May 152019
 

(c) Duty Free Philippines website

Tanduay, for all its small footprint in the west, is one of the largest rum makers in Asia and the world (they’re either 1st or 2nd by sales volume, depending on what you read and when), and have been in business since 1854. Unsurprisingly, they see fit to commemorate their success with special editions, and like all such premiums with a supposedly limited release meant only for the upper crust, most can get one if they try. The question is, as always, whether one should bother.

The presentation of the CLX rum is good – boxed enclosure, shiny faux-gold label, solid bottle.  And all the usual marketing tantaraas are bugled from the rooftops wherever you read or look. It’s a selection of their best aged reserves, supposedly for the Chairman’s personal table.  It has a message on the back label from said Chairman (Dr. Lucio Tan) extolling the company’s leadership and excellence and the rum’s distinctive Filipino character (not sure what that is, precisely, but let’s pass on that and move on…). All this is par for the course for a heritage rum. We see it all the time — kudos, self praise, unverifiable statements, polishing of the halos. Chairmen get these kinds of virtuous hosannas constantly, and we writers always smile when we hear or see or read them.

Because, what’s missing on this label is the stuff that might actually count as information – you know, minor, niggly stuff like how old it is; what kind of still it was made on; what the outturn was; what made it particularly special; what the “CLX” stands for…that kind of thing.  Not important to Chairmen, perhaps, and maybe not to those maintaining the Tanduay website, where this purportedly high-class rum is not listed at all – but to us proles, the poor-ass guys who actually shell out money to buy one. From my own researches here’s what I come up with: CLX is the roman numerals for “160” and the rum was first issued in 2014, based on blended stocks of their ten year old rums.  It is more than likely a column still product, issued at standard strength and that’s about all I can find by asking people and looking online.

Anyway, when we’re done with do all the contorted company panegyrics and get down to the actual business of trying it, do all the frothy statements of how special it is translate into a really groundbreaking rum?

Judge for yourself. The nose was redolent, initially, of oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies and cereals…like Fruit Loops, I’m thinking.  There are also light acetones and nail polish remover. There may be an orange pip or two, a few crumbs of chocolate oranges, or maybe some peach fuzz drifting around, but it’s all thin pickings – maybe it’s the 40% ABV that’s at the root of it, maybe it’s the deliberately mild column still character that was chosen. There is some vanilla and toffee background, of course, just not enough to matter – for this to provide real oomph it really needed to be a bit stronger, even if just a few points more strength.

The same issues returned on the very quiet and gentle taste.  It seemed almost watery, light, yet also quite clean. A few apples and peaches, not quite ripe, providing the acid components, for some bite.  Then red grapes, cinnamon, aromatic tobacco, light syrup, vanilla, leather for the deeper and softer portion of the profile. It’s all there, all quite pleasant, if perhaps too faint to make any statement that says this is really something special.  And that standard proof really slays the finish, in my own estimation, because that is so breathy, quiet and gone, that one barely has time to register it before hustling to take another sip just to remind oneself what one has in the glass.

How the worm has turned.  Years ago, I tried the 12 year old Tanduay Superior and loved it. It’s placidity and unusual character seemed such a cut above the ordinary, and intriguingly tasty when compared to all the standard strength Caribbean blends so common back then.  That tastiness remains, but so does a certain bland sweetness, a muffled deadness, not noted back then but observed now….and which is no longer something to be enjoyed as much.

I have no issue with the standard Tanduay lineup — like the white, the 1854, the Gold, the Superior etc —  being deceptively quiet and mild and catering to the Asian palate which I have been told prefers rather more unaggressive fare (some of their rums are bottled south of 39%, for example).  I just believe that for an advertised high-end commemorative rum which speaks to a long and successful commercial company history, that more is required. More taste, more strength, more character, more oomph. It’s possible that many who come looking for it in the duty free shops of Asia and blow a hundred bucks on this thing, will come away wishing they had bought a few more of the Superiors, while others will be pleased that they got themselves a steal.  I know which camp I fall into.

(#624)(75/100)


Other notes

As always, thanks to John Go, who sourced the rum for me.

May 132019
 

Everything you research on Naga is likely to make you rend your robes with frustration at what little you do manage to dig up. Yet paradoxically, everything you do find out about the rum itself seems guaranteed to keep you reading, and make you buy it, if no other reason than because it seems so damned interesting. The label seems designed specifically to tantalize your curiosity.  Perusing it, you can with equal justification call it “Naga Batavia Arrack” (“made with Indonesian aged rum” says the script, implying there it’s arrack plus rum), or “Naga Double Cask rum” or “Naga Java Reserve Rum” or simply go with the compromise route.  And each of those would, like the mythical elephant to the blind men, be somewhat correct.

It’s a Batavia Arrack from Indonesia, which means it a rum made from molasses and a red rice yeast derivative (just like the arrack made by By the Dutch). Both Naga’s 38% version with a different label, and this one, are a blend of distillates: just over half of it comes from pot stills (“Old Indonesian Pot Stills” puffs the less-than-informative website importantly, never quite explaining what that means) with a strength of 65% ABV; and just under half is 92% ABV column still spirit (the ratios are 52:48 if you’re curious). The resultant blend is then aged for three years in teak barrels and a further four years in ex-bourbon barrels, hence the moniker “double aged”.  In this they’re sort of channelling both the Brazilians with their penchant for non-standard woods, and Foursquare with their multiple maturations

Whether all this results in a rum worth acquiring and drinking is best left up to the individual.  What I can say is that it demonstrates both a diversity of production and a departure from what we might loosely term “standard” — and is a showcase why (to me) rum is the most fascinating spirit in the world….but without the rum actually ascending to the heights of must-have-it-ness and blowing my hair back.  In point of fact, it is not on a level with the other two Indonesian rums I’ve tried before, the Compagnie des Indes Indonesia 2004 10 YO and the By The Dutch Batavia Arrack.

