Oct 292020
 

Aside from Zacapa, Botran is the other big rum name we know which comes out of Guatemala.  Both have lost some of their lustre in the last years (though probably not their sales), the former for its sweetness, the latter because it got left behind by the fast moving indie world and cask strength ethos that gradually took over the top end.

That certainly did not stop Rum Nation though, because they happily took some of the distillate from Botran’s Destiladora del Alcoholes y Rones SA (also known as DARSA) and aged it for around four years (minimum) in the Hondo River region of NE Guatemala in ex-bourbon white oak barrels.  The story goes that this area is quite humid and the warmest part of Guatemala which allowed for some interesting effects on the final distillate, a light, fruity result that was then bottled in 2018 and remains in their core lineup. 

Well, ok. I’ve had a fair bit of Botran’s lineup and if Rum Nation decides to go this route of in-country ageing to get a nice little 40% sipper, I’d love to try it.  I do after all have a lingering fondness for one of the first indies I ever had a chance to try, and retain a desire to try two other old rums from Guatemala they issued — a 1982-2005 and a 1984-2007.

Rum Nation’s own background notes say this is “one of the lightest rums in our collection” and they weren’t kidding (they omit mention that it’s also one of those rums Fabio Rossi would call a “starter rum”, but never mind). The nose just confirms this assessment: it is delicate to a falt, very light, channeling the clean white softness of a freshly laundered pillowcase hung to dry in the sun. It’s lightly sweet, fruity with the aromas of green grapes and raisins, and has a tuch of cola, mint, caramel and some vanilla, plus an additional hint of orange peel and perhaps some anise after a few minutes. A nice and easy sip to start the day’s sundowners.

The palate built on this quiet foundation.  It remained soft and warm – 40% couldn’t really provide much more – and initially tasted of candy, creme brulee, caramel and vanilla ice cream, as well as an odd and subtle mineral note. A little salt, brie, citrus, vanilla, more caramel and a touch of spite from the wood. Others have remarked on a  more pronounced licorice element, but  didn’t sense much of that.  The finish is everything we can expect: a summation of all the preceding, no new ground, a light, breathless wisp of vanilla, fruit and caramel.

Fabio Rossi no longer owns the Rum Nation brand (he sold it to a group of Danes in 2018 or thereabouts) yet his fingerprints remain all over this one.  For years he tried to find a light, fragrant, fruity distillate that would take on Zacapa and the two rums alluded to above were part of that exercise, even if eventually he found what he was looking for in Peru, not Guatemala. I think he liked what Botran was doing, though, and put in an order that resulted in this delicate standard-strength blend.  By the time it came out he was already retreating from Rum Nation, leaving it as one of the last rums he had a hand in creating.  

It’s too delicate and light and breathy for me, and as you know, these days 40% doesn’t work for me any longer. That should not, however, stop adherents of the Botrans and soft Latin style rums from giving it a try, because it sure pushes all the buttons I know they like: easy, light and clean, reasonably and subtly tasty, made to have by itself. For those drinkers not entirely won over by today’s stronger and more puissant full proof releases, this may be the fruity marshmallow they never knew they wanted.

(#773)(80/100)


Other Notes

  • I didn’t get to test for sugar, but I’m sure there’s some in here…it just tastes that way.
  • As far as I know, completely aged in Guatemala, and it’s a blend, not a solera.
Oct 052020
 

Although just about every conversation about the Hamilton 151 remarks on its purpose to replicate the Lemon Hart 151 as a basic high proof bar-room mixer, this is a common misconception – in point of fact its stated objective was to be better than Lemon Hart. And if its reputation has been solidly entrenched as a staple of that aspect of the drinking world, then it is because it really is one of the few 151s to satisfy both rum drinkers and cocktail shakers with its quality in a way the LH did not always. 

Back in the late 2000s / early 2010s Lemon Hart — for whatever reason — was having real trouble releasing its signature 151, and it sporadically went on and off the market, popping back on the scene with a redesigned label in 2012 before going AWOL again a couple of years later. Aside from Bacardi’s own 151, it had long been a fixture of the bar scene, even preceding the tiki craze of the mid 1930s (some of this backstory is covered in the History of the 151s).  Into this breach came Ed Hamilton, the founder of the Ministry of Rum website and its associated discussion forum, author of Rums of the Eastern Caribbean and an acknowledged early rum guru from the dawn of the rum renaissance.  As he recounts in a 2018 interview (from around timestamp 00:41:50), he decided to create his own line of Demerara rums, both 86 and 151 proof and while barred from using the word “Demerara” for trademark reasons, he did manage to issue the new rums in 2015 and they have been on the market ever since. 

Whether Hamilton 151 has replaced or superseded the Lemon Hart is an open question best left to an individual’s personal experience, but to compare them directly is actually apples and oranges to some extent, because the LH version blends Guyanese, Jamaican and Barbados rums while Hamilton’s is Guyanese only – though likely a blend of more than one still.  But certainly there’s at least some significant element of the wooden stills in there, because the profile is unmistakable.

