Nov 042019
 

There was a lot of interest in and written about Mhoba between the UK 2018 and Paris 2019 rumfests, and when one checks out the rums they make, it’s not hard to see why.  It’s from a unique part of the world, has been deep-dived by Steve James in a thee-part-post that could hardly be bettered (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 are here), has a pot still action going on, and the rums themselves are solidly distinct. So we should beware of letting them fall off our mental rum radar in between expos – because they’re good, and, perhaps more important, well made, unmessed-with, cask strength, and very, very original.

Mhoba’s founder Robert Greaves originally considered making a South African version of cachaca…but fortunately for us, changed his mind. He built his own small stills (many of them, each evolving from the previous iteration), played around with the technical aspects of crushing, fermenting and distilling for two years, applied for a Liquor License in South Africa, and it all finally came together in 2015. Initial samples sent to the Miami Rum Festival in 2016 resulted in more tweaking, and by 2018 he had a blend of rum aged for about a year in six scraped, scoured, seared and toasted French oak casks (the epic of how he ended up there is worth a read so head over to Rum Revelations for some background), which he presented in London that year — though the one I tried was from a six-months-older blend of the same barrels, which yielded 330 bottles and which was shown off in the Paris Rumfest in early 2019.

This is where good labelling helps understand what you’re getting.  Mine read that it was a sugar cane juice rum, single blended, the bottle outturn (330 bottles, of which this was a sample), batch 2019FC1, South African made, and 65% ABV (ouch!). Actually, the only things missing from the label were the age statement (website says just over a year) and the still of origin (it’s a pot still), which I imagine subsequent labels will correct, especially as additional aged varietals begin to enter the market and a stock of different aged expressions gets built up – already, the company site lists eight different rums, so they’re not wasting any time.

I liked the pungency and herbal nature of Mhoba’s white rum, and remarked it compared nicely to a Neisson or a civilized clairin.  The French cask was a horse of a different colour, though I can’t definitively state whether this was because of the ageing, the cuts made or the tweaking of the still. One thing for sure – the casks had their say here.  Just the nose made that clear – very little of the vegetal, herbal notes of the white made it through here. Indeed, what I smelled was a combination of dialled-down Jamaican funk – sharp, overripe, sour fruits, oddly shy for such a powerful rum – combined with damp cardboard, hot earth after a rain, and paint thinner. Gradually, over the half hour I spent smelling it, it released citrus zest, toffee, chocolate oranges, dill and just a hint of brine. And yet it remained curiously indistinct, hard to come to grips with and pick apart.

The palate was better, very dry, very strong, yet that vagueness persisted here too, if perhaps not as much. Sour fruits gone off were there – mangoes, apricots, peaches, cashews (the ones with the seeds outside) — plus mint, dill and rosemary, brine, ginger and lemongrass. These were the sharper aspects, balanced off by some light coffee, caramel, wine, black grapes and those dusky earth and cardboard and coffee notes, leading to a roaring sharp finish which was long and dry, closing off with hints of nuts, coffee, caramel, and a last whiff of fruitiness

I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this.  The minimal ageing toned down the rawness of an unaged spirit in a way that polished off some of the rough edges, so that was good; the additional fruitiness imparted by the Cape Brandy left in the staves (even after the sanding and scraping away of a few millimeters of impregnated wood) was nice – overall, it was a solid, strong drink. This, paradoxically, was also its weakness.  The strength was so great that it overpowered the subtle notes that a mere year-and-a-bit of ageing had provided, and it failed to cohere in a way that would allow the individual taste components to shine more. Here then was a rum that I felt could either use some more ageing, or some water, and indeed I did put a few drops into my drink and it became much more approachable that way.

Still, it remained something of an odd duck, hard to pigeonhole, tough to nail down precisely.  It had aspects of an aged agricole, and points that reminded me of a Jamaican high-ester rum, all combined with the dampening anonymity of a column-still, high-proofed, lightly-aged filtered product from, say, Bacardi.  In that lay its originality and its attraction because in a market crowded with ever more indie cask strength releases, new experiments from old houses, and ever more cheap column still plonk, anything new and well made and tasting the way it does is a welcome breath of fresh air. I may not have been entirely sold on its quality, but I won’t forget it any time soon — and as the years go by I can see my shelf having more than just a few of the rums from this small South African company, because they’re surely one to watch.

