juice, and the same distillation in a fire fed pot still, which is then collected and set to mature.  Now, back in 2017 they obtained eight oak barrels imported from a French winemaker from the Gaillac terroir (Brocol varietal), and not having a warehouse, proceeded to dig a cellar for them in the middle of the village (!!), and left the grogue to age there for 13 months, then bottled it in 2018 with an outturn of less than a thousand bottles — 604, to be exact — captured at a firm 44%.

With such a short ageing cycle we might be anticipating something a bit off the reservation, slightly tamed by the barrels and the sub-50% strength. Naah, not really. It smelled sweet and soft, of fanta and sprite and a bowl of red olives.  There was a whiff of anise and vanilla and oak and coffee grounds, and after some minutes, also raisins, dates, figs, and aromatic pipe tobacco, flowers and a sly little wine note set off by just a hint of lemon zest.

That was quite a medley on the nose, yet oddly the palate didn’t have quite have as many tunes playing. It was initially briny with those olives coming back, a little peanut brittle, salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, all held back.  What I liked was its general softness and ease of delivery – there was honey and cream, set off by a touch of citrus and tannics, all in a pleasant and understated sort of combination that had a surprisingly good balance that one would not always imagine a rhum so young could keep juggling as well as it it did.  Or as long. Even the finish, while simple, came together well – it gave up some short and aromatic notes, slightly woody and tannic, and balanced them out with soft fruits, pipe tobacco, coffee and vanilla, before exhaling gently on the way out. Nice.

Since I’ve started searching out and encountering these rums from Cabo Verde, I have been wondering about the dichotomy between how I had thought they would taste and how they actually tasted. That misconception – mine, at any rate – derived from an almost complete lack of familiarity with Cabo Verde grogues.  So far I’ve tried just a few, but those few have impressed me quite a bit.  While not yet world beaters, they show that the best new rums (or undiscovered old ones) are not always the biggest names or those with the loudest voices or even the best reputations, because we just don’t know enough about so many of them, even now. The M&G Velha and the Natural — quietly and cogently and without fuss — make the point that when these rums become available, it’s well worth giving them a try even if we never heard of them before,  just to see where else rums can go, how well they can be made, and how good they can taste.

(#637)(84/100)


Other notes

While the Velha and the white are the main products of the company, M&G also make a number of grogue-based punches at around 22-25 % ABV that are flavoured with local fruit.

Back label translation:

“This blonde rum comes from the terroir of Tarrafal of Mont Trigo on the island of Santo Antao (Cape Verde). For decades, our producers have been carrying on the tradition of making the Grogue, an artisanal rum with a surprising flavor, with tastes of fruit, cane and spices. Cultivated on a volcanic soil, without fertilizer or pesticide, the sugar cane benefits from dry tropical climate and good irrigation

It comes from a fair trade. Aged for more than a year in Bordeaux barrels available in our cellar, this grogue velha has acquired woody flavors that enhance the original taste and confer a beautiful roundness.

Exceptional cuvée limited to 604 bottles.”

Jun 262019
 

The fourth and last of the four Dutch West Indies rums that I obtained solely to shed some light on the islands is a pale 35% shrug of indifference called the Palmera White Aruba rum. You know me, I have a thing for unapologetically barking-mad high-proofed white rums – but dis ain’ dat, as my bushmen squaddies would say back in the old days.

Were you to google it, you’d find that the Palmera Quality Products company produces several rums – notably the White and the Dark “authentic Arubian rums with a rich heritage flavour” at standard strength, and is at pains to mention on its About page that “…PQP produces many different beverages in its own processing plant…[and] produces products locally from carefully developed formulas that meet international standards.” No mention of a distillery, a blender, a sugar cane source, an ageing regimen. Call me a cynic, but it sure implies a mass-produced neutral-spirits-treatment operation to me, not a rum made by a dynamic master blender who knows his sh*t, let alone by a distillery that can be identified.  

And maybe that’s why I can never find out anything about these companies, and why the Dutch West Indian islands’ rums – the San Pablo Gold label and Platinum White from Curacao and the Carta Reserva from Aruba – have singularly failed to make any lasting impression on the rumisphere. That might also explain why nobody ever posts an ecstatic hosanna on FB saying “I got this!” and then basks in the glory of the hunt concluded, the find immortalized, the cheers of the envious crowd modestly acknowledged.

So then, what was in the glass that day? A white rum, 35%, supposedly from Aruba (I suppose otherwise), and very little to go on beyond that. As befitting its puny mouse-that-roared proofage, it didn’t give off much of an aroma – sugar water, grass, dill, the sweetness of laundry detergent and a tad of lemon juice.  It was marginally more assertive than the Carta Reserva, and maybe a shade better balanced between some sweet and lemony components.

The taste was mostly sodas: 7-Up or Sprite, cream soda.  Some vanilla, coconut, and vague herbaceous flavours, sugar water and pears, and believe me, that was reaching. Maybe it’s an island thing, to make rums this weak (the current rums listed on the website are similarly proofed, bar a pair of 151s), but all a rum like this one can do is juice up a cocktail or give you a headache in hot weather because you won’t think something so mild could affect you, when of course it can.

The Palmera is as unprepossessing as all the others from the region I’ve sampled (bar the untried overproofed 151s).  It’s light and white, weak and meek, and after the first three tries with its cousins, I approached it with distinct lack of enthusiasm, and finished the tasting exercise with relief. The rum just, I dunno, has this indifferent air of “good ‘nuff” that offends me for some reason, like barely enough effort was put into it to make it sell, and no more. Even the Curacao San Pablo rums at least had the courage to go to 40% instead of messing around with this underwhelming strength.

