May 182016
 

Nine Leaves French 2

A love note to the concept of kaizen

(#274 / 84.5/100)

***

It’s an old joke of mine that Nine Leaves’ staff consists of  a master blender, office assistant, purchasing agent, bottler, General Manager, brand ambassador and sales office, and still only has one employee.  This was and remains Mr. Yoshiharu Takeuchi, who single-handedly runs his company in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan, and basically issues some very young rums (none are older than six months) on to the world market. The unaged whites in particular are getting all sorts of acclaim, and I have one to write about in the near future.

Back in December 2014 I wrote about the six-month-aged 2014 French Oak, which I thought intriguing and pleasant to drink, though still a bit raw and having some issues in the way the flavours blended together.  Running into Mr. Takeuchi again a year later, I made it a point to try that year’s production, the The American Oak “Spring 2015” and this “Autumn 2015” … and can happily report that Nine Leaves, in its slow, patient, incremental way, is getting better all the time (and as a probably unintended side-effect, has made me buy a few more Japanese rums from other companies just to see how they stack up).

Just a brief recap: the rum was distilled in a Forsythe copper pot still, double distilled, using sugar cane juice from cane grown in Okinawa, so the rum is an agricole in all but name. Mr. Takeuchi himself decides when and how to make the cuts so that the heart component is exactly what he wants it to be. The rums are then aged for six months in the noted barrels, which are all new, and lightly toasted, according to a note Mr. Takeuchi sent me..

Nine Leaves French 1

The French Oak “Autumn 2015” rum was a bit lighter in hue than the American Oak version I tried alongside it, and also a little easier on the nose…and smoother, even rounder to smell, in spite of its 48% strength. There was a subtly increased overall depth here that impressed – though admittedly you kinda have to try these side by side to see where I’m coming from.  Aromas of fanta, orange, cinnamon, vanilla were clear and distinct, as clean and clear as freshly chiselled engravings, and after a while, sly herbal and grassy notes began to emerge…but so little that one could be forgiven for forgetting this was an agricole at all. This was something I have enjoyed about Nine Leaves’s rums, that sense of simultaneous delicacy and heft, and the coy flirtation between molasses and agricole profiles, while tacking inobtrusively to the latter. 

The profile on the palate continued on with that subtle dichotomy – it was slightly sweet and quite crisp, beginning with some wax and floor polish background, well controlled. Sugary, grassy tastes of cane juice, swank, vanilla, some oak, dill and incense led off, and while it displayed somewhat more sharpness and a little less body than the roundness of the nose had initially suggested, further softer notes of watermelon, cucumbers and pears helped make the experience a bearable one. As with the American, there was a chirpy sort of medium-long finish, as the rum exited with dry, bright, clean flavours of citrus, breakfast spices, some cinnamon and maybe a touch more of vanilla. It was clearly a young rum, a little rambunctious, a little playful, but overall, extremely well behaved.  I sure can’t tell you which agricole is exactly like it – Nine Leaves inhabits a space in the rum world uniquely its own, while never losing sight of its rummy antecedents.  That’s always been a part of its charm, and remains a core company competence.

Clearly Nine Leaves is slowly, patiently improving on its stable of offerings. I spent a few hours checking for news that the company intends to issue progressively more aged rums without result – it seems that the current idea is to continue with gradually improving the young rums that area their bread and butter (though I know that Yoshi has a few barrels of the good stuff squirrelled away in his warehouse someplace that he isn’t telling us about, and will issue a two year old American oak rum as a limited edition at some point).  I can’t fault the concept, and if a new distiller can make rums this decent, and improve a little bit every year, you can just imagine what they’ll be putting out the door within the decade. Until then, we could do a lot worse than try one of these lovely seasonal issues Nine Leaves makes.

Kampei!

Other notes

  • Because of some obscure tax regulations in Japan regarding spirits three years old, Nine Leaves is unlikely to issue really aged rums for the foreseeable future
  • The French Oak cask rums are now no longer being produced.
Apr 092016
 

D3S_3629

Bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts will get more out of this than I ever will. It redefines the word “understated.”

(#265. 74/100)

***

Knowing how I have never been entirely satisfied with rums from Barbados, I decided to buy a few about which many have waxed rhapsodic, followed that up with trying as many as I could at the 2015 Berlin rumfest, and continued on the theme by begging my friends in Europe for samples of their personal stocks of independent bottlers’ Bajans.  Let’s see if I can’t get to the bottom of why — with just a few exceptions — they don’t titillate my tonsils the way so many others have and do.

Such as this white three year old from the “Real McCoy” company, which is using stocks from Foursquare. Others have written about Bill McCoy, a Prohibition era rumrunner who never adulterated his stocks (some of which came from, er, Foursquare, according to a documentary made by Bailey Pryor).  Apparently Mr. Pryor was so enthused by what Bill McCoy had done that he approached Richard Seale with a view to creating a modern equivalent: and after some time, the 3 year old white, a 5 year old and a 12 year old were out the door in 2014.  This one is a blend of copper pot and column still distillate, 40% ABV, aged in American ex-bourbon oak, and an offering to bartenders and barflies and mixologists everywhere.

D3S_3629-001

Part of my dissatisfaction with filtered white rums meant for mixing was demonstrated right away by the aromas winding up through my glass: I had to to wait around too long for anything to happen. The nose was warm and faintly rubbery, with some faint tannins in there, sugar water, light cream,and a green olive hanging around with maybe three marshmallows.  A flirt of vanilla loitered around in the back there someplace but in fine, I just couldn’t see that much was going on. “Subtle” the marketing plugs call it. “Pusillanimous” was what I was thinking.