(#672)(83/100)

Oct 062019
 

There’s so many peculiar things going on with this rum it’s tough to find a convenient starting place, so let’s begin with what facts lie behind the rum itself and then go from there.  The rum is a Jamaican Worthy Park distillate from about 2010 or so, aged three to five years in american white oak casks, with an unknown (said to be limited but….) outturn dribbled into our glasses at a milquetoast 40%.

Since WP have a very recognizable branding scheme of their own, who released the rum? It’s found on the label, and it’s Bacardi, who evidently felt there was a market opportunity to go upscale and use their massive distribution network and marketing clout to steal a march on the independent bottlers who have pioneered limited bottlings in the last decade. I say “evidently”, because clearly they simply saw margins and profits, grandly called the new line a “breakthrough, contemporary innovation in the rum category” — but learned nothing about what actually made such rums special: things like serious barrel selection, serious ageing, serious strength, limited outturn, combined with a real and patiently garnered reputation for quality at the top end of the rum ladder. Just because you slap a Jamaican distillery name on a label does not mean you instantly have a great juice, as they have belatedly realized by the way this rum sank pretty much without a trace.

Which in 2019, four years after its release, I thought was odd…but only initially.  I say that because at first I quite liked the way it nosed. It was very much a WP rum, dry, fruity, rich, salty, with some olives bouncing around. Sweeter, fruitier notes emerged with time, fanta and coca cola and orange peel, and there was some background of smoke and leather as well. I jotted down that it was nicely pungent for a 40% rum. Understated but recognizable. So, thus far, not bad at all.

Trying physically, I can only assume that whoever put the final blend together must have been scared witless and sh*tless by the sheer crisp uniqueness of Worthy Park’s pot still distillate, so much at odds with the gentle ease of Cuban-style rons – and decided, therefore, it could not possibly be allowed to stand on its own but be added to to make it more…well, palatable, I guess. Better for Bacardi drinkers. And therefore added caramel or sugar or whatever, to the tune of 15 g/L.  And you could sense that when tasting it – it was, first of all, much fainter than one might expect from such a good nose. The dryness went AWOL, and instead of leading off with crisp citrus and brine, what we got was a sort of muted fruitiness, damped-down acetones, sour tobacco and polish, and a more soft and smooth and creamy taste. This was not unpleasant, but it did deviate from what we want — and hope we’re buying — in a Worthy Park rum. Moreover, though a half hour later I could sense apples, grapes, and unripe peaches, it was too muffled, and unbalanced at the back end, presenting both a kind of spiteful sharpness as well as a muddled mishmash of tastes confused and roiled by the additives, leading to a finish that was short and sharp — a kinda dreary and near-tasteless alcohol.

Overall, it’s unclear what Bacardi thought they were doing, acting as an independent bottler when they’ve always been primary producers who have their own ideas on how to make rums; with expertise in light rons, the clear-cut singularity of single (or a few) barrel selection from Jamaica does not seem to be their forte.  I’ve been passing Single Cane rums in many airports of the world for years but the 40% always put me off until finally I got one, this one…and kinda wished I hadn’t bothered.  It’s not a particularly good rum, a barely average product released at a strength that does little to showcase or capitalize on the unique heritage of its estate of origin. As a beginner’s rum it works to introduce Worthy Park, but my advice is to move beyond it to the real stuff from Jamaica as fast as possible, without wasting further time on the false promises of such an adulterated siren that treats its audience with contempt and cynically trades on a name without providing anything of its quality.

(#662)(78/100)


Other notes

  • Bacardi bought bulk rum directly from Worthy Park, and it was aged at WP. but they did their own blending.
  • The 15g/L additives number comes from the Fat Rum Pirate’s equally dismissive review of the same rum
Sep 192019
 

Much of the perception of small and new companies’ rums is tied up in their founders and how they interact with the general public. Perhaps nowhere is this both easier and harder to do than in the United States – easier because of the “plucky little engine that could” mythos of the solo tinkerer, harder because of the sheer geographical scale of the country. Too, it’s one thing to make a new rum, quite another to get a Je m’en fous public of Rhett Butlers to give a damn.  And this is why the chatterati and online punditocracy barely know any of the hundreds of small distilleries making rum in the USA (listed with such patience by the Burrs and Will Hoekenga in their websites)…but are often very much aware of the colourful founders of such enterprises.