It is, in short, a powerful wooden fruit bomb, one which initially sits and broods in the glass, dark and menacing, and needs to sit and breathe for a while.  Fumes of prunes, plums, blackcurrants and raspberries rise as if from a grumbling and stuttering half-dormant volcano, moderated by tarter, sharper flavours of damp, sweet, wine-infused tobacco, bitter chocolate, ginger and anise. The aromas are so deep it’s hard to believe it’s so young — the distillate is aged around five years or less in Guyana as far as I know, then shipped in bulk to the USA for bottling. But aromatic it is, to a fault.

It’s also hard to see the Hamilton 151 as “only” a bar-based cocktail mixer when one tries it like I did, neat. The taste is very strong, very powerful — given the 75.5% ABV, caution is of course in order —  yet not sharp so much as firm, a flavoured cricket bat stroking the tongue, tasting thirty proof points lower. There’s the piquance of ginger, red wine, raisins, dark fruits, followed by vanilla, caramel, cloves, licorice, pencil shavings, and cedar planks, melding an initially simple-seeming rum profile with something more complex and providing a texture that can be both coked up or had by itself.  Me, I could as easily sip it as dunk it into a double espresso, and then pour that over a vanilla ice cream.  Even the long lasting finish gives up a few extra points, and it closes the experience with dark red cherries, plums and prunes again, as well as coriander, cumin, cloves and toffee. Pretty good in comparison to a lot of other 151s I’ve tried over the years.

Frankly, I found the rum revelatory, even kind of quietly amazing.  Sure, it hit on all the expected notes, and the quality didn’t ascend to completely new heights (though it scaled several rises of its own).  But neither did it collapse and fall like a rock. In its own way, the rum redefined a good 151, moving it away from being a back-alley palate-mugger, to more of a semi-civilized, tux-clad thug. It might not be as good as a high-proofed ultra-aged Velier from the Age….but it wasn’t entirely removed from that level either. Drinking it, standing on the foothill of its taste, you can see the mountaintop to which it could aspire.

(#767)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • You’ll note the careful use of the word “Demerara” on the label. This was to get around the trademark issue which prevented the use of the term “Demerara Rum.” The rum is trademarked…the river is not.
  • Thanks and a tip of the trilby to Cecil, old-school ex-QC squaddie, for sending me a more-than-generous sample.

 

Aug 132020
 

There’s a peculiar light yellow lustre to the Santiago de Cuba rum somewhat euphemistically called the Carta Blanca (“White Card”), which is a result, one must assume, of deliberately incomplete filtration. The rum is aged three years in oak casks, so some colour is inevitable, but in anonymous white barroom mixers, that’s usually eliminated by the charcoal used: so whatever colour remains can’t be an accident. It’s likely, in this case, that the makers figured since it was issued at a trembly-kneed sort of please-don’t-hurt-me sub-proof strength, it might be better to leave something behind in case people forgot it was supposed to be a rum and not a vodka.

That worked, I suppose…up to a point.  The problem is that a 38% proof point simply does not permit sufficient serious aromas to be discerned easily – you really got to work at it (which I argue is hardly the point for a rum like this one).  

When nosing it, I certainly got the light sort of profile it promised: some negligible white fruits, in bed with a thinly sharp and quite herbal background; it smelled a bit grassy, almost agricole-like, surprising for a Spanish-style ron from Cuba.  And when I took my time with it and let it stand for a bit, I sensed almonds, crushed walnuts, coconut shavings, papaya, sweet watermelon and even a touch of brine. (Note: adding water did absolutely nothing for the experience beyond diluting it to the point of uselessness).

As for the taste when sipped, “uninspiring” might be the kindest word to apply. It’s so light as to be nonexistent, and just seemed so…timid. Watery and weak, shivering on the palate with a sort of tremulous nervousness, flitting here and there as if ready to flee at a moment’s notice, barely brushing the taste buds before anxiously darting back out of reach and out of range. I suppose, if you pay attention, you can detect some interesting notes: a sort of minerally base, a touch of mint. Citrus – like lemon grass – cardamom and cumin, and even some ginnip and sour cream.  It’s just too faint and insipid to enthuse, and closes the show off with a final touch of citrus peel and lemon meringue pie, a bit of very delicate florals and maybe a bit of pear juice.  Beyond that, not much going on. One could fall asleep over it with no issues, and miss nothing.

Obviously such tasting notes as I describe here are worlds removed from the forceful aspects of all those brutal falling-anvil fullproofs many fellow boozehounds clearly enjoy more.  When faced with this kind of rum my default position as a reviewer is to try and be tolerant, and ask who it was made for, what would such people say about it, can redemption be found in others’ tastes? After all, I have been told on many occasions that other parts of the world prefer other rums – softer, lighter, weaker, subtler, easier…made for mixes, not chuggers or shot glasses.