Socrates remarked that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Where I to apply that here and paraphrase, I’d add a codicil that the Palmera and its cousins makes inevitable – “Sometimes the examined rum is not worth drinking.”  Sorry, but here that’s God’s own truth, and the best I can say about it is that although it’s pointless and purposeless and near tasteless, let’s be grateful that at least it’s painless.

(#636)(64/100)


Other notes

The design of the modern labels is quite different from the one I bought, so I assume there’s been some changes over the years.  I don’t know if the blend or recipe was changed when the label did, nor am I aware when this happened

Jun 242019
 

This is one of those strange rums that clearly exists, but about which nobody seems to know anything, even though I was informed it remains on sale in Aruba to this day. Jazz Singh out of the UK couldn’t help – he rather witheringly remarked that the only local stuff he found on the island was “a lot of imported column rubbish” and that the one distillery Aruba used to have is definitely closed. And good luck with finding any info on the company whose name is on the label, Playa Liquor and Bottling Co, ‘cause that’s equally opaque and non-communicative. So for the moment I’ll treat is a sort of low rent tourist trap hooch. In fact, I’m not even sure what else the company does, so spare is Playa’s online footprint, on FB or elsewhere.

There is an air of “generic” about the rum. It has a title used before – “Superior Carta Reserva” was also a 1970s Puerto Rican rum made for E.F. Debrot Inc (a liquor merchant in Aruba), and it’s white, it’s 35%, and that’s about all you’re going to get here.  I’d hazard a guess it’s a column still product, and that it’s made elsewhere under contract by a third party…assuming it continues to be made at all, because there’s simply no way that any rum company would not advertise its own product, even locally, with this kind of promotional black hole. 

Tasting notes, then, because what else can we do? Nose: a thin, watery, a slightly salty cream soda and Angostura bitters…what we used to call a “rockshandy” when I was a boy.  Plus vanilla and a whiff of citrus. There’s not much more – it’s like light alcoholic water and no aroma of any distinctiveness whatsoever.

Palate? Nope, not a whole lot there either. 35% ABV excites little beyond my indifference.  Even having it first thing in the morning with nothing else before, so that the strength would be less of a factor than later, achieved nothing.  A splash of salt water and an olive or two, vanilla again, a short, faint bite of a very ripe apple, and maybe a pear…or was that a cucumber? Who cares?  The thing is so dim, so bland, so lacking anything resembling character, that you be forgiven for thinking it was in witness protection. The best part is the short, sweet, slightly salty, slightly dry finish, because, you know, it finishes. 

So there we are. Probably molasses based, filtered, an uninspirational, boring, flaccid excuse for a rum, distinguished only by its remarkable lack of anything in particular. It’s a hollow rum, a watery alcohol delivery system, eliciting nothing in the rum drinker except perhaps a big yawn. I’ll just leave it there.

(#635)(65/100)

Jun 202019
 

The “M&G” in the rhum’s title is not, as you might expect, the initials of the two founders of this small operation in Cabo Verde. In a lyrical twist, the letters actually stand for Musica e Grogue: Music and Grog.  Which is original, if nothing else, because artistic touches are not all that common in our world, and such touches are often dismissed as mere frippery meant to distract from a substandard product.

In this case, however Jean-Pierre Engelbach, who founded the company with local Cabo Verde grogue producer and music-lover Simão Évora, has an interesting background in the dramatic and musical arts, and was a singer, comedian and director on the French scene for decades…one can only wonder what drove him to amend his career at this late stage by taking a sharp U turn and heading into the undiscovered country of grogues, but for my money, we should not quibble, but be grateful that another fascinating branch of the Great Rum Tree has come to our attention. For what it’s worth, he told me he fell in love with Cabo Verde music a long time ago, leading to visits and a growing appreciation and love for the local rhums and eventually the two men chose to entwine their passions in the name of the company.

Anyway, this particular product is an unaged white, a grogue by the islands’ definitions (the only one that counts), derived from sugar cane in the Tarrafal village just south of Monte Trigo on the island of Santo Antão, the most north-westerly of the series of islands making up Cabo Verde..

Fire-fed pot still in Tarrafal. Photo (c) Musica e Grogue FB page

This one small village has five small artisanal distilleries (!!) that produce grogue in small quantities — about 20,000 liters annually — and M&G’s founders believe that the cane varietals there, combined with the climate and soil, produce a juice of exceptional quality. However, they only use a single preferred grogue-distiller for their juice, unlike Vulcão, also from here, which is a blend of three.

The production methods are straightforward: the cane, grown pesticide- and fertilizer-free, is crushed within 48 hours of harvesting, and fermentation is open air with natural from wild yeast for 10-15 days.  The wash is then run through a fire-heated pot still, taken off at around 45% and is left to rest for a few weeks in 20 liter demi-johns known as a “Lady Jeanne” (also referred to as a Mama Juana or Dame Jeanne in Spanish and French speaking countries respectively).  The peculiarity of this rest is that the large squat bottle in question is also stoppered with banana leaves, which “[…] allows the air to pass during the rest period of the grogue, necessary after the distillation,” said Jean-Pierre Engelbach, when I asked him.

Banana-leaf-stoppered demi-johns in which the grogue rests after distillation for 3-4 weeks. Photo (c) Musica e Grogue FB Page

That out of the way, what we had here, then, was a rhum made to many of the same general specifications as a French island agricole, while preserving its own unique production methodology and, hopefully, drinking profile.  Did it succeed?