Follow me through the tasting: the nose is initially redolent of brine and olives, and of cardboard, and dry and musty rooms left undusted too long. That’s the beginning – it does develop, and after some time you can smell soy, weak vegetable soup, stale maggi cubes, and a faint line of sweet teriyaki, honey, caramel and vanilla.  And, as a nod to the funkytown lovers out there, there is a hint of rotten fruits, acetones and spoiled bananas as well, as if a Jamaican had up and gone to Indonesia to take up residence in the bottle…and promptly fell asleep there.

Palate. It was the same kind of delicate and light profile I remembered from the other two arracka mentioned above. Still, the texture was pleasant, it was pleasantly — but not excessively — sweet, and packed some interesting flavours in its suitcase: salt caramel ice cream, dill and parsley, cinnamon,sharp oak tannins, leather, some driness and musky notes, and a sharp fruity tang, both sweet and rotten at the same time – not very strong, but there nevertheless, making itself felt in no uncertain terms. Finish was relatively short, mostly light fruits, some brine, mustiness and a trace of rubber.

Summing up.  On the negative side, there is too little info available online or off for the hard facts — what an “Indonesian” pot still actually is, where the distillery is, who owns it, when was the company established, the source of the molasses and so on…this erodes faith and trust in any proclaimed statements and in this day and age is downright irritating. Conversely, listing all the pluses: it has a genuinely nice and relatively sweet mouthfeel, is gentle, tasty, spicy, somewhat complex and different enough to excite, while still being demonstrably a rum…of some kind. It just didn’t entirely appeal to me.

Because I found that overall, it lacked good integration.  The pot still portion careened into the column still part of the blend and neither came out well from the encounter; the esters, acidity and tartness really did not accentuate or bring out the contrasting muskier, darker tones well at all, and it just seemed a bit confused….first you tasted one thing, then another and the balance between the components was off.  Also, the wood was a shade too bitter – maybe that was the teak or maybe it was the liveliness of the ex-bourbon barrels. Whatever the case, the overall impression was of a product that somehow failed to cohere.

I’m fully prepared to accept that a rum from another part of the world with which we lack familiarity caters to its own audience, and is supposed to be somewhat off the wall, somewhat at right angles to conventional tastes of bloggers like me who are raised on Caribbean fare and all its imitators.  Yet even within that widely cast net, there’s stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t. This is one that falls in the middle – it’s nice enough, it kinda sorta works, but not completely and not so much that I’d rush out to get me another bottle.  

(#623)(79/100)

May 022019
 

Like those tiny Caribbean islands you might occasionally fly over, the Maria Loca cocktail bar in Paris is so miniscule that if you were to sneeze and blink you’d go straight past it. When Mrs Caner and I go inside, it’s dark, it’s hectic, it’s noisy and the place is going great guns. At the bar, along with two other guys, Guillaume Leblanc is making daiquiris with flair and fine style, greeting old customers and barflies and rumfest attendees, the shaker never still. Even though he doesn’t work there, he seems to know everyone by their first name, which to me makes him a top notch bartender even without the acrobatic or mixing skills.

In the dark corner off to the side are wedged Joshua Singh and Gregers Nielsen, a quartet of bottles in front of them.  Part of the reason they’re here is to demonstrate the Single Barrel Selection of their Danish company (named “1423” after the first barrel of rum they ever bottled back in 2008) and how they fare in cocktails. Nicolai Wachmann and Mrs Caner have been drafted to help out and I’m squished in there as well to do my review thing and take notes in the Little Black Book (since the Big Black Book didn’t fit into my pocket when I was heading out).

Three of these bottles are formal SBS releases by 1423, and there’s a Jamaican, a Trini and one from Mauritius. The fourth is a white-lightning tester from (get this!) Ghana, and I haven’t go a clue which one to start with. Nicolai has four glasses in front of him and somehow seems to be sipping from all four at once, no help there. Mrs. Caner, sampling the first of what will be many daiquiris this evening, and usually so fierce in her eye for quality rums, is raptly admiring Guillaume’s smooth drink-making technique while batting her eyes in his direction far too often for my peace of mind. Fortunately he’s engaged to a very fetching young miss of his own, so I stop worrying.

“Any recommendations?” I ask Joshua who’s happily pouring shots for the curious and talking on background about the rums with the air of an avuncular off-season Santa Claus.  How he can talk to me, pour so precisely, have an occasional sip of his own, discuss technical stuff and call out hellos to the people in the crowd all at the same time is a mystery, but maybe he’s just a better multi-tasker than I am.

“Try the Jamaican,” he advises, and disappears behind the bar.

“Not the Trinidadian?” I ask when he pops back up on this side, two new daiquiris in his hand.  Mrs. Caner grabs one immediately, fending off Nicolai’s eager hands and shoving him into the wall in a way that would make a linebacker weep.  He looks at me like this is my fault.

“It’s not a Caroni, so you might feel let down,” Josh opines, handing the second cocktail glass to another customer. “It’s Angostura, and you’re a rumdork, so…” He shrugs, and I wince.

Since I’m writing an on-again, off-again survey of rums from Africa (50 words and I’m done, ha ha), the Ghana white rum piques my interest, and I turn to Gregers, who is as tidy and in control as ever.  I suspect he lined up his pens and papers with the edge of his desk in school. “The Ghana, you think?”