That said, even within this ocean of relative indifference, a few companies and names stand out.  We’ve been hearing more about Montanya Distillery and master blender Karen Hoskin, everyone knows about Bailey Prior and the Real McCoy line, Lost Spirits may have faded from view but has great name recognition, Koloa has been making rum for ages, Pritchard’s and Richland are almost Old Stalwarts these days, the Eastern seaboard has its fair share of up and coming little rinky-dinks…and then there’s Privateer and its driven, enthusiastic, always-engaged master blender, Maggie Campbell, whose sense of humour can be gauged by her Instagram handle, “Half Pint Maggie.”

Privateer was formed by Andrew Cabot after he walked away from his tech-CEO day job in 2008 and decided to try his hand at making a really good American rum, something many considered to be a contradiction in terms (some still do). In 2011 he opened a distillery in an industrial park in Ipswich, Massachusetts but dissatisfied with initial results sniffed around for a master distiller who could deliver on his vision, and picked a then-unemployed Ms. Cambell who had distilling experience with whiskey and brandy (and cognac), and she has stayed with the company ever since. The rum is made from grade A molasses, and is twice distilled, once in a pot and once in a columnar still, before being laid to rest in charred american oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The company’s ethos is one of no additives and no messing around, which I’m perfectly happy to take on trust.

So, all that done away with, what’s this Navy Yard rum, which was first introduced back in 2016, actually like?  

Well, not bad at all. Each of the three times I tried the rum, the first thing out the door was sawdust and faint pencil shavings, swiftly dissipating to be replaced by vanilla, crushed walnuts and almonds, salted butter, caramel, butterscotch, a touch of the molasses brush, and the faintest tinge of orange peel.  What is surprising about this admittedly standard and straightforward – even simplistic – profile is how well it comes together in spite of the lack of clearly evident spices, fruits and high notes that would balance it off better. I mean, it works – on its own level, true, dancing to its own beat, yes, a little off-kilter and nothing over-the-top complex, sure…but it works. It’s a solid, aromatic dram to sniff.

The mouthfeel is quite good, one hardly feels the burn of navy strength 57.1%…at least not initially. When sipped, at first it feels warm and oily, redolent of aromatic tobacco, tart sour cream on a fruit salad (aha! – there they were!) composed of blueberries, raspberries and unripe peaches.  Vanilla remains omnipresent and unavoidable, but it does recede somewhat and tries hard not to be obnoxious – a more powerful presence might derail this rum for good. As it develops the spiciness ratchets up without ever going overboard (although it does feel a bit thinner than the nose and the ABV had suggested it would be), and gradually dates and brine and olives and figs make themselves known. The rather dry finish comes gradually and takes its time without providing anything new, summing up the whole experience decently – with salted caramel, vanilla, butter, cereal, anise and a hint of fruits — and for me, it was a diminution of the positive experience of the nose and taste.

Overall, it’s a good young rum which shows its blended philosophy and charred barrel origins clearly. This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength in that it’s well blended, the edges of pot and column merging seamlessly; it’s tasty and strong, with just a few flavours coming together. What it lacked was the complexity and depth a few more years of ageing might have imparted, and a series of crisper, fruitier notes that might balance it off better; and as I’ve said, the char provided a surfeit of vanilla, which was always too much in the front to appeal to me.