To be fair, a lot more started jumping out of the glass when the tasting started.  It was crisper and clearer and firmer than the nose, a little peppery, more vanilla, cucumbers, dill, ripe pears, sugar cane sap.  It’s not big, it’s not rounded, and the range of potential tastes was too skimpy to appeal to me.  Skimpy might work for a bikini, but in a rum it’s a “Dear John” letter, and is about as enthusiastically received.  The finish?  Longish – surprisingly so, for something at 40%, though still too light. More sugar and dill, guavas and pears, and that odd olive made a small comeback. I’m sorry, guys, but this isn’t my thing at all. I want more.

Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to kick off the Barbados tour with a filtered white 3 year old.  It was thin, watery, too weak, and the tastes struggled to get out and make themselves felt.  Maybe it’s the charcoal filtration that takes out some of what I like in my rums.  The profile is there, you can sense it, just not come to grips with it…it’s tantalizingly just out of reach, and like the Doorley’s XO, it lacks punch and is simply too delicate for my personal palate.  For its price point and purpose it may be a tough rum to beat, mind you, but my personal preferences don’t go there. And having had white rums from quite a few makers who revel in producing fierce, joyous, in-your-face palate shredders, perhaps you can understand why something this easy going just makes me shrug and reach for the next one up the line.

 

Feb 132016
 

Nine Leaves American 2

Little Lord Fauntleroy in a bottle.

(#256 / 84/100)

***

Back in 2014 I first encountered rums from the Japanese company Nine Leaves, and was impressed enough to not only write about the company in one of my Makers profiles, but resolved to not let Mr. Takeuchi’s work escape me a second year in a row.  So said, so done…I’ve tried four more of the company’s rums, and begin working through the resultant reviews with the American Oak version, bottled in Spring 2015.

As an aside, Mr. Takeuchi has certainly managed to elevate his company’s profile in 2014-2015.  Presenting in Rome, Berlin, UK and Miami (and I’m sure there are others), his rums have won prizes at various festivals, Europe remains an expanding market, and one can only wonder at what this company will be like in ten years. Production methods remain the same as before: Okinawan sugar cane, cane-juice basis, careful selection of cuts to bring out the best of the distillate, and six months ageing in either French oak or American oak.  There are stocks now laid down to age for longer periods, but it will be some years before we see these.  Let’s focus on what we have today.

The American Oak release was a light gold rum aged for the requisite six months. That its initial nasal profile resembles a pot still agricole came as no surprise, because, well, it was. In fact, it immediately reminded me of a gelded clairin — and I mean that as a sort of compliment, because the fierce and raging “yo’ mama!” attitude of the Haitian popskull was transmuted here into a more genteel “May I take your coat sir?” primness that somehow worked out okay. In other words, the 50% ABV didn’t smack me or try to stab me, but came across as warm-to-hot, waxy, briny and olive-y, quite dry, light, with none of the intense pungent oiliness that so mark unaged pot still whites. That six months ageing worked reasonably well, and it developed very nicely with additional scents of cucumbers, sugar water and light flowers that served to tame the background notes of turpentine and floor polish. It really was quite well done

Nine Leaves American 1

On the tongue, more spice could be noted. After trying it carefully for a few minutes, I was, to be honest, left scratching my head – there were salt, bitter, and sweet components in evidence, all at once; and that same light sweetness and almost-but-not-quite anorexia of the nose came through in the mouthfeel, somewhat to its detriment.  Flowers, swank, vanilla, oak, cucumbers in a green salad (sans dressing), and then an amusing fanta and orange peel tango started going on at the back end.  It was a young, light, frisky and well behaved rumlet, which faded gently into an easygoing, warm finish that was a little dry, but kept the party going with orange zest, delicate white flowers and a lack of aggro I found impressive for a rum this young, bottled at such a relatively high strength.

Civilized is a word I suppose can be used to describe it. It lacks real deep solidity and maturity I prefer in my rums (y’know, like Jamaicans or Demeraras which land on your palate like an anvil dropped from ten feet up), but its construction is almost playfully elegant.  Yes, there was a shade too little ageing, yes the French oak version is even lighter in texture, yes, perhaps it was too dialled down…but you know, I really don’t know that many producers who can take a rum this young and maintain a balance between the intensity of a full-out, pot-still, zero-year-old white, and something a little older…who can make something so interesting out of it.  Maybe it’s the double distillation, maybe it’s the pot still, the light ageing regime, the cuts, the casks or something, but I’m not complaining too loudly. This is a pretty damned good young rum, and I’m sure glad I tried it.

Nov 252015
 
LP_Navy

Photo Courtesy of duRhum.com

Leave aside the hype and controversy, and try this without preconceptions. You may be surprised, intrigued and even pleased with the result.  I was, I was and I wasn’t, not entirely…but you might be.

(#242. 83/100)

***

If by now you are not aware that Lost Spirits out of California has developed a “molecular reactor” that supposedly mimics the ageing of a twenty year rum in six days, then you have not been paying attention (or aren’t that deep into rum geekdom).  The idea is not itself altogether new, and detractors have sniffed that snake oil sellers have been talking forever about using magical means, family recipes and all kinds of fancy methods to speed up ageing and the profile of old spirits, in products that aren’t actually aged.  Still, with the continual advances in modern tech, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that some smart guy in a garage somewhere can perhaps do such a thing. Certainly Lost Spirits makes that claim.  They have intense enthusiasm, hand built stills, and a good knowledge of chemistry and biology to assist in replicating more traditional methods of production without actually using many of them. The output is more important than the process, you might say.