He considers for a moment, then shakes his head and pours me a delicate, neat shot of the Mauritius 2008. “Better start with this one.  It’s a bit more…mellow. And anyway, you tried the Ghana last year in Berlin. If you need to, you can try it again later.”

The rum winks invitingly at me.  I take a quick moment to snap some pictures of the bottle, thinking again how far labels have come in the last decade.  Velier started the trend, Compagnie des Indes provides great levels of detail, and others are following along, but what I’m seeing here is amazing. The label notes the distillery (Grays, which is a famed family name as well – they make the New Grove and Lazy Dodo line of rums but not the St. Aubins); the source, which in this case is molasses; the still type – column; distillation date – 2008; bottling date – 2018; and other throwaway details such as the non-chill-filtration, the port wine finish, the 281-bottle outturn, and the 55.7% ABV strength.  I mean, you really couldn’t ask for much more than that.

I nose the amber spirit gently, and my eyes widen.  Wow. This is good. It smells of toblerone, white chocolate, vanilla and almonds but there are also lighter and more chirpy notes swirling around that – gooseberries, ginger shavings, green grapes, and apples. And behind that are aromas of dark fruit like plums, prunes and dates, together with vague red-wine notes, in a very good balance. Musky, earthy smells mix with lighter and darker fruits in a really good amalgam – you’d never confuse this with a Jamaican or a Guyanese or a Caroni or a French island agricole.  I glance over at Mrs. Caner to get a second opinion, but she’s ogling some glass-flipping thing Guillaume is doing and so I ask Nicolai what he thinks. He checks glass #2 on his table and agrees it is a highly impressive dram, just different enough from the others to be really interesting in its own way. He loves the way the finish adds to the overall effect.

As I’m scribbling notes into the LBB, I ask Gregers slyly, “Is there anything you’ve been told not to tell me about the rum?” He is like my brother, but business and blood and booze don’t always mix well, trust is earned not given freely, and I’m curious how he’ll answer. Nicolai’s ears perk up and he pauses with his nose hanging over the third glass.  Though he doesn’t talk much, his curiosity and rum knowledge are the equal of my own and he likes knowing these niggly little details too.

“Nope. Any question you have, we’ll answer.” Gregers and Joshua exchange amused looks. Truth to tell, there are two omissions which only a rum nerd would ask for or actively seek out.  I wonder if they’re thinking the same thing I am. So:

“Additives? You don’t mention anything about them on the label.”  And given how central such a declaration is these days to new companies who want to establish their “honesty” and street cred, an odd thing to have overlooked – at least in my opinion.

Joshua doesn’t miss a beat. He confirms the “no additives” ethos of the SBS line of rums, and it was not considered necessary to be on the label – plus, if some weird older gunk from Panama or Guyana, say, were to be bottled in the future and then found to be doctored by the original producer, maybe with caramel, then 1423 would not have egg over its face, which makes perfect sense.  Then, before I ask, he and Gregers tell me that this rum is actually not from a single barrel but several casks blended together. Well…okay (there’s full detail in “other notes” below, for the deeply curious).

The bar is getting noisier, more crowded.  Pete Holland of the Floating Rum Shack just turned up and is making the rounds, pressing the flesh, because he knows, like, everyone – alas, his pretty wife is nowhere in sight. Yoshiharu Takeuchi of Nine Leaves is in center-court, telling a hilarious R-Rated story I cannot reprint here (much as I’d like to) of how he was mugged in Marseilles while taking a leak in an alleyway, and Florent Beuchet of the Compagnie is mingling – I shout a hello at him over the heads of several customers.  He waves back. The cheerfully bearded and smiling Ingvar “Rum” Thomsen (journalist and elder statesman of the Danish rum scene) is hanging out next to his physically polar opposite, Johnny Drejer (tall, slim, clean-shaven); Johnny and I briefly discuss the new camera I helped him acquire, and some of his photographs and the state of the rumiverse in general. There are probably brand reps and other French rumistas in attendance, but I don’t recognize anyone else.  All I can see is that everyone is enjoying themselves thoroughly. The energy level of the bar is off the scale.

Guillaume has finished his cocktail twirling demo and lost my wife’s attention, I note happily. He’s mixing more drinks for another small group of people who just wandered in. Mrs. Caner is now deep in conversation with Nicolai about his marital status and that of her entire tribe of single female relatives. After landing me like a prize trout all those years ago, my pretty little wife has developed a raging desire to “help out” any single person of marriageable age — and she’s seen Hitch like forty-seven times, which doesn’t help.  Anyway, they’re both ignoring the rums in front of them, so I roll my eyes at this blasphemy and continue on to the tasting.

And let me tell you, that Mauritius rum tastes as good as it smells, if perhaps a little sharper and drier on the tongue than the aromas might suggest. It really is something of a low-yield fruit bomb.  Raspberries, strawberries, lemon peel, ginger and sherbet partied hard with the deeper flavours of prunes, molasses, vanilla, nuts, chocolate mousse, ice cream and caramel…and a touch of coca cola, tobacco and seaweed-like iodine.  There’s even a sly hint of brine, thyme, and mint rounding things off, transferring well into a lovely smooth finish dominated by candied oranges, a sharp line of citrus peel, and a very nice red wine component that completes what was and remains, a really very good drink.  It is like a curiously different Barbados rum, with aspects of Guyana and Jamaica thrown in for kick, but its quality is all its own, and hopefully allows the island to get more press in the years to come. For sure it is a rum to share around.