Oh yes.  On smelling it for the first time, my initial notes read “subtly different” and within its strictures, it was. It initially seemed like a crisp-yet-gentle agricole, smelling cleanly of sweet sugar cane sap, vanilla, dill, green grapes and freshly mown grass, with a teasing note of brine and olives and a whiff of watered down vegetable soup fed to a jailbird in solitary.  It was delicate and clear and different enough to hold the attention of anyone, nasal newbie or jaded rumdork, and the nice thing is, after five minutes it still was purring out aromas: flowers, cherries and pears, with a firm citrus line holding things together

While stronger and more individualistic drinks might be my personal preference these days, there was no denying that the Grogue Natural was a very pleasant drink, and I have a feeling I’ll be getting more of these things, as they provide a lovely counterpoint to agricoles in general.  It tasted light, grassy, herbal, sweetish (without actually being sweet, if you catch my drift), with hints of watery sap, cane juice, cucumbers, an olive or two, and lots of light fruits – guavas, pears, soursop, ginnip, that kind of thing, and again, that lemon zest providing a clothesline on which to hang the lot.  Finish was long and silky, surprising for something bottled at a modest 44%, but you don’t hear me complaining – it was just fine.

It’s become a sort of personal hobby for me to try unaged white rums of late, because while I love the uber-aged stuff, they do take flavours from the barrel and lose something of their original character, becoming delicious but changed spirits.  On the other hand, unaged blancs or blancos — white rums — when not filtered to nothingness for the clueless, are about as close to pure and authentic rums as anyone’s going to get these days, and Cabo Verde’s stuff is among the most authentic of the lot.

The Cap-Vert Grogue Natural that  M. Jean-Pierre and Sr. Simão are making is one of these that need to be tried for that reason alone, quite aside from its overall drinkability. Sure it lacks the meticulous clarity of the French agricoles, and you’d never mistake it for a cachaca or a clairin or a Paranubes, but the relative isolation and old-style production methods of these music-loving Cabo Verde producers have assured us of a really interesting juice here, which deserves to become much more well known than it yet is.  And drunk, of course. Yes. Preferably after a hard day’s work, as the sun goes down, while relaxing to the sounds of some really good island music.

(#634)(83/100)


Additional background

The company was formed in 2017 by the two gentlemen named above, who were drawn together by their mutual love of music and local rhum.  But it was not until 2018 that they received the formal licenses permitting them to export grogues and started shipping some to Europe. This delay may have to do with the fact that hundreds of small moonshineries and primitive stills – nearly four hundred  by one estimate – are scattered across Cabo Verde islands, with wildly varying quality of output. Indeed, according to one news report by the Expresso das Ilhas (Island Express), some 10 million liters of spirit calling it self “grogue” was marketed in 2017, but less than half of that could legitimately term itself so, since it was not made from sugar cane, and there were issues of hygiene and quality control to consider.

Be that as it may, M&G were able to navigate the new bureaucratic, quality and legal hurdles, obtain the requisite licenses and permits, and produced two grogues for the export market: the lightly-aged Velha we’ll be looking at soon, and the Natural.


Other Notes

  • M&G and Vulcão are among the frist brands to export grogue from Cabo Verde
  • M&G also makes some flavoured punches at a lower 18% strength
  • Maison Ferroni, which is the brand owner for the Vulcão, is the distributor for M&G
  • This bottle is part of the first release, and is something of a pilot project for the company’s export plans….hence the limited edition of 639 bottles.  It’s not special per se, just part of a batch of the first four hundred liters or so which they exported.
  • Back label translation:

This white rum comes from the Tarrafal terroir of Monte Trigo on the island of Santa Antao (Cape Verde). Our local producers, with their trapiches, continue the artisanal tradition of making grogue. It is distilled from fresh cane juice, cultivated on volcanic soil in the middle of fruit trees, without any fertilizer or pesticide. It benefits from a dry tropical climate and the exceptional irrigation of the village. Made in 2018 with the harvest of the year, it is a fair trade product.

In this natural grogue, with its amazing flavor, we can discover the many flavors of cane fruits and spices.

A first release limited to 639 bottles

Jun 172019
 

It’s remarkable how fast the SBS line of rums have exploded onto the rumconsciousness of the world. This is a series released by 1423, the same Danish outfit which made the really quite elegant 2008 Mauritius rum I wrote about with such love a while back, and has received enormously positive word of mouth on social media for the last year or so.  The only similar company I can call to mind that rose so quickly in the public’s esteem would be the Compagnie des Indes, which shared a similarly exacting (and excellent) sense of which barrels to choose and which rums to bottle.

Three things make Jamaica in general — and Worthy Park and Hampden in particular — the current belle du jour for rums.  One there’s the fairy tale story of old and noble rum houses in previously shabby circumstances rising phoenix-like from the ashes of near closure and bankruptcy, to establish their own brands and not just sell bulk.  Two, there’s that thing about pure rums, pot still rums, traditionally made, from lovingly maintained, decades-old equipment, eschewing anonymous blends. And three, there’s the ever-expanding circle of rum enthusiasts who simply can’t get enough of the dunder, the hogo, the rancio, that funky flavour for which the island is famous.

By that standard, this rum presses all the right buttons for Jamaican rum lovers.  It has much in common with both the Wild Tiger rum, and the NRJ series released by Velier last year, and some of the Habitation Velier rums before that.  It’s a Hampden rum, massively ester-laden at close the the bleeding max of 1600, thereby earning the marque of DOK (which actually stands for Dermot Owen Kelly-Lawson, a Hampden distiller who died in 1934). It’s unaged except for six months’ rest in PX barrels, and released at a firm but not obnoxious 59.7% ABV – more than good enough for Government work.

Now me, after the shattering experiences with the TECA and TECC (and to some extent the Wild Tiger), I approached it cautiously.  I spoke gently, kept my head bowed low, and did not make eye contact immediately. Maybe the PX casks’ ageing ameliorated the furious acid-sweet and rotting rancio of such high ester funk bombs, but I wasn’t taking any chances. It might have ninja knives hidden behind the demure facade of the minimalist labelling.