The Navy Style rum they have made is a booming near-overproof rum that smartly elevates the North American drinking public’s perception of rum by issuing it at 68%, and which comes in a tall slim bottle that has an old fashioned label channelling the aesthetic design philosophy of both technology and 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery (that’s what Josh Miller called “steampunk” in his own recent review of the rum). Just to get the background out of the way, this thing is unadulterated, without additives of any kind, including colouring.  It is made from baking grade molasses and evaporated sugar cane juice (I suppose we could call that “honey”).

The nose was intriguing: an interesting fusion of very hot aromas, both familiar and strange.  Initially it presented with vanilla, prunes, black grapes, some molasses, a faint hint of anise, some oak, and a bit of clean citrus.  But sharper ethanol and less appealing mineral notes of wet charcoal and saltpetr emerged at the back end, and here I was left wondering where the meld of Jamaican dunder and fruitiness of the Demeraras and Bajans was hiding itself.

Similar thoughts came to mind as I tasted it. Yes it was bold and very heated – we could hardly expect less from a rum this strong – I just thought it was all a bit discombobulated.  There were salty, green-olive notes, some soy and grappa and red wine, all mixed up with an undercurrent of molasses.  It was quite rough, and stampeded across the palate without the finesse that other rums of that strength have shown is possible.  Adding water ameliorated that somewhat, and brought other flavours out of hiding – brown sugar, vegetals, dried grass, more undefined citrus zest, and a tang of more red grapes, caramel and molasses, all tied up with sharper oak tannins and ginger root.  The finish, as befits such a strong drink, was long and dry, with little that was new arriving onstage – oak, some wet coffee grounds, more of that strange mineral background, and a twitch of herbs.

Lost Spirits have made a rum that they want to show off as a poster boy for their technology: whether they succeeded in creating a Navy rum is questionable. There are quite a few variations of the type – Lamb’s, Pusser’s, Wood’s 100, Potter’s, the Black Tot to name but a few – so much so that true or not, right or wrong, those are the profiles that the consuming public sees and expects to be represented by the sobriquet “Navy”.  On that level, the Lost Spirit rum doesn’t come up to snuff.  And while other reviewers have remarked on the esters they sensed (which is part of the selling point of the rum, that genuflection to old-style dunder pits), I didn’t find there were that many complex spicy, fruity and floral notes that would give any of the more traditional rum makers cause to choke into their tasting glasses.

Recently mon ami Cyril of DuRhum took apart three Lost Spirits rums, and flat out declared that in his estimation they could not possibly class with the very rums they were seeking to supplant.  Both Josh at Inu-a-kena and Tiare over by A Mountain of Crushed Ice were much more positive in their evaluations, as was Serge at Whiskyfun. I am neither as displeased by Lost Spirits as Cyril was, nor as enthusiastic as my other friends – to my mind the company and its tech still have quite some way to go if they intend to take on really aged big guns made by master blenders with many generations of experience backing them up. Western nations are great proponents of the notion that technology can conquer everything, and maybe they’re right…but only sometimes.

However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, and give Lost Spirits credit for what they have achieved. I liked the strength and intensity, for example – LS has had the balls to take American rums past the 40% that dominates their market.  The taste was intriguing, original, not entirely bad, and there were many aspects of the profile I enjoyed. Where it fails is in its resultant product, which wanders too far afield while failing to cohere.  And therefore it falls short on its promise: the promise that they could produce a profile of any aged rum without actually ageing it. That simply didn’t happen here.  

I’m a firm believer in technology and its potential – but as with many brand new ideas and their execution, the hype so far is greater than the reality. The subtleties of a great aged rum are so multi-faceted, so enormously complex, and so chaotically intertwined with age and barrel and distillate and fermentation and even terroire, that while one day I have no doubt a combination of physics, chemistry and biology (and chutzpah) will fool a taster into believing he’s got an undiscovered masterpiece on his hands, this rum, for today, isn’t quite it.

Other notes:

Control rums this time around were a few old Demeraras, the BBR Jamaica 1977, Woods 100 and of course the Black Tot. It’s in the comparison that the LS Navy 68% snaps more clearly into focus and you see where it both succeeds and falls short.

Note that Navy rums, according to Mr. Broome’s informative booklet on the ‘Tot, only had a small percentage of the blend come from Jamaica (sailors didn’t like it).  Yet most of the online literature on Lost Spirits places great emphasis on how they are recreating the resultant profile of dunder pits and high ester counts (more or less associated with Jamaica), when in fact this was not the major part of the navy style of rum.

Also… just because I don’t (thus far) endorse or highly praise this line of rums, doesn’t mean others don’t.  North Americans are quite positive in their assessments, while European writers thus far remain silent (perhaps due to availability). So some references for your research, should you be curious:

Oct 152015
 

Sunset 1Hulk no like puny rum.  Hulk smash. The last and strongest of the overproof howitzers batters my glass.