I’ve often remarked about American spirits producers who make rum, that rum seems to be something of a sideline to them, a cheaply-made cash filler to make ends meet while the whiskies that are their true priorities are ageing.  That’s not the case here because the company has been resolutely rum-focused from eight o’clock, Day One – but when I tasted it, I was surprised to be reminded of the Balcones rum from Texas, with which it shared quite a lot of textural and aromatic similarities, and to some extent also the blended pot/column Barbadian rums with which Foursquare has had such success (more Doorly’s than ECS, for the curious). That speaks well for the rum and its brothers up and down the line, and it’s clear that there’s nothing half-pint or half-assed about the Navy Yard or Privateer at all.  For me, this rum is not at the top of the heap when rated globally, but it is one of the better ones I’ve had from the US specifically.  What it achieves is to make me want to try others from the company, pronto, and if that isn’t the sure sign of success by a master distiller, then I don’t know what is.

(#658)(83/100)


Opinion

After I wrote the above, I wondered about the discrepancy in my own perception of the Navy Yard, versus the really positive commentaries I’d read, both on social media and the few reviews others had written (94 points on Distiller, for example, and Drink Insider rated it 92 with nary a negative note anywhere on FB). Now, there is as yet no reviewer or commentator outside the US who has written about the Navy Yard (or others in the line), partly because its distribution remains there; those who did really went ape for the thing, some going so far as to call it the best american rum, so why didn’t I like it more?  

The only answer I can come up with that isn’t directly related to my own palate and experience tasting rums from around the world, is that they are not coming to Privateer with the same background as others are, or I do. The sad Sahara of what is euphemistically called “rum choice” in the US, a resultant of the three-tier distribution dysfunction they amusingly call a “system”, promotes a rum selection of cheap quantity, but so denuded of real quality that when the girl next door makes something so much better than the mass-produced crap that masquerades as top-drawer rum over there, it just overloads the circuits of the local tippling class, and the points roll in like chips at a winning table in Vegas. 

This is not in any way to take away from the achievement of Maggie Cambpbell and others like her, who work tirelessly every day to raise the low bar of American rumdom. Reading around and paying attention makes it clear that Ms. Campbell is a knowledgeable and educated rum junkie, making rum to her own specs, and releasing juice that’s a step above many other US brands. The next step is to make it even better so that it takes on better known Names from around the world which – for now – rate higher. Given her fierce commitment to the brand and the various iterations they’re putting out the door, I have no doubt there will be much more to come from Privateer and I look forward to the day when the company’s hooch muscles its way to the forefront of the global rum scene, and not just America’s.


Other Notes

I drew on Matt Pietrek’s deep dive for some of the biographical details, as well as articles on Thrillist, Imbibe and various posts about Privateer on FB. Details of the company, Ms. Campbell and the distillation steps can be found both Matt’s work and t8ke’s review, here.  This is one of those cases where there’s so much information washing around that a synopsis is all that’s needed here, and if your interest has been piqued, follow the links to go deeper.

Aug 182019
 

The French islands provide a reviewer with a peculiar problem when trying to pick a single rum as being a “Key” anything. This is largely because Martinique and Guadeloupe are alone in the world in possessing such a gathering of world-famous rum distilleries in such a concentrated geographical space (a comparison to Islay, say, is not entirely out to lunch). Several Caribbean islands have a single large distiller (St. Lucia, Trinidad) or two (Grenada) or a few (Cuba, Barbados, Jamaica), and Haiti of course comes up for special mention — but none have so many whose names resound through the rumiverse.  So how to pick just one?

The selection of the first of what will be several candidates from the French islands – because to limit oneself just to one or two or even three is to do the entire subset of agricole rums an enormous disservice – is made even more difficult by the fact that Guadeloupe is not seen as a “pure” agricole maker. This is primarily because, of course, they sometimes mess around with both molasses and cane juice styles of rhum, and have never actively sought the AOC designation which so enhances the street cred of rhums from Martinique.

But even so, I like the rhums of Guadeloupe (Grande Terre and Basse Terre and Marie-Galante) — a lot. To me, the work of Gardal, Karukera, Bielle, Longueteau, Severin, Bellevue, Montebello, Pere Labat, Reimonenq, Capovilla and Damoiseau are as good as any the world over, and behind them all still reverbrates the majestic quality of Courcelles, the one that switched me on to agricoles all those years ago when the Little Caner was not yet the Big Caner and I was just getting serious about French island hooch.