Completely agree, but I suspect that no-one other than a bartender or a cocktail guru would do much with the Carta Blanca. It has all the personality of a sheet of paper, and would disappear in a mix, leaving no trace of itself behind, drowned out by anything stronger than water. It does the world of rum no favours, trumpets no country and no profile worthy of merit, and after a sip or a gulp can be forgotten about as easily as remembering which cocktail it was just mixed in. In short, it has a vapid existence unmolested by the inconvenience of character.

(#752)(72/100)

Jul 302020
 

Although the unrealized flashes of interest and originality defining the Mexican Ron Caribe Silver still make it worth a buy, overall I remain at best only mildly impressed with it. Still, given the opportunity, it’s a no-brainer to try the next step up the chain, the 40% ABV standard-strength five year old Añejo Superior. After all, young aged rums tend to be introductions to the higher-end offerings of the company and be the workhorses of the establishment – solid mixing ingredients, occasionally interesting neat pours, and almost always a ladder to the premium segment (the El Dorado 5 and 8 year old rums are good examples of this).

Casa D’Aristi, about which not much can be found outside some marketing materials that can hardly be taken at face value, introduced three rums to the US market in 2017, all unlisted on its website: the silver, the 5YO and 8YO. The five year old is supposedly aged in ex bourbon barrels, and both DrunkenTiki and a helpful comment from Euros Jones-Evans on FB state that vanilla is used in its assembly (a fact unknown to me when I initially wrote my tasting notes).  

This makes it a spiced or flavoured rum, and it’s at pains to demonstrate that: the extras added to the rum make themselves felt right from the beginning.  The thin and vapid nose stinks of vanilla, so much so that the bit of mint, sugar water and light florals and fruits (the only things that can be picked out from underneath that nasal blanket), easily gets batted aside (and that’s saying something for a rum bottled at 40%). It’s a delicate, weak little sniff, without much going on. Except of course for vanilla.

This sense of the makers not trusting themselves to actually try for a decent five year old and just chucking something to jazz it up into their vats, continues when tasted. Unsurprisingly, it starts with a trumpet blast of vanilla bolted on to a thin, soft, unaggressive alcoholic water. You can, with some effort (though who would bother remains an unanswered question) detect nutmeg, watermelon, sugar water, lemon zest and a mint-chocolate, perhaps a dusting of cinnamon.  And of course, more vanilla, leading to a finish that’s more of the same, whose best feature is its completely predictable and happily-quick  exit.

It’s reasonably okay and a competent drink, but feels completely contrived and would be best, as Euros remarked in his note to me, for mixes and daquiris.  Yes, but if that’s the case, I wish they had said what they had done and what it was made for, right there on the bottle, so I wouldn’t waste my time with such an uninspiring and insipid fake drink.  What ended up happening was that I spent a whole long time while chatting with Robin Wynne (of Miss Things in Toronto) while puzzledly keeping the glass going and asking myself with every additional sip, where on earth did all the years of ageing disappear to, and why was the whole experience so much like a spiced rum? (Well yeah, I know now).

So, on balance, unhappy, unimpressed. The rum is in every way an inferior product even next to the white.  I dislike it for the same reason I didn’t care for El Dorado’s 33 YO 50th Anniversary – not for its inherent lack of quality (because one meets all kinds in this world and it can be grudgingly accepted), but for the laziness with which it is made and presented, and the subterranean potential you sense that is never allowed to emerge.  It’s a cop-out, and perhaps the most baffling thing about it was why they even bothered to age it for five years.  They need not have wasted any time with barrels or blending or waiting, but just filtered it to within an inch of its life, stuffed it with vanilla and gotten…well, this. And I’m still not convinced they didn’t.

(#748)(72/100)


Other Notes

Since there is almost nothing on the background of the company I didn’t already mention in the review of the Silver, I won’t rehash any of it here.

Jul 092020
 

After having written on and off about Yoshiharu Takeuchi’s company Nine Leaves for many years, and watching his reputation and influence grow, it seems almost superfluous to go on about his background in any kind of detail. However, for those new to the company who want to know what the big deal is, it’s a one-man rum-making outfit located in Japan, and Yoshi-san remains its only employee (at least until July 2020, when he takes on an apprentice, so I am reliably informed).

Nine Leaves has been producing three kinds of pot-still rums for some time now: six month old rums aged in either French oak or ex-bourbon, and slightly more aged expressions up to two years old with which Yoshi messes around….sherry or other finishes, that kind of thing.  The decision to keep things young and not go to five, eight, ten years’ ageing, is not entirely one of preference, but because the tax laws of Japan make it advisable, and Yoshi-san has often told me he has no plans to go in the direction of double digit aged rums anytime soon…though I remain hopeful. I’ve never really kept up with all of his work – when there’s at least four rums a year coming out with just minor variations, it’s easy to lose focus – but neither have I left it behind.  His rums are too good for that. He’s a perennial stop for me in any rumfest where he and I intersect.