(#235. 84/100)

***

It’s a giant of a drink, the most powerful commercial rum ever made, a gurgling frisson of hot-snot turbo-charged proofage.  0.5% additional points of proof and the black clothes squad with silenced helicopters and full SWAT gear would be rapelling down to my apartment searching for weaponized rum. It skirts jail-time illegality by a whisker, and I can truly say the only reason I bought it was anal-retentive machismo and the desire to say I had. Like every 151 ever made (but more so), it was a drink to be feared the way Superman crosses himself when he sees Kryptonite

The Sunset Very Strong Rum is equal parts amazing and puzzling. For one thing, it’s not entirely clear why St. Vincent makes such a juggernaut.  Bragging rights, maybe? Even with their proof-point, 151s are vastly more popular, and more common, so what’s the point of this one?  About all it could reasonably be used for, after all is (a) a killer cocktail or mixer like the Vincentian “steel bottom” (a man-sized chug from the local Hairoun beer, then top the bottle back up with the rum, pleasant on a hot day, but only one or two or your day would be done) (b) the fastest drunk ever (c) an economical boozer for those without deep pockets, since one gets two 40% bottles for every one of these, and (d) an excuse to use lots and lots of colourful metaphors.

The Sunset Very Strong is made by St Vincent Distillers, formed from Mt. Bentnick Estate which had its genesis at the turn of the 20th century; in 1963 it was sold to the government and renamed the St. Vincent Distillery. This company was itself resold to a private concern in 1996 but the name was retained and they remain in operation to this day.  The SVS originates from a two column stainless steel still – I am unclear whether the molasses comes from Guyana or new cane crops planted on the island, and nowhere is it mentioned whether any ageing takes place at all. (I’ve heard that it’s unaged, though I believe it is, just a bit).

I can tell this is boring to non-history buffs. Seriously, you want tasting notes on this thing?  To be honest, I don’t quite know where to start, since drinking the rum neat is an exercise in futility (no-one else ever will).  But whatever….

Sunset 2The (cautiously assessed) nose was extremely sharp, a glimmering silver blade of pure heat.  For all that, once the bad stuff burned off, I was amazed by how much was going on under the hood.  Initially, there was an explosion of an abandoned Trojan factory installed in the Batcave, fresh cut onions, sweat and oil, crazy crazy intense. Stick with it, though, is my advice – because it did cool off (a little).  And then there were vanilla aromas, some cane sap, coconut shavings and red ripe cherries, a subtle hint of butter lurking in the background. I looked at the glass in some astonishment, quite pleased with the scents that emerged where I had expected nothing but rotgut, and then moved on to taste.

Before you sip, a word of warning.  Move your cigar to the side. Make sure no sparks are nearby. Literally, take a tiny drop at a time. A teensy tiny one.  84.5% is so incredibly ferocious that even that small drop coated the entire tongue with a massive heated oiliness. And it was even a bit creamy.  Wow.  White chocolate, butter biscuits, philadelphia cream cheese on wonder bread, vanilla ice cream, nuts, nougat, toblerone, all dialled up to “11” (make that “12”).  To call this rum sharp or chewy might understate the matter. It had so much maxillary oomph that it might well cause the shark in Jaws to go see his therapist, yet it was remarkable how much I enjoyed it. As for the fade, well, come on, what were you expecting? Long and dry as speeches my father makes at other people’s weddings.  Ongoing notes of vanilla, butter, white chocolate (nothing new here).  But those few, clear tastes went on for ages – I think my automatic watch might run down before the closing notes of the SVS dissipate. And before you ask – yes, I really liked this thing.

At 84.5% ABV, the SVS is brutal, amazing, interesting, tasty, and will always be the most powerful rum of its kind…in shadowed corners of near-abandoned bars I’ve heard it whispered that it once tore an Encyclopedia Brittanica collection in half with its bare hands while simultaneously curing the common cold and giving birth to Def Leppard and AC/DC (at the same time). In the overproof rum pantheon, the Sunset Very Strong sits at the extreme top, next to that crazy bastard next door who claims to have brewed something stronger in his grandmother’s bathtub.

But as psychotic as it is, I can’t help but think this is what we’ve been looking for from the world of badass white full-proofs. It’s wholly ridiculous, impractical to a fault and so completely preposterous that it revels in its own depravity. Frankly, that’s just what a powerful Hulk-sized rum should do. And depending on your level of crazy, it’s either a blessing or a curse that the Sunset Very Strong Rum will rarely be seen beyond the walls of a local watering hole’s private stocks, amused fanboys’ homebars…or, perhaps, mine.

Other notes:

  • I must stress that originality is not the SVS’s forte.  The Clairins out of Haiti, for example are quite a bit more off the beaten track (if not as strong).  The SVS is actually a very traditional white rum, akin to Grenada’s Clarke’s Court or Guyanese High Wine, and serves primarily a local market (exports are relatively minimal outside the Caribbean).  Unlike those two, it’s merely torqued up to the maximum legal point and that provided the flavours it did contain with such intensity that it became a sort of masochistic reflex just to try it that way. But it was meant as a mixer, not a sipper, and should be tried that way, I think.
  • This rum is the most popular spirit on the island, and is often seen as the kill-divil of overproof choice in many other small Caribbean islands catering to the tourist trade. It is almost always mixed. Word has it that it’s so popular in St Vincent, that when stocks ran out after a shipment of Guyanese molasses was held up at the port, riots nearly ensued.
  • A year or so after I tried this rum, I scored one even more powerful – the Surinamese Marienburg 90%.  That one was stronger, but I liked this one better.
  • Thanks to Robert Bradley for the note on the SVG “steel bottom” variation.