With some difficulty, I manage to catch Mrs. Caner’s eye and pass the glass over to her, because I think this is a rum she’d enjoy too.  Somehow even after all the daiquiris she’s been getting, her eyes are clear, her speech is unslurred, her diction flawless, and I may be biased but I think she looks absolutely lovely.  As she tries the SBS Mauritius, I can see she appreciates its construction as well and she compliments Joshua and Gregers on their selection. “This is great,” she remarks, then provides me with a whole raft of detailed tasting notes, which I have mysteriously lost and none of which somehow have made it into this essay.

Nicolai, over in his corner, is happy to cast some other comments on to the table regarding the SBS Mauritius, all positive.  We all agree, and I tell Gregers, that this is one fine rum, and if I could, I’d buy one, except that I can’t. My wife, having delivered herself of her earth shaking opinion, immediately beelines over to the bar area where Guillaume’s fiancee and sister have just arrived, most likely because she’s had enough of all the testosterone in our corner and wants some real conversation with people who are specifically not certifiable about rum.

L-R – Nicolai, Gregers, Guillaume, Joshua and one of the bartenders from that evening whose name I did not get, sorry.

I want some fresh air so Joshua and I go outside the bar for a smoke (the irony does not escape us).  The nighttime air of Paris is crisp and cool and I remember all the reasons I like coming here. We discuss 1423 and their philosophy, its humble beginnings more than ten years ago, though that remains outside the scope of this essay.

“So, the Mauritius was a very good rum,” I remark, happy to have started off this fest (and 2019) on a good rum, a tasty shot.  He courteously does not ask for my score which for some obscure reason is all that some people want. “What do you think I should try next?”

He smiles, reminding me once again of Santa Claus in civilian clothes and taking a breather from gift giving, mingling with the common folk. “Oh the Jamaica, for sure.  That’s a DOK, PX finished, pot still aged in 40-liter barrels…and let me tell you, there’s some really interesting stories behind that one -”

I stop him. My fingers are twitching. “Hang on.  I gotta write that down. Let’s go inside, pour a shot, and you can tell me everything I need to know while I try it.  I don’t want to miss a thing.”

And while it’s not exactly relevant to the Mauritius rum I’m supposed to be writing about here, that’s pretty much what we ended up doing, on a cool evening in the City of Lights, spent in the lively company of my beautiful wife, and assorted boisterous, rambunctious geeks, reps, writers, drinkers, bartenders and simply good friends. You just can’t do a rum tasting in better surroundings than that.

(#620)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • In one of those curious coincidences, the Fat Rum Pirate penned his own four-out-of-five star review of the same rum just a few days ago. However, the first review isn’t either of ours, but the one from Kris von Stedingk, posted in December 2018 on the relatively new site Rum Symposium. He was also pretty happy with it
  • Background on the rum itself:
    • Joshua met with a rep from Grays from Mauritius a few years ago at the Paris Rhumfest; he brought a number of different cask samples from the warehouse. 1423 ended up choosing two, which were about 9 years at this time
      • The first was aged seven years in a 400-liter French Limousin oak, followed by two more in Chatagnier (Chestnut).
      • The second was again aged seven years in a 400-liter French Limousin oak, followed by two years in Port.
    • 1423 ordered both of them but ended up receiving 400 liters of the Chatagnier cask and 120 liters of the Port both now with another ageing year in their respective casks. All of this was blended together when delivered to Denmark and the 2018 release was basically the first 200 liters, all tropical aged. The remaining 320 liters are still in the Denmark warehouse waiting for a good idea and the right time to release.
Mar 192019
 

Whether or not you can place Reunion on a map, you’ve surely heard of at least one of its three distilleries: Savanna, and that high-ester still of theirs that’s driving rum geeks into transports of ecstasy.  Yet for almost the same time, there have been two other distilleries on the island, Riviere du Mat (which made the delicious Millesime 2004 and XO rums) and the oldest of the three, another family owned outfit called Isautier, which I wrote about in a brief bio a few days back

Isautier, among all their punches and arranges, make an interesting selection of aged rums as well – the entry level 40% Barrick (3 months aged), plus 5 / 7 / 10 year old rums; and their top of the line “Louis & Charles Isautier” Cuvee 70, released at 45% ABV.  It comprises a blend of 15 year old aged agricole rum, and a 7 year old molasses-based rum. The bottle does not bear an age statement, and it’s simply marketed as a premium rum of the line, going for around eighty euros.

Like Guadeloupe half a world away, Reunion does not have an AOC designation, and its remoteness and relatively small land area makes it impractical to go fully with either molasses-based or cane-juice distillates, and so they occasionally mix and match their blends from both.  This makes them less “pure” and clearly identifiable rums…but also quite tasty, as the profile of the L&C demonstrated.

When I nosed the glass, it occurred to me that it was a somewhat toned-down version of Savanna’s Lontan grand arome series (which I tasted in tandem). I mean that in a good way because high ester rums are not always or necessarily meant as sipping drinks, so one that dials down the noise and goes to the middle of the road can present really well – like the less in-yer-face Hampdens, Worthy Parks, or  NRJ Vale Royal and Cambridge did. In any event, the aromas purred sleepily out of the bottle and there were quite a lot of them: pineapples, pears, strawberries, freshly chopped apples.  No salt, brine, olives here, but some coffee grounds, nutmeg and bitter chocolate, which complemented the fruits quite well. At 45% the whole nose was warm and well controlled, no complaints there (except that I wished for something with more oomph, really).