But now, here is the third in his series of Encrypted rums (Velier’s 70th Anniversary Edition from Nine Leaves was humorously referred to as “Encrypted 2½“) and is an interesting assembly: a blend six different Nine Leaves rums, the youngest of which is two years old. The construction is nowhere mentioned on the elegantly spare label (probably for lack of space) but it’s composed of rums aged or finished in in two different types of P/X barrels, in bourbon barrels, Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, Chardonnay barrels….and one more, unmentioned, unstated. And in spite of insistent begging, occasional threats, offers of adoption, even promises to be his third employee, Yoshi-san would not budge, and secret that sixth rum remains.

Whatever the assembly, the results spoke for themselves – this thing was good.  Coming on the scene as the tide of the standard strength forty percenters was starting to ebb, Nine Leaves has consistently gone over 40% ABVm mostly ten points higher,  but this thing was 58% so the solidity of its aromas was serious.  It was amazingly rich and deep, and presented initially as briny, with olives, vegetable soup and avocados. The fruity stuff came right along behind that – plums, grapes, very ripe apples and dark cherries, and then dill, rye bread, and a fresh brie.  I also noticed some sweet stuff sweet like nougat and almonds, cinnamon, molasses, and a nice twitch of citrus for a touch of edge. To be honest, I was not a little dumbfounded, because it was outside my common experience to smell this much, stuffed into a rum so young.

The rum is coloured gold and is in its aggregate not very old, but it has an interesting depth of texture and layered taste that could surely not be bettered by rums many times its age. Initially very hot, once it dialled into its preferred coordinates, it tasted both fruity and salty at the same time, something like a Hawaiian pizza, though with restrained pineapples (which is a good thing, really). Initially there were tastes of plums and dark fruits like raisins and prunes and blackberries, mixed up with molasses and salted caramel ice cream. These gradually receded and ceded the floor to a sort of salty, minerally, tawny amalgam of a parsley-rich miso soup into which some sour cream has been dropped and delicate spices – vanilla, cinnamon, a dust of nutmeg and basil.  I particularly enjoyed the brown, musky sense of it all, which continued right into a long finish that not only had that same sweet-salt background, but managed to remind me of parched red earth long awaiting rain, and the scent of the first drops hissing and steaming off it.  

I have now tasted this rum three times, and my initially high opinion of it has been confirmed on each subsequent occasion. The “Encrypted” series just gets better every time, and the sheer complexity of what’s in there is stunning for a rum that young, making a strong case that blending can produce a product every bit as good as any pure single rum out there, and it’s not just Foursquare that can do it.  I think it handily eclipses anything else made in Japan right now, except perhaps the 21 year old “Teeda” from Helios which is both weaker and older. But the comparison  just highlights the achievement of this one, and it is my belief that even if I don’t know what the hell that sixth portion in the blend is, the final product stands as one of the best Nine Leaves has made to date, and a formidable addition to the cabinet of anyone who knows and loves really good rum.

(#743)(88/100)

Jun 182020
 

Savanna is probably one of the most exciting distilleries out there for high-ester loving rum chums, with a reputation growing by leaps and bounds, and not solely because of their own superb HERR 10 YO, or the Johnny-come-lately Habitation Velier HERR white (which was such an amazing piece of work that whole virtual forests have been clear cut to provide the electronic paper for the many online reviews about it, and I’ve heard of grown men bursting into tears at the mere sight of one in the wild).

But leaving aside such Himalayan peaks, it’s good to remember that Savanna’s rums span an enormous stylistic range that can appeal to all classes of us rum proles, from feral unaged blancs and lovingly aged 15 year old blends, to finished single cask offerings and high ester monsters that can make a Hampden-lover weep for joy (and envy).  And best of all, they don’t restrict themselves – they release both cane juice rhums and molasses based ones, single barrel and blends, standard strength and full proof — so, like with Guadeloupe, or an indie, we often can get the best of all worlds. 

The 5 YO is part of what might be termed their starter kit, the basic traditional range of the unaged, 3YO, 5YO and 7YO rums (they are released every few years), and serves to demonstrate, as if it were needed, that here’s a distillery with a little something for everyone. It’s one of those rums that ostensibly is for the mixing circuit, but can be sneaked into a neat pour without too many broken spittoons in its wake. So, column still, molasses based and 46% ABV, then, aged five years in a French oak cognac cask, and we can move on with that.

I had started the session with the 10YO HERR, and in comparison, the 5YO is less intense than this superlative control, which is no surprise. Dialled down in intensity, more languorous, slow, almost sleepy.  Oh but the flavours, nothing to sneeze at — honey, sawdust, citrus, peaches and sawdust and cereals.  Here’s a rum that even with its modest stats, can be left to open up and will do so – and when it does, it provides additional notes of brine without olives, a touch of rubber, vanilla, sour cream and light fruitiness, all quite well balanced. But whatever the influence the cognac in the cask might have had seemed at fist blush to be marginal.