I needn’t have worried. The nose started off with the dust of old clothes cupboards with one too many mothballs, leavened with fruits, lots of fruits, all sweet and acidic and very sharp (a hallmark of the DOK, you might say).  Pineapples, yellow mangoes, ripe apricots and peaches, cashews, and soursop all duelled for bragging rights here. It’s what was underneath all those ripe and rotting and tear-inducing aromas that made it special – because after a while one could sense acetones, glue, nail polish, damp sawdust mixed in with white chocolate, sour cream, and vanilla in a nose that seemed to stretch from here to the horizon. I had this rum on the go for three hours, so pungent and rich were the smells coming from it, and it never faltered, never stopped.

And the palate was right up there too.  Not for this rum the thick odour of mouldering rancio which occasionally mars extreme high-ester rums – here the sherry influence tamed the flavours and gave it an extra dimension of texture which was very pleasant (and perhaps points the way forward for such rums in the future).  The tastes were excellent: sweet honey, dates and almonds, together with licorice, bitter chocolate, cumin, a dusting of nutmeg and lemon zest. As it opened up, the parade of fruits came banging through the door: dark grapes, five-finger, green apples, pineapples, unripe kiwi fruit, more soursop, more lemon zest…merde, was there anything that was not stuffed in here? As for the finish, really good – long, dry, hot, breathy.  Almost everything I had tasted and smelled came thundering down the slope to a rousing finale, with all the fruits and spices and ancillary notes coming together…a little unbalanced, true, a little sharp, yes, a shade “off” for sure, but still very much an original.

Summing up then. The SBS Jamaican 2018 is a Hampden rum, though this is nowhere mentioned on the label.  It’s a furiously crisp and elegant drink, a powerfully and sharply drawn rum underneath which one could always sense the fangs lying in wait, biding their time.  I noted that some of its tastes are a bit off, and one could definitely taste what must have been a much more pronounced hogo. The sherry notes are actually more background than dominant, and it was the right decision, I think, to make it a finish rather than a full out maturation as this provides roundness and filler, without burying the pungent profile of the original.

The other day I was asked which of the Jamaican high ester funky chickens I thought was best: the TECC, the Wild Tiger, or this SBS version.  After thinking about it, I’d have to say the Wild Tiger was rough and raw and ready and needed some further taming to become a standout – it scored decently, but trotted in third. The real difficulty came with the other two.  On balance I’d have to say the TECC had more character, more depth, more overall maturity…not entirely surprising given its age and who picked it. But right behind it, for different reasons, came the SBS Jamaica. I thought that even for its young age, it comported itself well.  It was tasty, it was funky to a fault, the PX gave it elegance and a nice background, and overall it was a drink that represented the profile of the high ester marques quite well.

DOK Jamaican rums that are identified and marketed as such are a recent phenomenon, and were previously not released at all (and if they were, it was hardly mentioned). They’ve quickly formed an audience all their own, and irrespective of the sneering dismissal of the marque by some distillers who persist in seeing them as flavouring agents not meant for drinking, this is pissing into the wind — because nothing will stop the dunderheads from getting their fix, as the rapid online sellout of the SBS’s 217 bottles demonstrated.  When one tastes a rum like this one, it’s not hard to understand the attraction. So what if it does not conform to what others say a Jamaican rum should be? Who cares about it being too hogo-centric? It’s distinctive to a fault, nicely finished, well assembled and an all-round good drink — and that may be the very mark of individuality to which many a DOK made in the future can and should aspire.

(#633)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • According to 1423, the rum was freshly distilled in 2018 and aged for six months in four 40 litre casks, then blended together, rested and issued outside the normal release cycle, in November 2018, as a sort of individual bottling.
  • All ageing done in Europe
  • A week after this review came out, Flo of Barrel aged Thoughts posted a comparison of six DOK rums including this one (in German), which is worth going through.
Jun 132019
 

Photo (c) Romdeluxe

Romdeluxe in Denmark is more a commercial rum club that makes private label bottlings and runs promotions around the country, than a true independent bottler — but since they do several releases, I’ll call them an indie and move right on from there.  Earlier, in May 2019, they lit up FB by releasing this limited-edition high-ester funk-bomb, the first in their “Wild Series” of rums, with a suitably feral tiger on the label. I can’t tell whether it’s yawning or snarling, but it sure looks like it can do you some damage without busting a sweat either way.

This is not surprising.  Not only is this Jamaican bottled at one of the highest ABVs ever recorded for a commercially issued rum – growling in at 85.2%, thereby beating out the Sunset Very Strong and SMWS Long Pond 9 YO but missing the brass ring held by the Marienburg – but it goes almost to the screaming edge of Esterland, clocking in, according to the label, at between 1500-1600 g/hlpa (the legal maximum is 1600)….hence the DOK moniker. Moreover, the rum is officially ten years old but has not actually been aged that long – it rested in steel tanks for those ten years, and a bit of edge was sanded away by finishing it for three months in small 40-liter ex-Madeira casks.  So it’s a young fella, barely out of rum nappies, unrefined, uncouth and possibly badass enough to make you lose a week or two of your life if you’re not careful.

Knowing that, to say I was both doubtful and cautious going in would be an understatement, because the rum had a profile so ginormous that cracking the cap on my sample nearly lifted the roof of of the ten-storey hotel where I was tasting it (and I was on the second floor). The nose was, quite simply, Brobdingnagian, a fact I relate with equal parts respect and fear.