The taste was surprisingly easy, creamy, almost. Some lemon meringue pie, coffee and chocolate again, and then the rest of the fruit brigade slowly rolled in and took over: pineapples, fresh green apples, soursop, gooseberries, ripe black cherries and five-finger, very ripe – in other words, the sweet of the various fruits was there, but so was a kind of low-key tart sourness that provided some interesting counterpoint and character.  If I had to make a point of it, the finish is probably the least interesting, because it repeated what came before without going any place new, but overall, it was warm and fruity, and perhaps one could not expect too much more from a placid rum that had already gone as far as it could, no matter that it was in absolutely no hurry to get there.

What worked against the rum (for me) was the relatively low strength which watered down what could have been a much richer series of smells and tastes. The dilution makes the barrels go further and the greater rum-purchasing public served better, sure — more consumers will buy a rum which isn’t cask strength and doesn’t try to rip their face off — but it does mute it too, and this to some extent lessens the experience.  Perhaps that is why Isautier themselves remark that the rum be considered a digestif, an after-dinner drink. But admittedly, that’s my own thing and for the most part, I don’t think anyone who tries this product from Reunion and Isautier will either have anything to complain about, or have any trouble distinguishing it from the other big guns coming out of the still-too-little-known island in the Indian ocean.

(#609)(84/100)


Other notes

Although the type of still from which these components derive goes unmentioned, the company website speaks to a steam injected column still which produces distillate with concentrations as high as 89% ABV (used for the traditionnel rums) and 70% (for whites and more agricole-styled rums).

Feb 252019
 

Just to reiterate some brief details about HSE (Habitation Saint-Étienne), which is located almost dead centre in the middle of Martinique.  Although in existence since the early 1800s, its modern history properly began when it was purchased in 1882 by Amédée Aubéry, who combined the sugar factory with a small distillery, and set up a rail line to transport cane more efficiently (even though oxen and people that pulled the railcars, not locomotives). In 1909, the property came into the possession of the Simonnet family who kept it until its decline at the end of the 1980s. The estate was then taken over in 1994 by Yves and José Hayot — owners, it will be recalled, of the Simon distillery, as well as Clement —  who relaunched the Saint-Étienne brand using Simon’s creole stills, adding snazzy marketing and expanding markets.

This particular rum, then, comes from a company with a long history and impeccable Martinique pedigree.  It is an AOC millésimé – a rum issued in relatively small quantities, from the output of a specific year’s production, considered to be a cut above the ordinary (2005 in this case) and finished in Sauternes casks.

Given that it is nine years tropical ageing plus another year in the Sauternes casks, I think we could be expected to have a pretty interesting profile — and I wasn’t disappointed (though the strength did give me pause).  The initial smells were grassy and wine-y at the same time, a combination of musk and crisp light aromas that melded well. There were green apples, grapes, the tart acidity of cider mixed in with some ginger and cinnamon, a dollop of brine and a few olives, freshly mown wet grass and well-controlled citrus peel behind it all.  

Well now.  That was a pretty nifty nose.  How did the palate rate?

Very well indeed, I thought.  It was a smooth and solid piece of work for its proof point, with clear, firm tastes proceeding in sequence like a conga line – light acetones and flowery notes to begin with, then bubble gum, ripe cherries and plums.  The profile proceeded to display some sharpness and herbals — citrus, cider, well-aged sharp cheddar, a touch of apricots and almost-ripe peaches together with softer honey and ginger. What distinguished it and made it succeed, I think, is the delicate balancing act between sweetness and acidity (and a trace of salt), and even the finish – grapes, honey, cane juice and wet grass for the most part – displayed this well assembled character. It impressed the hell out of me, the more so since I walked in expecting so much less.

The other day I wrote about a similarly-aged, light rum from Don Q, which I remarked as being somewhat too easy and unchallenging, bottled at a low 40%; and while competently made, simply not something that enthralled me.

On that basis, you might believe that I simply disdain any and all such low-proof rums as being ultimately boring, but now consider this 41% agricole from Habitation Saint-Étienne as a response.  It emphatically demonstrates to anyone who believes standard strength can only produce standard junk, that a rum can indeed be so relatively weak and still have some real quality squirming in its jock. And with respect to the HSE 2005, that’s a statement I can make with no hesitation at all, and real conviction.

(#602)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • This rhum should not be confused with the others in the “Les Finitions du Monde” series (like Chateau La Tour Blanche or Single Malt finish labelled as exactly that), which are also 2005 millesimes, but not bottled in the same month, have other finishes, and different labels.
  • According to Excellence Rhum, this 2005 edition is the successor to the 2003 Millesime which is no longer produced.  
  • The outturn is unknown.
  • Nine (9) years aging, plus from 12 months of finishing in Château La Tour Blanche barrels, 1st Cru Classé de Sauternes.
Feb 242019
 

It’s a peculiarity of the sheer volume of rums that cross my desk, my glass and my glottis, that I get to taste rums some people would give their left butt cheek for, while at the same time juice that is enormously well known, talked about, popular and been tried by many….gets missed.

One of these is the Don Q series of rums out of Puerto Rico made by the Serrallés family who, like Old Facundo, hailed from Catalonia and came to Puerto Rico in around 1820.  In the 1830s they established a sugar plantation on the outskirts of Ponce in South-Central Puerto Rico and in a short time became very successful, exporting sugar to the US, France and the UK; in 1865 they started to manufacture rum on a pot still brought over from France (see “other notes” below), though the various brands they produced were short lived and not really big sellers.  In response to that, in 1932 they launched the Don Q brand as a way of breaking into the more premium sector, as well as expanding local market share, followed by new distillation apparatus installed in 1935 (one imagines the pot still was marginalized after this, if not discontinued entirely). The rums of the line proved to be enormously popular, overtaking Bacardi which was seen as a foreign brand and not as refined.