The youth is sensed upon sipping, and it’s an interesting if delicate amalgam. It presents as sharp to begin with, yet the bite climbs back down to gentle very quickly. Some bitter tannins, dampened down before they get a chance to descend into obnoxiousness.  Citrus, oranges, nuts, plums, very tart, a bit thin overall to taste…not spotting too much cognac here. Strawberries and pineapples, weak. Nose was better, if not strictly comparable but then, I wasn’t drinking it through my schnozz either. Anyway, good tastes, a little thin, leading to a brisk finish, on the weak side of firm, gone quickly.  Tart gooseberries, turmeric, strawberries, some citrus, and a last touch of that honey I enjoyed…it was a nice closing touch.

Although this 5YO Single Cask is a relatively low level offering from Savanna, it’s still one that can beat out similarly aged juice from other outfits that bugle their pedigree with lots more fanfare, yet deserve their plaudits less. I like it moderately well, and it encourages me to try more rums Savanna makes just to see the development of others in the range. This is an essay in the craft, before the mastery of the company (shown by the of the HERR, the 57, Chai Humide, Thunderstruck et al) snaps more clearly into focus; and, as with many such young rums, it perhaps needs some taming and is best for a mix, though I’d suggest that for the rum aficionado, if you ever get the chance to try it by itself, you might want to sample it that way, just the once. It’s an original work in progress and as long as we keep that in mind, it doesn’t need any further bugling at all — it’s the sort of rum that makes one eager to see what’s else the company is hiding in its casks.

(#737)(81/100)


Other notes

  • This is part of a collection of Savanna rhums Nico Rumlover sent me some time ago when he heard I was interested, long enough back for him to conceivably have forgotten he did so. Well, whether he remembers or not, I’m immensely grateful for the time he took to crate me a great selection of what the distillery can do. 
  • As a brief reference tool, the rums named “Intense” are molasses-based and relatively low on esters, hence their being named “starter rums;” the next step up is the Lontans (also called grand arôme rums) which are also from molasses but with longer fermentations and with  a high resultant ester count; and then there are the Créol rhums which are straightforward rhum agricoles, made from fresh sugar cane juice. Millesimes, fancy finishes and special editions at all strengths pepper their output as well.
Apr 202020
 

It’s not often we see a multi-country or multi-style blend released by an independent bottler. The trend in IBs in recent years has more been towards the exacting individuality of a single cask from a single place (or a single still, in the case of the Guyanese rums). And that makes sense, especially for up-and-coming new micro-indies, who work with one barrel at a time, for economic reasons if nothing else.

That hasn’t stopped some companies from trying to push the envelope, of course, in the never ending Red Queen’s race to wring a few extra points of taste out of a barrel. Finishes or second maturations or fancy-cask ageing regimes have been the most common method and have grained broad (though not always uncritical) acceptance — that technique is practiced by many companies, old and new, large and small (like Renegade, or Foursquare). Blends from multiple stills, pot and column, are more common now than they used to be. And in some cases, blends have indeed been made by IBs, though quite specifically — multiple barrels from a single distillery. Velier, Rum Nation and others have all practiced this, quite successfully.  In a more restricted fashion, they follow the blending practices of the large international producers who keep their house marques stable for long periods and deal in hundreds or thousands of barrels.

Occasionally this tried and true recipe has been tampered with more fundamentally.  Navy rums from whoever have mixed up Guyanese, Jamaican and Trini pieces in differing proportions on an effort to cash in on the famed profile.  A few brave souls have messed around with different “style” blends, like mixing British and French island rums, or bringing Spanish-style rons to the party. The winning entry so far might be Ocean’s Distillery, which mixed nine different rums from across the Caribbean to produce their Atlantic Edition, for example.

1423, the Danish indie, has taken this concept a step further with their 2019 release of a Brazil / Barbados carnival — it comprised of 8- and 3-year old Foursquare rums (exact proportions unknown, both column still) to which was added an unaged cachaca from Pirassununga (they make the very popular “51” just outside Sao Paolo), and the whole thing left to age for two years in Moscatel wine casks for two years, before being squeezed out into 323 bottles at 52% ABV.

What we would expect from such an unusual pairing is something of an agricole-Bajan marriage. Those are devilishly tricky to bring off, because the light, clean, crisp cane juice taste of an unaged cachaca needs careful tending if it wants to balance itself off against the molasses profile of an aged column-still Foursquare. 

What surprised me when nosing it, is how little of the cachaca was noticeable at all – because it was new make spirit none of those peculiar Brazilian woods were part of the aromas, but neither was any sort of serious cane juice clarity. I smelled caramel, chocolates, a bit of light lemon zest, some ginger, and weak molasses.  When rested somewhat longer, there were dates, brine, some low-key fruity notes, brown sugar, even a touch of molasses. Were you to sniff it blind you would not be entirely sure what you were getting, to be honest. Not a Barbados rum, for sure.