The crazy thing was how immediately sweet it was – a huge dose of fleshy fruits bordering on going bad for good, creme brulee, sugar water, honey, raisins and a salted caramel ice cream were the first flavours screaming out the gate (was this seriously just three months in Madeira?). It was huge and sharp and very very strong, and was just getting started, because after sitting it down (by the open window) for half an hour, it came back with vegetable soup, mature cheddar, brine, black olives, crisp celery, followed by the solid billowing aroma of the door being opened into a musty old library with uncared-for books strewn about and mouldering away. I say it was strong, but the nose really struck me as being more akin to a well-honed stainless-steel chef’s knife — clear, and glittering and sharp and thin and very very precise.

The clear and fruity sweet was also quite noticeable when tasted, combining badly with much more mucky, mouldy, dunder-like notes: think of a person with overnight dragon’s breath blowing Wrigley’s Spearmint gum into your face on a hot day.  It was oily, sweaty, earthy, loamy and near-rank, but damnit, those fruits pushed through somehow, and combined with vanilla and winey tastes, breakfast spices, caramel, some burnt sugar, prunes, green bananas and some very tart yellow mangoes, all of which culminated in a very long, very intense finish that was again, extremely fruity – ripe cherries, peaches, apricots, prunes, together with thyme, mint lemonade, and chocolate oranges.

Whew!  This was a hell of a rum and we sure got a lot, but did it all work?  And also, the question a rum like this raises is this: does the near titanic strength, the massive ester count, the aged/unaged nature of it and the final concentrated finish, give us a rum that is worth the price tag?

Me, I’d say a qualified “Yes.” On the good side, the Wild Tiger thing stops just short of epic. It’s huge, displaying a near halitotic intensity, has a real variety of tastes on display, with the sulphur notes that marred the TECA or some other DOKs I’ve tried, being held back.  On the other hand, there’s a lack of balance. The tastes and smells jostle and elbow each other around, madly, loudly, without coordination or logic, like screeching online responses to a Foursquare diss. There’s a lot going on, most not working well together. It’s way too hot and sharp, the Madeira finish I think is too short to round it off properly – so you won’t get much enjoyment from it except by mixing it with something else – because by itself it’s just a headache-inducing explosive discharge of pointless violence.

Then there’s the price, about €225. Even with the outturn limited to 170 bottles, I would hesitate to buy, because there are rums out there selling at a lesser cost and more quaffable strength, with greater pedigree behind them.  Such rums are also completely barrel-aged (and tropically) instead of rested, and require no finishes to be emblematic of their country.

But I know there are those who would buy this rum for all the same reasons others might shudder and take a fearful step back. These are people who want the max of everything: the oldest, the rarest, the strongest, the highest, the bestest, the mostest, the baddest.  Usefulness, elegance and quality are aspects that take a back seat to all the various “-estests” which a purchaser now has bragging rights to. I would say that this is certainly worth doing if your tastes bend that way (like mine do, for instance), but if your better half demands what the hell you were thinking of, buying a rum so young and so rough and so expensive, and starts crushing your…well, you know…then along with a sore throat and hurting head, you might also end up knowing what the true expression of the tiger on the label is.

(#632)(84/100)


Other notes

  • It’s not mentioned on the label or website but as far as I know, it’s a Hampden.
  • Like the Laodi Brown, the Wild Tiger Jamaican rum raises issues of what ageing truly means – it is 10 years old, but it’s not 10 years aged (in that sense, the label is misleading).  If that kind of treatment for a rum catches on, the word “aged” will have to be more rigorously defined.

Comment

These days I don’t usually comment on the price, but in this case there have been disgruntled mumbles online about the cost relative to the age, to say nothing of the packaging with that distinctive “10” suggesting it’s ten years old.  Well, strictly speaking it is that old, but as noted before, just not aged that much and one can only wonder why on earth people bothered to arrest its development at all by having it in steel tanks, for such an unusually long time.

So on that basis, to blow more than €200 on a rum which has truly only been aged for three months (by accepted conventions of the term) seems crazy, and to set that price in the first place is extortionate. 

But it’s not, not really. 

At that ABV, you could cut it by half, make 340 bottles of 42% juice, and sell it for €100 as a finished experimental, and people would buy it like they would the white Habitation Veliers, maybe, for exotic value and perhaps curiosity.  Moreover, there are no reductions in costs for the expenses of advertising, marketing and packaging for a smaller bottle run (design, printing, ads, labels, boxes, crates, etc) so the production cost per bottle is higher, and that has to be recouped somehow.  And lastly, for a rum this strong and obscure, even if from Hampden, there is likely to be an extremely limited market of dedicated Jamaica lovers, and this rum is made for those few, not the general public…and those super geeks are usually high fliers with enough coin to actually afford to get one when they want one. 

I’m not trying to justify the cost, of course, just suggest explanations for its level.  Not many will buy this thing, not many can, and at end maybe only the deep-pocketed Jamaica lovers will. The rest of us will have to be content with samples, alas.

 

Jun 092019
 

“Could grogue be the next clairin?” asked Dwayne Stewart in a facebook post the other day, when he and Richard Blesgraaf were discussing the Vulcão, and his respondent (you could almost see him smile) replied with a sort of yoda-like zen calm, “Clairin is clairin.”  Which is true. Because beyond the superficial similarities of the two island nations – the relative isolation of the islands, the artisanal nature of their juice, the mom-and-pop rural distillation of the spirit far away from modern developments or technological interference – the truth is that you could not mistake one for the other. At least, not those that I’ve tried.

Take, for example, the subject of today’s review, the Vulcão grogue, which is nowhere near as ominous as its name suggests.  If you have previously tried one of the four main Velier-distributed Haitian clarins (the Sajous, Vaval, Casimir and Le Rocher), marvelled at their in-your-snoot take-no-prisoners ferocity and taste, and took Dwayne’s question to heart, you might be expecting some kind of long-gestated uber-strong clear xenomorph hammered out of Vulcan’s forge, that threatened to melt your tonsils.  But it’s not. In fact, it’s closer to an off-beat agricole than anything else, and a particularly good one at that.