These days it is considered the best selling rum in its home turf, exported all over the world, and the recipe remains consistent with the original developed so long ago.  In the current environment where unadulterated rums get a lot of praise, it also grabs brownie points for having none itself.

Technical details: distilled on a column still, 40% ABV, gold colour, no additives. According to their website, the Gran Añejo “contains rums aged between 9 and 12 years, and solera rums aged up to 50 years” which means that by accepted parlance it’s a blend, 9 years old.

Given it’s a column still low proof, I would expect it to be a light sort of experience to smell, and indeed it was – so much so that it took real effort to disassemble.  The nose was almighty peculiar to start, redolent of charcoal, burnt wood, ashes, an overdone ox turning on a spit (seriously). I don’t know if that was intentional, just that it took me somewhat off balance; still, it developed nicely – gradually aromas of rotting bananas, overripe fleshy fruit, and even a little brine, combined with a delicate hint of orange peel.

The palate was pleasant and easy to sip, quite solid for the living room strength. Here notes of caramel, vanilla, lemon peel, apples, molasses and treacle abounded, nicely balanced. It was velvety, but also dry, vaguely sweet with some brine and well-polished leather.  What it lacked was force and emphasis, though that was to be expected, and the finish sort of limped along past the tape, providing closing notes of vanilla, nutmeg and pineapple, all very soft and light, nothing for the rum junkie to write home about, really. It’s soft and easy-going, overall.

For my money this is something of a low-rent Havana Club. Given that the main markets for Don Q are the US, Mexico and Spain (it’s exported to many more, of course), it stands to reason that over-aggressive high-ester profile and a Brobdingnagian strength are not on the cards — that’s not the Catalan style of rum-making brought over to the new world, or preferred in those markets:  That may guarantee it solid sales and great word of mouth where it sells, but I’m not sure it guarantees it future sales in places where there is already a surfeit of such rums, or where something with more character is the norm.

The Don Q, for all its understated quality and its audience in other parts of the world, demonstrates why I moved away from Spanish/Latin American column still rums.  They lack oomph and emphasis. They’re too easy, and too light (for me), require little effort and are no challenge to come to grips with. It may have taken years to come around to trying it, but now, having done so, I can’t honestly say that an amazing undiscovered gem has been missed out on.

(#601)(81/100)


Other notes

According to the company website, the still brought over from France in 1865 was a pot still, though this is odd given France’s love affair with the columns back then; but Tristan Stephenson’s 2018 book “The Curious Bartender’s Rum Revolution” mentions it as being a 5-tray columnar still. Once I track the discrepancy down, I’ll amend this section of the post.

Jan 222019
 

Haiti is unique as a nation because it is where the only successful slave revolt in the world took place, at the turn of the 18th century. Sadly, it is now the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and successive dictatorships, foreign interference and natural disasters have left the place in shambles.

That any businesses manage to survive in such an environment is a testament to their resilience, their determination, their ingenuity….and the quality of what they put out the door. The country has become the leading world producer of vetiver (a root plant used to make essential oils and fragrances), exports agricultural products and is a tourist destination, yet perhaps it is for rum that its exports are best known, and none more so than those of Barbancourt, formed in 1862 and still run by the descendants of the founder.

Until the mid 20th century, Barbancourt was something of a cottage industry, selling primarily to the local market.  In 1949 they relocated the sugar cane fields of the Domaine Barbancourt in the plaine du Cul-de-Sac region in the south east, and by 1952 ramped up production, increased exports and transformed the brand into a major producer of quality rum, a distinction it has held ever since.  

The rhum, based on sugar cane juice not molasses, used to be double-distilled, using pot stills in a process similar to that used to produce cognac (Dupré Barbancourt came from the cognac-producing region of Charente which was undoubtedly his inspiration); however, nowadays they use a more efficient (if less character-driven) three-column continuous distillation system, where the first column strips the solid matter from the wash and the second and third columns serve to concentrate the resultant spirit…so what is coming to the market now is not what once was made by the company.

Haiti has no shortage of other rhum producing companies – but smaller outfits like Moscoso Distillers or LaRue Distillery are much less well-known and export relatively little, (and back-country clairins are in a different class altogether)…and this makes Barbancourt the de facto rum standard bearer for the half island, and one of the reasons I chose it for this series. This is not to dismiss the efforts of all the others, or the the artisanal quality of the clairins that Velier has brought to world attention since 2014 — just to note that they all, to some extent, live in the shadow of Barbancourt; which in turn, somewhat like Mount Gay, seems in danger of being forgotten as a poster boy for Haiti, now that the pure artisanal rum movement gathers a head of steam.

The current label of the 8YO

Barbancourt’s rhums are not issued at full proof: they prefer a relatively tame 40-43%, and every possible price point and strength is not catered to.  The company has a relatively small stable of products: the Blanc, the 3-star 4 Year Old, the 5-star 8 Year Old and the flagship 15 year old (Veronelli’s masterful 25 year old is a Barbancourt rhum, but not issued by them).  Though if one wanted to get some, then independent bottlers like Berry Bros., Bristol Spirits, Duncan Taylor, Cadenhead, Samaroli, Plantation and Compagnie des Indes (among others) do produce stronger and more exacting limited offerings for the enthusiasts.