All this did not entirely work for me, so I turned to the tasting, where tawny brown flavours mixed themselves up in abundant profusion.  The palate was not sweet or clear, so much, but like having a dessert meal of dates, nuts, nougat, and a strong latte doing a tango with a weak mocha.  The moscatel wine finish was problematic because here it become much more assertive, and provided a sweet red-grape and floral background that contradicted, rather than supported, the softer muskier flavours which had come before.  And as before, separating out the Barbados component from the Brazilian one ended up being an exercise in frustration, so I gave up and concentrated on the finish. This was relatively tame, medium long, mostly latte, breakfast spices, ginger, some pears, nothing really special.

When I asked why such an odd blend, Joshua Singh of 1423 remarked that they had such success with a Calvados aged rum in a previous advent calendar, that they thought they would try expanding the concept, and more were likely coming in the years ahead. Clearly 1423 were after a more adventurous taste-profile, and wanted to push things, go in interesting directions. Well…“interesting” this certainly was.  “Successful”, not so much, unfortunately. But for a company that has bottled as many good rums as they have, I think it might be worth following them down a dead-end rabbit hole once or twice, for the destination at least, if not the journey.

(#720)(79/100)

Apr 092020
 

Rumaniacs Review R-113 | 0717

My apologies to anyone who has bought and enjoyed the Superb Tortuga Light Rum on some Caribbean cruise that docked in the Cayman Islands for the last three decades or more….but it really isn’t much of anything. It continues to sell though, even if nowadays its star has long faded and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone of the current crop of writers or commentators who has ever tried it.

The white rum, a blend of unidentified, unspecified Jamaican and Barbadian distillates bottled at 40%, is not really superb and not from the island of Tortuga north of Haiti (but from the Cayman Islands 500 miles to the west of there); it’s filtered and bleached to within an inch of its life, is colourless, lifeless and near out tasteless. It incites not gasps of envy and jealous looks, but headshakes and groans of despair at yet another downmarket rum marketed with ruthless efficiency to the holiday crowd, and which for some reason, manages to score an unbelievable “Best Buy” rating of 85-89 points from someone at Wine Enthusiast who should definitely never be given a white Habitation Velier to try lest it diminish our personal stocks of rums that really are superb.

Think I’m harsh? Perchance I suffer from enforced isolation and cabin fever? Bad hair day? Feel free to contradict what I’m smelling: a light, sharp, acetone-like nose that at best provides a note of cucumbers, sugar water and sweet cane sap with perhaps a pear or two thrown in.  If you strain, real hard, you might detect an overripe pineapple, a squirt of lemon rind and a banana just beginning to go. Observe the use of the singular here.

Still not convinced? Please taste. No, rather, please swill, gulp and gargle.  Won’t make a difference. There’s so little here to work with, and what’s frustrating about it, is that had it been a little less filtered, a little less wussied-down, then those flavours that could – barely – be discerned, might have shone instead of feeling dull and anaemic. I thought I noted something sweet and watery, a little pineapple juice, that pear again, a smidgen of vanilla, maybe a pinch of salt and that, friends and neighbors is me reaching and straining (and if the image you have is of me on the ivory throne trying to pass a gallstone, well…).  Finish is short and unexceptional: some vanilla, some sugar water and a last gasp of cloves and white fruits, then it all hisses away like steam, poof.

At end, what we’re underwhelmed with is a sort of boring, insistent mediocrity.  Its core constituents are themselves made well enough that even with all the dilution and filtration the rum doesn’t fall flat on its face, just produced too indifferently to elicit anything but apathy, and maybe a motion to the waiter to freshen the rum punch. And so while it’s certainly a rum of its own time, the 1980s, it’s surely – and thankfully – not one for these.

(72/100)


Other notes

  • The Tortuga rum is not named after the island, but to commemorate the original name of the Cayman Islands, “Las Tortugas,” meaning “The Turtles.”
  • The “Light” described here is supposedly a blend of rums aged 1-3 years.
  • The company was established in 1984 by two Cayman Airways employees, Robert and Carlene Hamaty, and their first products were two blended rums, Gold and Light. Blending and bottling took place in Barbados according to the label, but this information may be dated as my sample came from a late-1980s bottle. Since its founding, the company has expanded both via massive sales of duty free rums to visitors coming in via both air and sea.  The range is now expanded beyond the two original rum types to flavoured and spiced rums, and even some aged ones, which I have never seen for sale. Maybe one has to go there to get one. In 2011 the Jamaican conglomerate JP Group acquired a majority stake in Tortuga’s parent company, which, aside from making rums, had by this time also created a thriving business in rum cakes and flavoured specialty foods.
Mar 192020
 

Staying with some of the lesser-known agricoles I’ve delayed writing about for far too long, let’s talk about La Mauny for a bit. This is one of the larger establishments on Martinque, and now owned by Campari, which bought both it and Trois Rivieres in late 2019, ending nearly three hundred years of (various) families’ or witless conglomerates’ control over it. That history is a bit lengthy, so I’ll put it at the bottom and dive right in to the main schtick.