So why start with Damoiseau?  The easiest answer is to say “Gotta begin someplace.” More seriously, it’s certainly one of the better known brands from there, the leading producer on Guadeloupe; back in 2016 I remember Josh Miller awarding their white 55% first place in his agricole challenge; years before that, Velier gained confidence to issue more full proof rums by releasing their excellent 1980 version at 60.3% (the first such strong rum in their portfolio); Matt Pietrek suggested the Damoiseau 4 year old Réserve Spécial VSOP was a great rum to have for under US$45 and a good ambassador for the country’s rum-making tradition; and lastly, I simply have good memories of most of their work I’ve tried.  But for me, the VSOP is a bit young and rough, and my affection is given to the very slightly older version which we shall get into without further ado.

Made from cane juice and then aged in ex-bourbon casks, Damoiseau has the occasional peculiarity (in my eyes, at least) of making aged rhums that don’t always or completely showcase the crisp herbal sweet grassiness we have come to associate with agricoles. Here, that isn’t the case at all…up to a point. The cane-juice-derived 5YO, which is near to standard strength (42% ABV) and therefore very approachable by those who want to dip their toes, is remarkably clean and yet still full-bodied for that strength. Immediately there is vanilla, a little oakiness, pears, prunes and the light notes of some pineapple slices.  Also cane sap and sugar water, flavoured with a dusting of cinnamon. And, oddly, a nip of molasses, brown sugar and caramel in the background, which I can’t explain, but find pleasing nevertheless.

The palate isn’t quite as sterling as the nose, though still a cut above normal: a little thin, perhaps – blame it on the 42%, which is, let’s face it, somewhat lacklustre against the shining vibrancy of the whites, so often torqued up to 50%. The rhum tastes a little dry, a little briny, with vanilla, dates, prunes, blackberries and dark grapes leading in, followed by some florals, crisp oak notes, breakfast spices, cereals…and again, that strange hint of caramel syrup and molasses poured over fresh hot pancakes flitting behind all the other tastes.  It’s a perfectly nice drink for all that, and the finish is a fitting conclusion: nice and long with oily, salty and tequila notes, to which are added light oakiness, vanillins, fruits and florals, nothing specific, nothing overly complex just the entire smorgasbord sailing into a serene conclusion.

Personally, I’d suggest that some extra strength would be useful, but by no means does that disqualify the Damoiseau 5 Year Old as a good all-rounder, equally at home in a mix of some kind or by itself. You can tell it’s been aged, it’s slightly sweet and has the requisite fruits and other flavours combining decently, and the rhum navigates its way between a light and heavy profile quite nicely. That slight touch of caramel or molasses was something I liked as well  — if memory serves, it was a similar ”contaminant” that prevented the 1980 from being released as appellation-compliant and that was why it was sold to Velier, but whether in this instance that’s deliberate or my imagination is anyone’s guess. All I can say is that for me it was there, and it did not detract but enhanced.

So at the end, the 5YO ticks all the boxes we look for in such a rhum. Young as it is, it’s a tasty, unique product from Damoiseau; it’s of reasonable strength — and therefore doesn’t frighten those now moving out of their comfort zones and getting into different styles, with some stratospheric ABV or a profile of off-the-wall lunacy; and best of all for those who just want to nibble at its edges without biting the whole thing, the price point is right on the midpoint between two other candidates for the position. It’s slightly more expensive than the VSOP, but more elegant; and cheaper than the 8 YO but more versatile.  Any of these three could be a rum that celebrates Guadeloupe, but for my money and what I want out of a rhum like this, the 5 YO is the one that nails it.

(#652)(83/100)

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.”

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 092019
 

Like most rums of this kind, the opinions and comments are all over the map.  Some are savagely disparaging, other more tolerant and some are almost nostalgic, conflating the rum with all the positive experiences they had in Thailand, where the rum is made. Few have had it in the west, and those that did weren’t writing much outside travel blogs and review aggregating sites.

And that’s not a surprise. If you exclude the juice emerging from new, small, fast-moving micro-distilleries in Asia, and focus on the more common brands, you’ll find that many adhere to the light latin-style column-still model of standard strength tipple…and many are not averse to adding a little something to make your experience…well, a smoother one; an easier one. These rums sell by the tanker-load to the Asian public, and while I’m sure they wouldn’t mind getting some extra sales, restrict themselves to their own region…for now.