Yet even with those few rhums they make, whatever the competition, and whether one calls it a true agricole or not, the rhums coming from Barbancourt remain high on the quality ladder and no rumshelf could possibly be called complete without at least one of them.  After trying and retrying all three major releases, my own conclusion was that at the intersection of quality and price, the one that most successfully charts a middle course between the older and the younger expressions is the 5-star 8 year old (I looked at it last way back in 2010, as well as one earlier version from back in the 1970s) which remains one of the workhorses of the company and the island, an excellent mid-level rum that almost defines Barbancourt.

It does display, however, somewhat of a schizophrenic profile. Take the nose, for example – it almost seems like a cross between a molasses based rum and an agricole.  While it certainly possesses the light, herbal aroma of a cane-juice distillate, it also smells of a light kind of brown sugar and molasses mixed up with some bananas and vanilla (it was aged in French oak on Haiti, which may account for the latter). There’s also a sly briny background, combined with a pleasant hints of nougat and well polished leather, plus the subdued acidity of green apples, grapes and cumin.  Not all that intense at 43%, but excellent as an all-rounder for sure.

What the nose promises, the palate delivers, and yet that peculiar dichotomy continues.  It’s soft given the strength, initially tasting of caramel, toblerone, almonds and vague molasses and vanilla (again).  Brine and olives. Spices – cumin, cinnamon, plus raisins, a certain delicate grassiness and maybe a plum or two (fruitiness is there, just understated).  Nope, it doesn’t feel like a completely cane juice distillate, or, at best, if feels like an amalgam leading neither one way or the other, and the close sums all that up.  It’s medium long, with salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, a bit of raisins and plums, a fine line of citrus, a little cinnamon dusting, and a last reminder of oaky bitterness in a relatively good,  dry finish.

What makes the Barbancourt 8 YO so interesting — even unique — is the way the makers played with the conventions and steered a center line that draws in lovers of other regions while not entirely abandoning the French island antecedents. It reminds me more of a Guadeloupe rhum than an out-and-out agricole from Martinique, with perhaps a pinch of Bajan thrown in.  However, it’s in no way heavy enough to invite direct comparisons to any Demerara or Jamaican product.

So, does it fail as a Key Rum because of its indeterminate nature, or because it lacks the fierce pungency of a clairin, the full grassy nature of a true agricole?

Not at all, and not to me.  It’s a completely solid rhum with its own clear profile, that succeeds at being drinkable and enjoyable on all levels, without being visibly exceptional in any specific way and sold at a price point that makes it affordable to the greater rum public out there. Many reviewers and most drinkers have come across it at least once in their journey (much more so than those who have tried clairins) and few have anything bad to say about it.  It’s been made for decades, is well known and well regarded — not just because it’s from Haiti, but because it also has a great price to value ratio. There’s a lot of talk about “gateway” rums, cheaper and sometimes-adulterated rums that are good enough to enjoy and savour, that lead to more and better down the road. It’s usually applied to the Zacapas, Zayas, Diplos and younger rums of this world, but if you ever want to get more serious about aged agricoles, then the Barbancourt 8 YO may actually be one of those that actually deserves the title, and remains, even after all these years, a damned fine place to start your investigations.

(#592)(84/100)


Other Notes

In a curious coincidence, a post on reddit that did a brief review of this rhum went up just a few days before this was published. There are some good links contained within the commentary.

Jan 122019
 

Hampden has been getting so much press of late that it’s only fair to have a look at the other products of the island, of which, these days, there are no shortages. For a long time these distilleries — with names geeks could recite in their sleep, like New Yarmouth, Innswood, Clarendon, Long Pond Monymusk, Worthy Park, Hampden — laboured in relative obscurity, living in J. Wray’s gargantuan shadow, selling mostly bulk rum abroad, or for the local market.

Somehow, though, the distilleries remained alive, and so did their names, their rums. While I’m by no means disparaging or downplaying the emergent reputations of these distilleries over the last half-decade or so as they began selling rums under their own brands, tropically aged and made in Jamaica (rather than just being a resource for others to tap), I think one of the reasons the layperson is even aware of them is because of the independent bottlers out of Europe, who for decades issued the occasional cask strength or watered down single-barrel release and kept the lesser-known marques of Jamaica alive.  (And that goes especially for WP, which was shuttered from 1960 to 2007.)

Most of the time, such bottlers never bothered with identifying the distillery of origin. Often it was just “Jamaica rum” and that was it. But in line with the recent interest in stills and distilleries (which perhaps originated in the Age of Velier’s Demeraras), the independents became more forthcoming with where their juice originated on the island.

This brings us to the Compagnie des Indes, founded in 2014 by Florent Beuchet, who, with the exception of their blends like the Dominador or Caraibes, has always placed rather more information than less on the labels of their rums – including that first set of cask strength bruisers marked “Denmark only”, which have caused nerds conniption fits and allowed the lucky Danes to preen unashamedly while glugging their personalized full proof juice. This one, distilled in 2007 (the first year of WP’s re-opening after being modernized) and bottled in 2016 at a solid 54.9%, was continentally aged and limited to 307 bottles, all of which ended up in Denmark.

Trying the rum in 2016, against its spectacular 7 year old brother (also from WP’s 2007 output) and again for this review, I was reminded how full proof Jamaican rums seem to step up their game and be ahead of living room strength rums by a country mile. It was lighter on the nose than the RN Supreme Lord 7 and Supreme Lord 8 which were also on the table that day; slightly funkier too, though restrained compared to the rutting jocks of the Hampdens or NRJ rums. Aromas of honey, dates, apricots, tart soursop and green grapes mixed it up nicely with some brine and olives, and a sly hint of flowers emerged after adding a few drops of water.