The La Mauny distillery remains one of the largest in Martinique, both for its planted cane area and for its production. Each year, it grinds around 30,000 tonnes of sugar cane , more than half cut by hand, to produce three million liters of agricultural rum. The Heritage 1749 – that date refers to the estate’s founding – is, for all its grandiose titling, something of an entry level rhum, not one of the heavily aged, much-fussed-over badasses that establishes a candidacy for a rhum-halo. It’s 40% ABV, column distilled from cane juice, aged between one and two years in French oak and then given three months in porto casks for a bit of finishing.

Whatever the porto influence was, it didn’t make itself known on the nose, at least not noticeably. The whole thing was relatively mild, and displayed very musky, earthy, loamy initial scents at the beginning…gradually there were replaced with vanilla, caramel, and deep dark fruits, mostly plums and overripe prunes.  The crisp and light grassiness of the sort of agricole rhum with which we are more familiar, was almost entirely absent at this stage, but I had to admit…it surprised me (and that doesn’t happen all that often these days).

Okay so, on to palate.  Straw yellow in the glass, it was softer and less intense, which, for a forty percenter, was both good and bad.  Here the grassy and herbal notes took on more prominence, as did citrus, some tart unsweetened yoghurt, honey and cane juice. The youth was evident in the slight sharpness and lack of real roundness – the two years of ageing had some effect, just not enough to sand off everything that rasped, and additional hints of red grapes, wine and nuttiness showed the porton had done its thing about as well as could be expected. As for the finish, meh – short, slightly sweet, lemon meringue pie, some vanilla, a flower petal or two…and a dark wet earthy aftertaste, very mild, very faint, that took me back to the nose.

To be honest, it’s not really very interesting.  The Porto finish saves it somewhat from being a bore and a dismissive “it’s just another rum” remark.  But even so, I doubt it’ll ever be asked for by name in some upscale joint or to fill out the edges of a home bar. To me, it’s very much like that King of Diamonds rum DDL used to make: a cheap working man’s blue-collar friend, meant to be had in the village or a cheap back-alley cafe with ice, laughter, dominos…and to wash down rough conversations about life, not meandering discussions about the esoteric meanings of Balzac or Baudelaire. That might be a little esoteric for an explanation of how I perceive this young rhum, but it encapsulates what I think of it perfectly.

(#712)(80/100)


History

La Mauny was founded in 1749 when Ferdinand Poulain, count of Mauny (in northern France), acquired the estate via an advantageous marriage to the daughter of a local planter, and established a refinery there. In 1820, with Martinique becoming more important to France after the loss of St Domingue (Haiti), La Mauny invested in a still and began agricole production.  Unfortunately, consistency of ownership proved elusive – a pattern that would not significantly change for the next centuries – and the estate passed through several hands over the succeeding generations because of poor management, financial or production difficulties, or familial squabbles. At various times the Code and Lapiquonne families held ownership, and although the family of Tasher de la Pagerie, whose daughter Josephine married Napoleon, expressed an interest, negotiations fell through.

In 1923 La Mauny was sold to Théodore and Georges Bellonnie who enlarged and brought in new facilities such as a distillation column, new grinding mills and a steam engine. The distillery expanded hugely thanks to increased output and good marketing strategies and La Mauny rhums began to be exported around 1950. In 1970, after the Bellonnie brothers had both passed away, the Bordeaux traders and old-Martinique family of Bourdillon teamed up with Théodore Bellonnie’s widow and created the BBS Group.  The company grew strongly, launching on the French market in 1977. Jean Pierre Bourdillon, who ran the new group, undertook to modernize La Mauny. He began by reorganizing the fields in order to make them accessible to mechanical harvesting and built a new distillery in 1984 (with a fourth mill, a three column still and a new boiler) a few hundred meters from the old one, increasing the cane crushing capacity and buying the equipment of the Saint James distillery in Acaiou, unused since 1958.

The musical chairs of acquisition and disposal, however, were not over. In 1994, Martini and Rossi sold BBS the Trois Rivieres Distillery, where the enormously popular Duquesne rum was also made (note that in 1953, the Marraud de Grottes family who owned Duquesne, bought Trois Rivieres, not the other way round – they then sold to M&R). BBS kept Duquesne and the Trois Rivieres distillery going until 2003, when they closed it and sent its column stills to La Mauny, where TR rhum continues to be made. 

The BBS Group was subsequently bought by the Reunion sugar refining company Quartier Francais in 2007, but they let it go again in 2010 to Tereos (previously Beghin-Say) – all these companies dealt mostly in sugar, but had nothing to do with the spirits industry.  Tereos sold the BBS division and its brands in 2011 to la Martiniquaise, whose speciality was spirits and where the fit was better. But this created a problem, since La Martiniquaise already owned the Saint James, Dillon and Old Nick brands and producing estates, and getting ownership of BBS would give them control more than 60% of rhums produced in the French Islands.  The Competition Authority therefore mandated that La Martinquaise divest part of their portfolio, which they did by selling on BBS to the Cyrille Chevrillon Group (who again, had absolutely nothing to do with rhum – they were into pharmaceuticals, insurance, flowers and printing, for example). The story stops (for now) in 2019, when the Campari Group announced the acquisition of the Trois Rivières, Duquesne and La Mauny brands, for $ 60 million, which is where things lie for the moment.