 

Jul 012015
 

D3S_8946

Neither attempt — to make an ersatz agricole (from molasses) or a white mixing agent to take on the more established brands — really works.

(#220. 78/100)

***

Prichard’s is that outfit from Tennessee which has been quietly and busily putting out rums for nearly twenty years, ever since Phil Prichard decided to make rum in whiskey country.  And while it is now common for new entrants to the market to sell white unaged rum from their stills to cover startup costs and provide cash flow while they wait for more favoured stocks to mature, Mr. Prichard didn’t do anything of the sort, and so his white rum – called Crystal – came later to his company’s portfolio (the first review I’ve seen is dated around 2007).

White rums (or “clear” or “silver”, or “blanc”, pick your moniker) come in several varieties, to my mind: agricoles (of which clairins are a subset), cachacas and white mixers, with a new field of unaged pot still whites beginning to gather a head of steam. The question to me was which target the Crystal was taking aim at, and if it succeeded at any. The evocatively named rum is apparently distilled five times using the same sweet Louisiana molasses as the Fine Rum, which is a major selling and marketing point for the company; it is unaged and comes straight from the barrel (though I’m curious – if it was utterly unaged, what was it doing in a barrel in the first place, but never mind).

Anyway, one thing I remarked on right away after pouring it out, was a certain clear crispness to the nose.  No real complexity here: green apples and vanilla for the most part, and remarkably sweet to smell: the origin molasses were detectable in spite of the filtration. The vanilla was really quite overpowering, though, even if  some cream and saltiness emerged at the back end…overall, nothing too difficult to tease out.

Even at 40% it kinda grated on the palate: it was sharp, too raw – that was the lack of ageing making itself felt.  It wasn’t precisely light either, and the initial clarity of the nose dissipated early, to become a slightly heavier, oilier drink.  When it opened up, other, less appealing tastes stepped up to show themselves off – still a lot of sugar and vanillas, yes, but also harsher iodine and metallic notes, with some crackers and brie teasing the senses without ever taking centre stage. And it was oddly dry as things wrapped up, with those vanillas and fresh-cut green apples returning to take a last look around before disappearing in a short finish.

D3S_8946-001

I review all spirits as if they were meant to be had neat – right or wrong, that’s my cross to bear in an attempt to use the exact same methodology to evaluate every rum I try.  To have different techniques in evaluating different rums based on any idea of what a rum should be used for (sipping drink, cocktail ingredient) is to introduce a bias, if not outright confusion.

So by the standard of whether it works as a neat rum, then, the Crystal doesn’t succeed (and even Prichard’s website doesn’t imply otherwise and plugs it as a mixer).  The very slight acidity of the fruit I tasted, mixed up with the lingering molasses, the vanilla, the jarring metallic notes, creates a discordant taste profile which destroys the sipping experience.  As a cocktail ingredient, then? Probably much better.  Not with a coke though – something sharper is needed to take the vanillas off, so I’d suggest ginger beer, lime, Angostura bitters, something in that direction. Prichard’s own website gives some examples.

Since I’m not into tiki or cocktail culture, such white, bland, filtered rums don’t do much for me, and that’s why in over five years I’ve reviewed almost none (I’ve gotten hammered on them quite often, mind you).  This one’s okay, I guess: it’s just a sweet-molasses-based silver, lacking sufficient complexity or blending artistry to make it as a solo drink. My low score should not be seen as a blanket indictment, then, since its failure as a neat sample does not invalidate it as a cocktail ingredient where it may shine more. I’ll leave it to experts in that field to argue the case for the Crystal, which unfortunately I myself could not and cannot make.

 

Dec 052014
 

D3S_8985

A Japanese pot still rum of clout and flavour, perhaps needing some more ageing to score better and reach a wider audience.

(#191. 82.5/100)

***

In five years of writing about rum, I’ve seen quite a few new rum-making enterprises come across my radar: Elements, Koloa, Downslope, Ocean’s readily spring to mind.  Now they are joined by a new outfit called Nine Leaves, which may be unique in that it’s a distillery, a bottler, and a distributor, all run by one person: Mr. Yoshiharu Takeuchi, who operates in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan (the company was formed in 2013).

At this point in time in their existence, Nine Leaves makes three rums: a white (called “Clear”), and two “Angel’s Half” rums – perhaps so named because Mr. Takeuchi takes half of his distillate and ages it for six months in fresh American oak barrels, and the other half for the same period in French oak.  It was the latter which I tried, largely because I was quite enamoured of the golden colour and its viscosity as it rolled down the tasting glass (not the best reason for trying a new rum, but I’ve done worse for really stupid reasons, so this almost classes as sober judgement on my part).

Speaking to Mr. Takeuchi revealed the following facts about him and his rum, which, much like the Ocean’s Atlantic edition 1997 I looked at not too long ago, is something of a labour of individual love: he’s a one man operation, who brought the distillery to life when nothing in his past (or that of his family) would suggest such a thing.  The sugar originated from Okinawa, the water used came from an underground spring in Shiga.  The barrels came from the US and France, and a Forsythe copper pot still was bought in Scotland.

So once again I was sampling a pot still product, bottled at a full proof 50%, and the theory of terroire having a detectable impact on the final product was put through its paces. Now pot stills preserve a large part of the flavour of the distillate and this bleeds over even after substantial ageing which itself adds extra layers of complexity – but with only a six month period, was it all enough?