One of these is the Thai Sang Som Special Rum, which has been around since 1977 and has supposedly garnered a 70% market share for itself in Thailand.  This is a rum made from molasses, and apparently aged for five years in charred oak barrels before being bottled at 40% ABV. Back in the 1980s it won a clutch of medals (Spain, 1982 and 1983) and again in 2006, which is prominently featured in their promo literature…yet it’s almost unknown outside Thailand, since it exports minimal quantities (< 1% of production, I’ve read).  It is made by the Sang Som company, itself a member of Thai Beverage, one of the largest spirits companies in the world (market cap ~US$15 billion) – and that company has around 18 distilleries in the region, which make most of the rum consumed in and exported by Thailand: SangSom, Mangkorn Thong, Blend 285, Hong Thong, and also the Mekhong, which I tried so many years ago on a whim.

The rum doesn’t specify, but I’m going out on a limb and saying, that this is a column still product.  I can’t say it did much for me, on any level – the nose is very thin, quite sweet, with hints of sugar cane sap, herbs, dill, rosemary, basil, chopped up and mixed into whipped cream.  Some cinnamon, rose water, vanilla, white chocolate and more cream. Depending on your viewpoint this is either extremely subtle or extremely wussy and in either case the predominance of sweet herbal notes is a cause for concern, since it isn’t natural to rum.

No redemption is to be found when tasted, alas, though to be honest I was not really expecting much here.  It’s very weak, very quiet, and at best I can suggest the word “delicate”. Some bright ripe fruits like ripe mangoes, red guavas, seed-outside cashew nuts.  Cocounts, flowers, maybe incense. Also lighter notes of sugar water, watermelon, cucumbers, cinnamon, nutmeg – Grandma Caner said “gooseberries”, but I dispute that, the tartness was too laid back for that rather assertively mouth-puckering fruit. And the finish is so light as to be to all intents and purposes, indiscernible. No heat, no bite, no final bonk to the taste buds or the nose.  Some fruit, a little soya, a bit of cream, but all in all, there’s not much going on here.

All due respect for the tourists and Asians who have no issues with a light rum and prefer their hooch to be devoid of character, this is not my cup of tea – my research showed to to be a spiced rum, which explains a lot (I didn’t know that when I was trying it).  It’s light and it’s easy and it’s delicate, and it requires exactly zero effort to drink, which is maybe why it sells so well – one is immediately ready to take another shot, real quick, just to see if the next sip can tease out all those notes that are hinted at but never quite come to the fore. The best thing you can say about the matter is that at least it doesn’t seem to be loaded to the rafters with sugar, which, however, is nowhere near enough for me to recommend it to serious rumhounds who’re looking for the next new and original thing.

(#622)(68/100)

Apr 212019
 

Rumaniacs Review # 096 | 0617

Inner Circle out of Australia is one of those rums originally made by a now-defunct company called the Colonial Sugar Refinery, which had a long history pretty much unknown outside its country of origin. Formed in 1855, CSR established refineries in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji by the 1890s, and iin 1901 they opened a distillery in Sidney, using pot stills to make rums from Fijian and Australian cane. The Inner Circle brand name, which appeared in 1950, came from the limited high-quality rums they made for distribution to the favoured elite of the company and its clients, and around 1970 it got a broad commercial release in Australia: at that time it was bottled in three strengths, which in turn were identified by coloured dots – Underproof (38-40%, the red dot), Overproof (57% or so, green dot) and 33% Overproof (73-75%, black dot).

The distillery was sold off in 1986 (to Bundaberg) and the brand disappeared, though CSR remains as a company involved in manufacturing of building products, no longer rums. The Inner Circle brand was resurrected in 2000 by Stuart Gilbert (the Australian Olympic yachtsman) in concert with Malcolm Campbell, one of the distillers of the company who had the original recipe, and I believe they did so with the financial backing of the Australian VOK group, which also took over the Beenleigh Rum Distillery in 2004.