Even at 45% – which is practically tame for a clear rhum these days — the Vulcão smelled lovely, and started off with brine, thyme-infused water and lemon sherbet poured over a meringue cake. After five minutes or so, it also gave off scents that were creamy, salty, olive-y, with a dusting of white chocolate and vanilla, and as if impatient to continue, belched out some additional fruity whiffs — watermelon, pears, white guavas and bananas. There were also some odd minerals and ashes and iodine (not quite medicinal, but close), with overtones of sugar-water.  

Short version – a yummy nose, and fortunately, it didn’t falter on the palate either. It was strong, and quite dry, unusual for a cane-juice based rhum (last time I had something so sere was years ago, with the Flor de Cana Extra Dry white).  The brine and olives really came out and made an initial statement here, and combined with the sweeter elements with impressive control and in well-nigh perfect balance, making for a worthy sipping rum by anyone’s standards. With a drop or two of water came white fruits, flowers and sugar water, all of which were the slightest bit tart.  And as if all that wasn’t enough, there was a light creaminess of butter pastry, Danish cookies and anise hanging about in the background, reminding me of the freshly baked croissants Mrs. Caner so loves to have in Paris. The finish is rather subdued, even faint – perhaps we should not expect too much of 45% but after that nose and that taste I sort of was, sorry, and even though I noted almonds, toblerone, sugar water, nougat, pears, ripe apples, it seemed a bit less than what had come before. Not shabby, not bad…just not up to the same standard.

Anyway, finish aside, the development and movement the rhum displays on the tongue is excellent, first salt, then sweet, then creamy, well-balanced and overall a remarkable drink by any standard. It remembers its antecedents, being both a fierce and forceful rhum…but is also a nicely integrated and tasty sipping drink, crisp and clear, displaying a smorgasbord of contrasting, even competing, yet at all times well-melded series of sweet and sour and salt flavours in delicious harmony. Sip or mix, it’ll do well in either case.

So, to answer Dwayne’s perhaps rhetorical question with respect to taste and production details, my own response would be “Not really.” While grogues are a fascinating subset of rums, an intriguing branch on Yggdrasil (The Great Rum Tree), they are too different — too elegant, maybe — to really be classed with or as clairins.  They do share some of the same DNA: fresh cut cane juice and wild yeast fermentation (for ten days) and no ageing, for example, but also go in their own direction by using pot stills (as here) not columnar ones. What comes out the other end, then, are terroire-driven white rums with a character all their own, with this one, one of the best I tried in Paris, absolutely worth trying, and close to being an undiscovered steal.  In the sense of that last statement, now that I think about it, I’d answer Dwayne differently…and tell him that they’re exactly like clairins.

(#631)(85/100)


Other notes

  • I’ve put some feelers out regarding the company that makes it, and if/when/once this is received the post will be updated with some more factual background info.
  • Made in in the Tarrafal village just south of Monte Trigo on the island of Santo Antão, the most north-westerly of the series of islands making up Cabo Verde. I was told five small “distilleries” exist in this tiny place, and three of them supply the grogue which is blended into the Vulcão.
  • Back label translation: The island of Santo Antao in Cabo Verde is undoubtedly one of the first cradles of cane spirits. Before rum or cachaca, it has been unchanging for hundreds of years. Distilled in ancient pot-stills made from pure cane juice, this rum ancestor is an extraordinary witness of the past.
Jun 032019
 

The Kiyomi white rum is made by the Helios Distillery, the same outfit in Japan that makes the very tasty five year old Teeda rum we looked at before. Formed by Tadashi Matsuda in the postwar years (1961) at a time of economic hardship and food privation for Okinawa , the decision was made to distill rum because (a) it could easily be sold to American soldiers stationed there (b) Okinawan sugar was readily available and (c) rice, which normally would have been used to make the more popular local sake, was needed as a food source and could not be spared for alcohol production.

That the company succeeded is evidenced by the fact that it is still in existence, has expanded its operations and is still making rums.  The two most popular are the Teeda 5 YO and the Kiyomi Unaged White, which do not share the same production process: while both source Okinawa sugar cane which is crushed to juice, the Kiyomi rum is fermented for longer (30 days instead of two weeks) and run through a double column still (not the pot).  It is then left to rest (and not aged) in steel tanks for six months and gradually reduced from 60% ABV off the still, to the 40% at which it is bottled.

I’ve never been completely clear as to what effect a resting period in neutral-impact tanks would actually have on a rum – perhaps smoothen it out a bit and take the edge off the rough and sharp straight-off-the-still heart cuts. What is clear is that here, both the time and the reduction gentle the spirit down without completely losing what makes an unaged white worth checking out.  Take the nose: it was relatively mild at 40%, but retained a brief memory of its original ferocity, reeking of wet soot, iodine, brine, black olives and cornbread. A few additional nosings spread out over time reveal more delicate notes of thyme, mint, cinnamon mingling nicely with a background of sugar water, sliced cucumbers in salt and vinegar, and watermelon juice. It sure started like it was out to lunch, but developed very nicely over time, and the initial sniff should not make one throw it out just because it seems a bit off.