D3S_8989

I thought so…to a point. Consider the aromas hailing from the golden-hued rum: sharp and estery, light raisins and figs, salt biscuits, butter…and all those attendant scents of rubber and wax polish, even some fresh sawn woodchips, like one was entering a brand new house fresh from the builders and still in the plastic wrapper. There were some faint background notes of caramel and vanilla, but these were waiting for a turn on the stage that didn’t materialize until the actual tasting.

Which was pleasantly intense, as befitted a 50% rum, and this is where I think some more time in the barrels might have improved the product. It was a firm, medium-bodied-verging-on-light rum, which retained some of that sharp peppery consistency of the nose; the caramel notes now came forward, incense sticks, biscuits, vanilla, coffee; and yes, the waxy, rubber tastes were there, as well as green herbs – dill, maybe (no, really). A very very original palate, fading well into a clean exit of some length, redolent of cane juice, a touch of vanilla, and a last mischievous wink of coffee grounds.

Still, unlike the Rum Nation Jamaican White Pot Still 57%, the Angel’s Half French Oak Cask somehow missed the mark of having all these flavours blend together seamlessly (and that other one, you will recall, was utterly unaged); plus, it still feels a little too raw, which I imagine further ageing would iron out.  Yet I must concede the overall experience was pretty good, which speaks well for Nine Leaves’s expertise here.

The question that occurred to me was, for whom and for what is this rum made? I’d suggest it’s not for freshly press-ganged sailors in the Navy of Rum Appreciation, who are only now beginning their journey, or those who prefer more standard profiles – it really is too different for that. I think it’ll make a cocktail that’ll blow your socks off, and taken neat, with its heft and remarkably different, fresh profile, aficionados who drink a lot of rum would really enjoy it (as might maltsters).

Nine Leaves is worth keeping an eye on. Mr. Takeuchi is clear about his intention of keeping his distillery going for the long term, ageing the rums for longer periods, and developing his blending skills, his market, and his entire product range. He sees his enterprise as something of a constantly tweaked, incrementally refined project. That’ll surely be something to watch, in the years to come, for a rum maker who seems to enjoy running apart from the mainstream. Because already he has a made a good rum right out of the gate — one you will assuredly not mistake for any other.


Other notes

Forsythe copper pot stills are made in Scotland by the eponymous company, and while it’s now a smaller part of their overall business, they still handcraft them (as they have since 1890).  Nine Leaves’s model is supposedly similar to the one in business at Glenmorangie.

 

Aug 092013
 

D7K_2785

 

The DDL Superior High Wine is not superior and not a wine, but will get you high without breaking a sweat.

(#177. 79/100)

***

One of the first rums I ever had as a young man was this one, and the last time I drank was it nearly thirty years ago, when I was thinking of dropping out of University, depressed about my future, and downing a whole raft of shooters in a small beer garden one still, hot afternoon, with a bowl ’ice and my one-armed friend Greg from UG. A few weeks later my life changed and put me on the path that led to where I am now. Between then and now, not much has changed: it’s still very much a low-level, overproofed white lightning meant for local consumption not export, and it’s unlikely it’ll ever be seen much outside the West Indies. And, oddly, as I prepare to move my family abroad for a few years on another life-changing experience next week, this is among the last rums I’ll review for a while.

You’d think that this makes it a mere bathtub-distilled mess for the masses, with nothing to really recommend it (the Grenadian Clarke’s Court “Bush” variation I tried some years ago is another example), but you’d be wrong. That may be because even though it is filtered and beaten and bleached to within a whisker of resembling water, it’s actually made in one of the coffey stills at Diamond (I was told #3, which I think is one of the metal ones from the estate itself). And that lends the initial nose a surprising heft, quite aside from its 69% proofage.

The nose is, as a consequence, quite spicy, and herbal…grassy almost, like a steaming, sunlit meadow after a tropical rain. Chopped light/white fruits, citrus peel (lime) and a rather startling vein of brown sugar was actually in evidence as well. Oh, I won’t kid you, this thing is a rather savage animal and won’t play *that* nice with your schnozz – but even so, there’s quite a bit more action going on there than you’d imagine from something so easy to dismiss out of hand as a local tipple

D7K_2787

This schizophrenic character between texture and taste continued on the palate, which even for 69% is a bit…uncompromising (okay, it’s raw, sandpaper for the unprepared, so watch out – but it does even out after a minute). Spicy as all get-out, medium bodied (although I confess to thinking it pulled a neat shell game on me, and seemed fuller than it was, somehow), astringent and ego-withering as my Aunt Sheila in full flow, and remarkably dry (very much like Flor de Caña’s white dry rum). There’s a subtle agricole style to the whole experience, something about the cleanliness and herbal nature of the taste. Plus, I shouldn’t forget to mention additional flavours of vanilla, cinnamon bark, burnt sugar notes and a faint hint of caramel. And let me not kid you…sure the rum is strong, and I remarked it was sharp at the beginning, but once you start getting into it (or getting high), it smoothens out quite well, and becomes, on subsequent sips, a chain mail glove grasping your glottis, not a sushi knife. The finish is, of course, quite long, quite dry, and leaves a last flirt of almonds and vanilla to remember it by.

Like I said…a somewhat schizoid rum.