The rum remains a pot still rum; and based on the label design, it was bottled just after 2004. Inner circle confirmed to me directly that it was 2004-2007 (and if I could find the batch code on the label they could tell me the exact year), pure Fijian cane distillate (so not really Australian after all), minimum of two years ageing in bourbon casks, and this particular batch recipe is no longer being made – hence its inclusion in the Rumaniacs series. It’s still possible to find bottles for sale at reasonable prices, mind you — this one was bought at auction last year.

Colour – Amber

Strength 57.2%

Nose – Are we sure this is a pot still 57.2% rum? Very strange, because nothing much seems to be going on here at all. It’s slightly sweet, fruit forward (peaches, apricots, cherries, very ripe). Characteristic brine and olives and acetones of a pot still distillate seem completely absent, and so it is nowhere near as complex as even an entry level funky Jamaican. After half an hour of letting it stand, and then rechecking I got some sweet vegetables (carrots) and a bit of glue and nail polish, really faint.

Palate – Same vague wispiness as the nose. Glue and rubber notes, very faint. A bit sweet and salty with repeated sips diminishing the sweet. Some light pineapples, dried apricots, cinnamon. A bit of caramel and vanilla, not much but all things considered, it had more potency and pungency than the nose did (and for me usually the reverse is true). There’s a trace of iodine and seaweed in the background, which is odd, but by no means unpleasant.

Finish – Short, warm. Some vegetables, brine, fish soup and sushi (that would be that iodine coming back again – odd that it wasn’t discernible on the nose). A bit of vanilla and caramel.

Thoughts – Leaves me indifferent, largely because it’s as vague as a politician’s statements. Maybe it was filtered or something, but overall, it simply does not conform to what we might expect from the strength and still as noted on the label. Which is a shame, ‘cause I had high hopes for it, but also relieved, since I dropped out of the bidding.

(73/100)


Other notes:

  • A redesigned bottle and revised recipe of the Inner Circle line of rums continues to be made.
  • Thanks to Tatu Kaarlas and Inner Circle themselves, who responded in fine style when bugged for background information
  • Sample came from the same bottle whose label is shown at top, from Nicolai W. out of Denmark, who ended up buying it.
  • A more detailed history of the company can be found here.
Apr 172019
 

You just gotta love Yoshiharu Takeuchi, who hired a brand ambassador, travel agent, accountant, general manager, master distiller, janitor, chief cook and bottle washer, the cook, the baker and candlestick maker, and still only has a single employee in his Japanese rum-making outfit Nine Leaves – himself. And lest you think he’s a dour, serious, penny-pinching cost-cutting ninja who’d prefer to be making a Yamazaki single-handedly or something, you can take it from me that he’s a funny, personable, dynamic and all-round cool dude, a riot to hang out with in any bar in any country. Oh yeah, and he makes some pretty damned fine rums.

I’ve been writing about Nine Leaves since I first tried their various rums back in 2014: the Clear, and “Almost <<pick your season>>” French- or American-oak-aged rums (most of which were aged, at best, for six months and issued once or twice a year), and have gradually realized that due to the peculiarities of Japanese tax laws, it’s simply not in their interest to make rums greater than two years of age, and so probably never will. Yoshi-san has therefore always concentrated on making minute, infinitesimal improvements to these young ‘uns, until 2016 when he changed direction and put out the first Encrypted rum, riding the wave of finishes and double maturations that have almost come to define Foursquare and have been copied here and there by other distillers like DDL and English Harbour.

The Encrypted rums were subtly, quietly excellent. It surpasses my understanding that to this day they have not made much of a wave in the rumworld (unless you count Velier’s 70th anniversary edition, which Yoshi jokingly calls the “Encrypted 2½”), though sales must be brisk otherwise why would Nine Leaves keep making them, right? The Encrypted II from 2017 was a blend of copper-pot-still rums slightly over two years of age: some were aged in ex-bourbon casks, some in PX Oloroso, and then blended, with a resultant strength of 58% ABV. That’s it, and the results just keep getting better over time.