It was much more traditional to taste – soft, gentle, quite easy to sip, the proof helping out there. After the adventurousness of the nose which careened left and right and up and down like your head was a pinball machine, this was actually quite surprising (and somewhat disappointing as well).  Anyway it lacked any kind of aggressiveness, and tasted initially of glue, brine, olives, gherkins and cucumbers – the ashes and iodine I had sniffed earlier disappeared completely. It developed with the sweet (sugar water, light white fruits, watermelon juice) and salt (olives, brine, vegetable soup) coming together pleasantly with light florals and spices (cinnamon, cardamom, dill), finishing off with a sort of quick and subdued exit that left some biscuits, salt crackers, fruits and rapidly disappearing spices on the tongue and fading rapidly from memory.

This is a rum that started with a flourish but finished…well, not in first place.  Though its initial notes were distinct and shown off with firm emphasis, it didn’t hold to that line when tasted, but turned faint, and ended up taming much of what made it come off as an exciting drink at the inception. That said, it wasn’t a bad one either: the integration of the various notes was well done, I liked most of what I did taste, and it could as easily be a sipping drink as a mixer of some kind.  What makes it noteworthy in this respect is that it doesn’t entirely become some sort of anonymously cute and light Cuban blanco wannabe you forget five minutes after putting down the glass, but retains a small spark of individuality and interest for the diligent. A shame then, that all this makes you think of, is that you’re holding an unfulfilled and unfinished promise — a castrated clairin  if you will — in your hand. And that’s a crying shame for something that’s otherwise so well made.

(#630)(82/100)

May 302019
 

In any rum festival, if you are moving around with a posse or simply keep your ears open, there’s always one or two new or unknown rums that create an underground buzz. You drift from booth to booth, tasting, talking, writing, thinking, listening, and gradually you separate voices from the din, that quietly remark “Check out that one over there” or “Did you hear about….?” or “You really gotta try…” or a simple, disbelieving “Holy crap!”

The Whisper Antigua rum was one of those, Lazy Dodo another; in various years there was the Toucan white, the Compagnie’s Indonesian rum,  the first edition of Nine Leaves, the first new Worthy Park rums…and in Paris 2019, it was the Teeda five year old made by the Japanese Helios Distillery, which I heard mentioned up and down the aisles by at least five separate people on the very first day (along with the Madeirans, the Cabo Verde grogues and Mhoba)

Helios has been around since 1961, when it was called the Taiyou distillery, and made rum from sugar cane grown in Okinawa itself (the climate favours it and all rum made in Japan uses cane from there) to cater to the locally-based Americans of the US post-war civil administration – and so as not to use rice which was needed for food to make alcohols like sake. In 1969 as the fortunes of the company and Okinawa improved, the name was changed to Helios and over the next two decades it branched out and gained licenses to make sake, shōchū, awamori (an Okinawan local spirit made from rice), whiskey and, in 1996, beer, which became one of its primary products with amawori and for which it is now best known.  Yet they started with and always made a sort of cheap blended rum (both white and lightly aged), and in the last few years expanded that into an aged product they named Teeda (an Okinawan word for “sun” – goes well with Helios, doesn’t it?), which is a blend of rums of five to fifteen years old aged in ex-bourbon barrels, I am led to understand, and pot still distilled. No caramel or other additions, a pure rum.

I don’t know how much of the blend was five years old and how much was greater, but whatever they did, the results were great.  The pot still component was particularly aggressive right out of the gate (even with a relatively staid 40% ABV strength) – yes it had a pronounced initial rumstink of sweet fruits and rinds decomposing in the sun, rotting bananas and paint remover, but there was also fanta and soda pop, a clear sweet line of bubble gum and strawberries, apricots, cherries, very ripe yellow mangoes, all tied together with brine, olives, and a really rich vegetable soup chock full of noodles and green onions (seriously!).

Palate…hmmm.  Different, yet decidedly intriguing and original without straying too far from rum’s roots. It was supple and firm on the tongue, sweet and almost gentle – I sensed iodine, minerals, wet charcoal, ashes, redolent of that woody and yeasty fresh-baked sourdough action of shōchūs I’ve had, which worked…sort of. Gradually that released additional muskier flavours of licorice, molasses, vanilla, even red olives.  It was also musty, with all the pungency of a barn made from old wood and long abandoned. Whatever fruits there were took a back seat, and only really came into their own on the finish which, though short, was creamy and sharp both at once, and allowed final notes of ripe cherries and apricots to make a final bow before disappearing.

What to make of something like this?  A Caribbean rum it was clearly not, and it was quite separate from the light rums from South America; neither did it conform to India’s rich and sweet rums like the Amrut, and it had little in common with the feral whites now coming out of Asia.  Given that in many cases Japanese rum makers are often adding rum to their lineup of whiskies or sake or shōchū as opposed to starting rum distilling from scratch, I argue that too often the profiles of those drinks bleed over into the way their rums taste (Seven Seas, Ryoma, Cor Cor and Ogasawara are examples of this, with Nine Leaves a marked exception).

Yet I liked this thing, quite a bit.  It was like a dialled-down Islay mixing it up with a Jamaican pot-still bruiser (with a Versailles acting as referee), and was, in my estimation, something of an original to sample, blending both the traditional “rummy” flavours with something new.  It skated over many of the issues mentioned above and came out at the other end with a really mellow, rich, tasty, different rum, the likes of which I have not had before. Even with the few weaknesses it had — the balance and integration of the disparate components were not completely successful, and it could have been stronger for sure — there’s nothing here that would make me tell you to walk away.  Quite the reverse, in fact – this rum is absolutely worth a try, and it makes me glad I listened to the buzz.

(#629)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks and a hat-tip to Yoshiharu Takeuchi and Manabu Sadamoto for help with the background notes
  • A 2019 RhumFest masterclass video of Ms. Matsuda (grandaughter of the founder of Helios) can be found on FB in English, with a running French translation.  This confirms the pot still comment (it is stainless steel) as well as noting that fermentation is 2 weeks, leading to a 60% distillate from the still; white rum is rested in steel tanks for about six months, while aged rums are put in oak casks for the appropriate period
May 272019
 

When you really get down to it, Pusser’s claim to fame rests on two main planks. The first is that it is they are the true inheritors of the actual British Navy rum recipe after Black Tot Day in 1970.  The second is that they follow it.