High Wine is what real men and porknockers drink in the Guyanese bush and whole swathes of society down by the pint in beer gardens up and down the coast. The men mix it rarely, and get paralyzingly drunk on it in labba time before going off to find a shady lady or a girlie magazine. Not for these guys the indifferent XM 5 year old, or even the King of Diamonds 5, let alone the nobler DDL rums we all know and appreciate. They want this one — cheap, clear and bludgeoningly powerful.

As it was then, so it is now. This is a romping, stomping, cheerful soldier’s and bushman’s rum, a blue collar love note to the working classes, and will never see the tables of the rich. It’s not one you’ll ever be comfortable putting on the top shelf:  your friends will probably laugh at you were you to trot it out like your firstborn for review. All the islands and all the rum producers have rums like this one, their almost unappreciated red-haired stepchildren, not entirely legit, not made for the upper crust, just for those who need to take the edge off once in a while without mucking around with “oak”, “vanillas”, “spicy tumeric background” or “a perky little nose”. It’s too raw and uncompromising for me to really recommend it neat, but you know, if you ever went down to Mudland, you really should try a shot, just the one time — perhaps with coconut water — just so you can say you have. It’s absolutely worth it for that.


Other notes

The Rum Howler, who gave me the bottle in late 2012, remarked that this iteration made from the Coffey still #3 will be discontinued sometime and production moved to the new multi-column still, but we’re both in the dark as to exactly when that was or will be.

 

May 042013
 

D7K_1299

Not quite a rum, but close to a spiced or flavoured agricole, and a delicious drink for all that. Big hat-tip to Tony for this one and all the others.

(#159. 79/100)

***

For those who believe Cuba makes only rums, here’s a flavoured spirit close to being one without actually stating it is. It defies easy categorization, which is perhaps why it doesn’t, even on the label, say anything about what it supposedly is (a rum with additives for taste). The issue may be its source, which is variously noted as being either a cane spirit or a guava-based distillate (it’s actually a bit of both). Like the Thai Mekhong, Czech Tuzemak or Austrian Stroh, it’s close to meeting all the requirements, but isn’t, quite. Which doesn’t make it a bad drink, just an intriguing one, and for the purposes of this review, I’ll call it a rum, ‘cause, you know, what the hell. It’s kissing close, and I’m not a total purist in these matters.

What distinguished this product from the Pinar del Rio province in western Cuba to me, was its overall profile. The hay-blonde spirit immediately gave off scents of herbal lemon grass and white guavas, sugar cane peel torn off the stalk with the teeth. Sweet, soft, almost thick, and vaguely perfumed – and none of this was in any way cloying or reeking of an overenthusiastic blender’s machismo either, just harmoniously balanced. To say I was startled is an understatement. Tony (he of the famous 151 proof rumballs) brought this back from Cuba – on a whim, I suspect, just because it looked so different – didn’t know much about it, but having opened it, he loved it and brought it over for us to check out in more detail.

The body and palate were a bit heated (the liquor was 40%, so some spiciness could be expected); what really was fine about it was the mouthfeel, almost silky, decently smooth and very easygoing. One could not get away from the guavas and the sweetness of almost-ripe, fleshy fruit (pears, not peaches), and here again I must stress how well put together the overall product was – there was no real excess sugar or flavoured overkill here, the way you would find in a liqueur, just a delicate balance between competing tastes of nuts, white toblerone, a flirt of vanilla and maybe some more of that raw sugar cane sap. Finish was gentle and medium long – I got less from the aromas than a lingering taste on the tongue, another thing I quite liked.

The outfit that makes this spirit – Sociedad L. Garay y Compañía – has been in operation since 1892, though I was unable to find out how it weathered the Cuban revolution. It seems to run on a semi-privatized basis these days. From what I was able to gather on the various Spanish-language websites I visited, the spirit is made by mixing a large quantity of the macerated guavas with a cane-derived alcoholic base, and the resultant mixture allowed to marry for about a month before being drawn off and aged in oak barrels for a further three months (for the dry “seca” version…two months is considered good enough for the sweet “dulce”).

D7K_1300

So an aged product it is not. But you know, some time back I wrote a positive review of the Hawaiian Kōloa rum which had not been aged at all yet still presented itself well as a rum, and Nine Leaves out of Japan does something similar with their “Clear” rum. This little-known almost-rum from Cuba, flavoured and sweet as it is, is a pleasant sipping product to have after dinner (or before it), something to savour with a nice tropical sundown. Don’t look for massive complexity – it’s not that kind of drink – but just enjoy it without fanfare, over ice, and share generously with your friends if that’s their thing, making sure you explain its origin and source materials before they ask the inevitable. Me, I see this as a farmer’s rum, a country rum, similar to backdam hooch my friends and I used to distil out of rice and sugar in the old days, and flavour with whatever fruits were on hand. The Seca reviewed here is made much more professionally than what we did, but the principle remains the same.

And if you haven’t been aware of it before, well, it’s so damned cheap in Cuba that you can’t go wrong with dropping five bucks and at least trying it. Everyone’s heard about Havana Club and the other big brands out of the island…here’s one it’s worth your while to check out, even if you, like me, may be a bit amused, bemused and confused on the question of whether it’s a rum at all.

 

 

Mar 302013
 

Fair warning: the wine is strong on this one.

(#137. 71/100)

***

I would like to wax rhapsodic on this 40% rum; spout literate encomiums to its puissance and scintillating quality, write heady metaphors with words like “ambrosia,””zoweee!” and “wtf”. I’d like to share with you, reader, the happiness of Unicaworld (“would place this alongside my good Martinique rums on my top shelf”) or the Whatsnewinbooze blog (“…a great product from a new distillery…” and “This is an absolute must try…”) or the remarks of the Big Kahuna, when he referred to this rum as one of two shining standouts he tried from Downslope Distilling.