Sources:


Other Notes

Admittedly, this is something of an obscure rhum and the only other review I found was from that undiscovered treasure of a Japanese site, Sarichiii, run by one of the few ladies in the rum blogosphere.  There is a single notation in Rum Ratings with a score of 3/10, which I’ll include for completeness, but not because I think it’s a review.

Mar 162020
 

With all those distilleries dotting the landscape of Martinique, one could be forgiven for thinking there’s rather little to chose among the agricoles they make aside from canny marketing. I used to think so myself, until I began to amass an ever-increasing series of tasting notes and memories on these rhums from the myriad estates, and realized that there are indeed noticeable points of difference between any one and any other.  And that’s not just between the distilleries, but among the various expressions issued from the same one, as well. 

Saint James is a good example of this, with their pot still white being a world away from their 7 year old; there are the various Neisson or Bally releases, and another is La Favorite, with their dissimilar pair of the Cuvée Privilège and Cuvée Spéciale. All the others follow similar trajectories of quality and variation

But these are perhaps bad examples. They are good rums, prestige rums, aged a bunch, known as special. At the same time, down by the docks, at the layman’s end of the spectrum for everyday hooch, lurks the La Favorite Coeur Ambrė — a cousin to their Rhum Vieux we looked at some years back and similar to most entry-level offerings usually ignored by the cognoscenti but snapped up by the unpretentious and had just so.

The Ambrė is cheap, it lacks any sort of serious pedigree (18 months ageing, 45% ABV), and you’d think there’s nothing to distinguish the humble Martinique-made, AOC-compliant rhum from any other bottom-feeding prole-supplying ambre out on the market made by the other maisons on the island. 

Well…yes. But don’t rush too quickly past this young rhum from la Favorite just yet, because I think that for what it is, it’s not half bad. Just take a sniff at it: the nose is sharp and a bit unrefined, yet remarkably clear for something so young – it has some herbs, some citrus, it’s a shade musty and dry, and also presents a nice amalgam of vanilla, cereals, rye bread and gruyere.

You are, admittedly, met with something of a blast of the pepper shaker when you taste it. Stay with it and it evens out nicely – there’s sweet and salt, crushed almonds and walnuts, musty rooms in need of dusting, straw baskets, and fresh cut lumber/  Quite a bit for something so young, I’d say, and that’s not even all – you get some herbals, grass, florals and light oakiness as well. Plus a twist of lemon zest. All of this concludes with a sharp and unrefined finish of grass, green apples and grapes, some bitter chocolate – it’s too ragged and jagged, though, which shows its youth and kind of messes up the good stuff that came before.

Overall, it needs some further ageing to be appreciated as a drink in its own right and since La Favorite has a few others up the value chain, they make no bones about relegating it as low-end  cocktail fodder. But I submit that it does possess a certain crisp liveliness, an unanticipated quality which its price and appearance don’t entirely convey. Admittedly, there aren’t a whole lot of tastes running around begging to be noticed, and the complexity is pedestrian at best. What I like is that it never pretends to be other than what it is, and those notes that were discernible are reasonably well-defined, mesh decently, and provide an interesting experience. For an agricole rhum less than two years old and costing in the forty-buck range, that’s hardly a disqualifier. In fact, I think it’s something of an achievement.

(#711)(80/100)


A quick history:

La Favorite is a small family owned distillery in Martinique which has an annual rum production of around 600,000 litres. The original sugar plantation was initially called “La Jambette” for a small adjacent river, and was renamed La Favorite in 1851 when Charles Henry acquired it, and subsequently installed a distillation apparatus and began making rhum; anecdotes refer to the islanders calling it their favourite rhum, or Napoleon himself remarking it was his, but who knows. The company ran into financial difficulties in 1875 (maybe this was due to the establishment of the French 3rd Republic, and the defeat of the monarchists whom the planters supported, but that’s outside the scope of this brief bio).  

Somehow the plantation limped along until 1891 when a hurricane did so much damage that the whole operation was shut down for nearly twenty years. Production recommenced in the early 20th century (1905 per the website, though other sources say 1909) when Henri Dormoy bought the company from Mr. Henry and added a railway line through the plantation.  The boost given by the first world war allowed La Favorite to become truly commercially viable and it has been chugging along ever since, still using steam powered distillery apparatus, hand-glueing the labels to the bottles, and manually applying the wax over the top. Since 2000 when Henri’s own son Andre (who had bought the shares of the distillery from the other family members) died, his son Paul Dormoy has run the show there, and was joined in turn by his own son Franck in 2006, making it one of the few family owned establishments remaining on the island.

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