Unfortunately, neither is completely true, depending on how you look at the background.

With respect to the first point, any research done on Navy rums shows that Lyman Hart, Lamb’s and ED&F Man, among others, sold rums to the Royal Navy back in the 1800s (Man became the major supplier in the 1900s, though I don’t think they were the sole source even then), and it is highly unlikely they were consistent in what they provided.  Moreover, the rum (from whatever source) was always a blend, and the components did not stay rock solid stable for centuries. In fact, according to the booklet about the Black Tot accompanying the bottle and written by Dave Broom, the Navy rum of the 1940s had been a complex blend – kind of solera – and over the centuries the Jamaican component had continually been reduced because of its funky taste which sailors did not like.  Moreover there’s that modern tested-for adulteration of Pusser’s — 29 g/L additives by some estimates — which surely was not part of the original recipe no matter who made it.

Secondly, the very fact that the recipe was tweaked more than once — as recently as 2008 it was supposedly a blend of five West Indian rums — shows up the fallacy of completely buying into the idea this is a true heritage rum: it’s hardly an inheritor of a tradition that once included Guyanese, Jamaican, Trini and maybe even Bajan rums, which progressively got reduced down to Guyana and Trini components, and now is Guyana only. Even by 2018, one could taste that the blend was favouring Guyanese distillate and that might taste good, but wasn’t exactly the Royal Navy recipe now, was it?  

So, strictly speaking, neither statement holds water.  The Gunpowder Proof Black Label is probably closer to the way navy rums used to be made, but yet somehow, in spite of all that, it’s the 15 YO which people remember, which they refer to as one of the touchstones of their early drinking experiences.  The thing is utterly unkillable and regularly turns up on the various Facebook fora with delighted chirps and snazzy photographs and the pride of some person who has either bought one for the first time, or tried it for the first time. It is also one of the most reviewed of the entire Pusser’s line, with just about every writer sooner or later passing by to talk about it (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for some examples, almost universally positive)

And why shouldn’t they?  It’s a fifteen year old rum issued at a relatively affordable price, and is widely available, has been around for decades and has decent flavour chops for those who don’t have the interest or the coin for the limited edition independents.

So what was it like?  The tasting notes below reflect the blend as it was in April 2018, and this is different to both the initial rum I tried back in 2011 and again in 2019 when the “new and improved” Guyana-only blend crossed my path.

The nose, for example, certainly has lots of stationery: ruber, pencil erasers, pencil shavings.  Also sawdust, citrus, lumber – reminds me a lot of the Port Mourant or Versailles distillate, if a little dumbed down. After some time, molasses crept timidly out the back end with caramel, toffee, ginger and vanilla hiding in its skirts, but their overall reticence was something of a surprise given my tasting memories — I seem to recall them as much more forward.  Blame it on increasing age, I guess – mine, not the rum’s.

By the time it got around to tasting, the Guyanese component of the blend was much more evident, definitely favouring the wooden pot stills’ aggressive taste profiles. Glue, rubber, nail polish, varnish were the tastes most clearly discernible at the inception, followed by bitter chocolate and damp sawdust from freshly sawn lumber.  It’s beneath that that it shines even at the paltry strength – creme brulee, warm caramel dribbled over vanilla ice cream, coffee and molasses, with just a hint of dark fruits (raisins, plums) and indistinct floral notes tidying things up. The finish, as is normal for standard proof spirits, is fairly short but nicely rounded, summarizing the aforementioned tastes and smells – caramel, vanilla, flowers, ginger, anise, raisins, dark fruits and pineapple for the most part.  The added whatever-it-is makes it sweet and nicely rounded and a decent sip – non-rum-junkies would likely find favour with that, while deep-diving rum chums would equally sniff and say it’s over-sweetened and dampened down, with the good notes being obscured.

Well, each to his own, I guess.  My notes here aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. At the end of it all, it is a tasty all-round rum for most, which survives in people’s tasting memories in spite of its adulteration, and constantly gains new (young) acolytes because of it. My own opinion is that while Pusser’s sells well, its glory days are behind it.  It has not maintained the core blend, being forced by market pressures to simplify the components rather than keep them in play. They have extended their line over the years to add to the stable with the gunpowder proof, various strengths and other iterations, spiced versions and this to some extent dilutes the brand, good as they may all be.

So why do I call this a key rum?  Because it is a good rum which should be remembered and appreciated; because it hewed and hews as close to the line of the old navy rums as we’re ever likely to get; because it’s 15 years old and still affordable; and because for all its blended nature and therefore indeterminate origins, it’s just a well-made, well-aged product with a whiff of true historical pedigree and naval heritage behind it. Even now, so many rums down the road,  I remember why I liked it in the first place.

And aside from all that, even if you don’t buy into my premise, and dislike the brand dilution (or expansion), and even with all the competition, Pussers still has a lustre and brand awareness that can’t be shrugged off.  Almost all bloggers sooner or later pass by and check it out, some more than once. It is a milestone marker on anyone’s journey down the myriad highways of rum. It remains relevant because no matter how many pretenders to the throne there are, this one company supposedly does actually have the (or an) original recipe for the navy rum, and if they chose to change it over time, well, okay.  But the 15 year old remains one of the core rums of the lineup, one of the best they made and make, and nobody who tries it as part of their education, is ever likely to completely put it out of their minds, no matter how far past it they end up walking to other milestones down the road.

(#627)(83/100)