Consider the way it smelled. With pot still distillate and two different cask types, one would expect no less than an intriguing smorgasbord, which this provided, in spades: the pot still component was quite subdued, starting off with a little brine and olives, a light touch of nail polish remover and acetones; indeed, the vaguely herbal nature of it almost suggested an agricole wannabe than the molasses rum it actually was. Letting it open a little is key here: after several minutes the other aromas of light vanilla and caramel were joined by smells of apples, green grapes, cumin and lemon peel, and only after some time did heavier fruit like peaches in syrup begin to make their appearance, with a neat balancing act between the various components.

The real treat was how it tasted. Short version? Delicious. Much as the nose managed to make a curious combination of agricole and molasses rum work together without going too far on one side or the other, the palate took flavours that might have been jarring and found a way to make them enhance each other rather than compete: it was hot and briny, tasting of gooseberries, green grapes and unripe mangoes, then balancing that off with unsweetened cooking chocolate, licorice, nougat and bon-bons, which were in turn dusted lightly with cinnamon and almonds, before closing off in a nice long finish of nuttiness, caramel, vanilla, a hint of wine and even (I kid you not) tumeric.

It’s amazing how many flavours Nine Leaves wrings out of their distillate without messing around with additives of any kind. When I see major houses doctoring their rums and their blends in order to appeal to the sweet-toothed mass market, then justify their actions (assuming they bother) by mentioning lack of resources to age distillate for long periods, the desire of their customers, the permissive legislation etc etc etc, I want to sigh and just point them in the direction of a rum like this one, aged for so short a time, not part of any family tradition or national heritage, not needing any adornment to showcase its quality. This thing is simply a solid, tasty rum, familiar enough not to piss off the Faithful, while also different enough to elicit nods of appreciation from those who’re looking for a variation from the norm. Not many makers can find the balancing point between such different aspects of the production process — Nine Leaves has shown it can be done, and done well, by taking the time to get it done right.

(#616)(87/100)

Mar 212019
 

Rumaniacs Review # 094 | 0610

Séverin is a small distillery in the north of the left “wing” of Guadeloupe (called Basseterre), whose history can be divided into three parts: 1800-1928 when different owners held the small estate and grew various agricultural crops like pineapples and sugar, 1928-2014 when the Marsolle family held it and created the marque of Domaine de Séverin for their rhums, and the post-2014 period when the distillery (but not the whole estate) was sold to a local businessman called Jose Pirbakas. Although there was a cessation of operations after the takeover due to differences in management and operational philosophies (for one thing, all rhum prices were jacked up by 45% in 2014), rhums from Séverin are now once again available, primarily in France, and sporting a new, redesigned bottle and label.

That label is key, since the older ones such as on the bottle I had, are no longer in use and therefore serve as a useful determinant as to whether one is buying a pre-takeover rum (which is a Rumaniacs candidate), or a post 2014 version, which is not.

While it is not explicitly stated on the label, the Vieux is about three years old. Séverin have always played around with different casks in their aged rhums (cognac for the most part), but in this case it is very likely that standard oak barrels were used to age the rhum, which itself derives from a creole column still.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 45% ABV

Nose – Clearly Séverin, like many producers on Guadeloupe, played around with both molasses and cane juice for its raw material. Here, the deeper aromas of molasses, coca-cola and nougat steer us towards molasses as the base. There were hints of cinnamon and light coffee grounds, some smoke and vanilla, quite easy-going but also reasonably aromatic.

Palate – A very pleasing profile, if not quite as sharply distinct as anything you’re getting from Martinique with its strict AOC guidelines. Coke, molasses, bitter chocolate and nougat charge out from the gate. There is also some brine, olives and coffee, and coiling around in the background are some vague floral and light fruity notes which provide a pleasing backdrop for the heavier flavours

Finish – Somewhat weak, a flash in the pan, over quickly. Closing notes of cumin and cinnamon, caramel, damp brown sugar, vanilla.

Thoughts – Reminds me somewhat of rums from Mauritius or the Seychelles. I like these indeterminate products that steer an interesting line between a pure molasses product and one made from juice – it’s like they take a bit of the characteristics both without leaning to either side too much. That makes them good rums to drink, though this one is not so exceptional that I’d want it on my top shelf. Still, it was made recently enough that I suspect one can still find it, and if so, it’s worth picking up for more than just historical value.

(80/100)