Unfortunately I can’t. And the short version is that in my opinion the rum, sorry to say, doesn`t work. At all.

Have you any idea how frustrating that is? Here I am, tasting rums in their tens and hundreds on mostly my own dime, month in and month out, fighting the long defeat in a desperate championing of rums in a resolutely whisky drinking country (and as part of a primarily whisky drinking book club), plaintively trumpeting the case for distilleries to go beyond, seek new horizons, rise above 40%, push the envelope, experiment…and now this rum comes along from an enthusiastic bunch of guys in Colorado who’re trying to do everything I ask for, and it…just….fails. Aaargh. It’s enough to drive a man to drink, honestly.

Downslope Distilling is an outfit set up in Colorado in 2008 partly because of some peculiar laws regarding making and distributing spirits in that state, and partly as a consequence of the rabid interest of its founders in producing what one might term craft spirits: reading around I get the impression their real interest is whiskey and vodkas, perhaps gins, with rums almost an afterthought, but maybe that’s just me. At end, I see it as a logical evolution of micro-breweries which took off in popularity some years back. Hey, we can make a decent beer…let’s try something different.

Now, with respect to its rums, DD uses unprocessed Maui cane sugar as the base from which to distil its blend, running it through a pot still twice, and then, without any filtration, chucks it right into a barrel that once held wine – each barrel used (or set of barrels) held a different wine so output is not only limited to several hundred bottles per individual run, but widely divergent from batch to batch depending on the wine it once held. I suspect that the bottle I got was aged in Merlot casks from the Napa valley where they host those popular limo tours (other bottlings are aged in Tokaji casks which is a sweet dessert wine from Hungary, or in California Chardonnay casks).

When I poured this light blonde spirit into my glass, what I smelled from three paces was a cloying reek of enormously beefed up Muscatel grapes, as if the Legendario from Cuba had enhanced itself by snorting enough coke to keel over a Himalayan yak. I mean, it was so pervasive that I could barely make out anything else – not even the usual burnt sugar and caramel notes that so characterize most rums. That’s not surprising, since they use sugar, not molasses to begin with, so to some extent what we’re getting here is an agricole. It was raw and harsh and burning, grudgingly gave up a hint of nutmeg and grassy notes, before morphing into a wine on the edge of turning to vinegar, or overripe oranges just starting to go. Sharp and unappealing to me.

I was not reassured by the palate either: yes the wine aged rum was sweet, but also briny, and as sharp and grasping on the tongue as a vindictive ex-wife’s lawyer. It was dry as a bone and even after several minutes, all one could ascertain taste-wise was more grapes and more table plonk — way, way too much — that flooded the taste buds with their own omniscience so intensely that eventually I just had to give up, because nothing was gonna make it through those three hundred Spartans of wine. About the only thing that even marginally redeemed what I was tasting was the attendant finish, quite long, with banana, cinnamon and bitter wine notes. Not enough to save it. If they had not labelled the rum as such, I wouldn’t have known it had it been placed before me blind.

Part of the issue here is the ageing. Rums are aged in oak for years – at least one, preferably three to five, and good ones for many more – and then finished in wine casks for a few months. To try and combine the two processes for six months in barrels that impart such enormous influence is too little of one and too much of the other, and it sinks this drink utterly. No, really – it’s too raw to have neat, and I could not find a mix that even remotely ameliorated the overarching wine bedrock. This is a product in need of severe oak support for at perhaps another five years. It was a mistake to issue it so early, since what it accomplished was to give startup rum makers a bad name and makes buyers avoid rum-creating micro-distillers on principle (to the detriment of all of us boozers). Compare this hastily issued rum to the years of preparation St Nicholas Abbey did in the late 2000s before issuing their first rum, and you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

In fine, Downslope Distilling’s wine aged rum is too sharp, too young and too far out to lunch for me to even admire its adventurousness much as I usually applaud such efforts. What this padawan needs is a Yoda to guide it to adolescence, and a little less enthusiasm from online writers or distillery visitors who should be more stinting with their praise and more comparative in their approach (come on, are you seriously trying to tell me this rum compares magnificently to a top Martinique agricole? gimme a break). In years to come, Downslope Distilling may grow into something, and I really hope they do, because at least they’re trying, and have the advantage of enthusiasm, obsession, perhaps even love for what they do (so more power to them for that); however, right now, they’d do better to be more self-critical about the hooch they’re passing off as quality. They may have thought they were putting some James Brown into their spirit: what they got was his sweat instead of his style.

***

Because this is a small distillery not really that well known, and because I’m quoting directly, I’m including my references here:

http://unicaworld.com/foodwinekitchen/foods-and-wines/wines-and-spirits/5917/wine-weirdos-and-downslope-distilling-barrel-aged-rum/  “…would place this alongside my good Martinique rums on my top shelf.” As well, the “James Brown” comment.

http://whatsnewinbooze.blogspot.com/2010/05/downslope-distilling-wine-barrel-aged.html “…This is a great product from a new distillery…” and “This is an absolute must try…”

http://www.bigkahunabrew.com/2012/02/downslope-distilling-centennial-colo.html The Big Kahuna commented that this was “…wonderful with two shining standouts…” referring to both this one and a vanilla flavoured variant.