The palate was where it shone. It was warm, spicy and very clear, tasting immediately of brine, light nail polish remover, and also of lemon sherbet and mango ice cream. It presented firmly on the tongue, somewhat sharp without any jagged edges of confusing or conflicting tastes; as it opened it provided flavours of paint thinner, varnish and sweeter acetones, accompanied by light funk, vanilla, slightly bitter oaky tannins, which were in their turn superseded (but not eclipsed) by some caramel and brown sugar, dill and lemon zest. Really good balance, really well put together. It ended with a delightfully long and cruising finish, warm and solid, providing mostly tart background notes of half ripe mangoes, peaches, some caramel, and the vaguely bitter strength of some very strong black tea sweetened with condensed milk.

Worthy Park rums are interesting variations on the Jamaican style. Appletons are well made, elegant blends with a laid back sort of profile, while Hampdens are fiercely luxurious funk bombs, and Monymusk and New Yarmouth seem to exist on another plane of existence altogether (perhaps because they are relatively less well known). Worthy Park rums, though (those that I’ve tried, anyway) are light, crisp and clean, ester-rich, with delicate and precise lines of commingled flavour coiling through each and every one of them, only occasionally exploding into something more aggressive, and usually resting on a softer background that makes for a lovely sip.

Now, their own new tropically aged rums issued over the last few years are small masterworks (I think), yet we should not ignore the sterling efforts of the choices the independent bottlers made either, both before and during the current Jamaican Renaissance. This excellent rum is a good example of why that statement can be made, be absolutely true, and it burnishes and elevates the reputation of a distillery that is finally getting the respect it should have had long ago. I’ll be trying quite a few more of their rums in the months and years to come, that’s for sure.

(#588)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • For further reading on Jamaican rum distilleries, a good starting point is The Wonk’s Jamaican Cheat Sheet.
  • As far as I know the distillation apparatus is a Forsythe’s copper pot still
Dec 242018
 

My own personal memories of the Hampden Overproof will always be combined with the Tasting of the Century in London, where we tried those magnificent old rums the Harewood 1780, St James 1885, Bally 1924 and Skeldon 1978…and the two new Hampdens. Truth to tell, my focus was so fiercely on that geriatric quartet, that I had little time to pay attention to the twins….time kind of ran out on me, and I could barely do them justice. So knowing I had the bottles in Berlin, I waited until October and then dealt with them there again.

Velier, as is now quite well known, has dibs on the distribution of Hampden rums from 2018 (and, I think, 2019) through their new organization of La Maison & Velier.  Both the 46% and the 60% versions of the rum are the same, the former just being diluted down, so in this review I’ll be talking about the overproof version, although the notes are the same for either, with the strength being the only true variable.

Technical schtick for the rum curious: what we have here is a rum based on fermentation with wild yeast, distilled in 2010 on a double retort copper pot still; the ageing was fully tropical for eight years and it was bottled in 2018; the level of esters was not disclosed except insofar as to note it was “very high”; and of course, no additives of any kind, not sugar, not colouring, nothing.  All of which, by the way, is on the hugely informative label that in its graphic detail is somewhat at odds with the famed Spartan labels of yore, but never mind. One thing that isn’t on the label is the outturn, but the source was 31 barrels, so assuming a 6% angel’s share per year, we can estimate that around 10,000 bottles were released into the global market.

What always surprises me about Hampden rums is how relatively restrained they are, irrespective of the strength.  You expect that say, from an exquisitely blended Appleton, and certainly do not from Zan Kong’s Worthy Park offerings which cheerfully lunge out of the bottle like a hungry face-hugger, yet Hampdens find a sweet spot between the two that is nothing short of delectable.  The nose is a combination of soft and crisp, initially redolent of pencil shavings, paraffin, varnish and sawdust, bitter chocolate, unsweetened cocoa, damp, freshly turned earth and tar, and, like many such strong rums, rewards patience as these aromas develop, and then fade.  They are then replaced by green grapes, unripe mangos, and lots of sharper, unripe-but-sweet fruits, balsamic vinegar, sweet gherkins and a very nice background of aromatic tobacco and port-infused cigarillos.

Ah, and the taste – really nice.  Strong and bordering in sharp, yet even at 60% ABV it presents as amazingly controlled, even moderate.  The tastes are all there, deep and intense, rolling easily and crisply across the palate, yet not so ester-heavy as might be inferred from the label.  You’d laugh when I say that I tasted well-oiled leather and sweaty shoes, and then take comfort in more traditional flavours of brine, olives, maggi cubes, cardboard, black bread and cereals (there’s a sort of creamy aspect to the whole experience I found very pleasing), which formed a bed upon which dates, figs, crisp peaches and pears and mangoes rested easily, dusted over with a lovely hint of cumin and cinnamon and lemon peel, leading into a crisp, snappy finish that sumed things up nicely, mostly with sharper fruits and crushed hazelnuts, lemon zest and that odd bit of tar from the nose making a belated appearance (perhaps out of mischief).

It’s possible that gently diluting the rum to about 55% from 60% might make it more approachable and an easier drink: for my money, it’s damn near perfect for what it is, a really well blended Jamaican which even Sandor Clegane might like, something that enhances the street cred of both estate and country.  It requires, like all full-proof, dunder-squirting yardies, some patience; it’s a drink to savour, not swill, and is an exemplary rum in almost all aspects of its profile.

I’ve remarked on more than one occasion that my appreciation for righteously funky Jamaicans vacillates between Worthy Park and Hampden (though it must be acknowledged that Plantation is making inroads, and the Compagnie’s New Yarmouth rums also deserve a place at the table).  It’s when you try something as powerful and tasty as this that you understand why the comparisons can and need to be made. We are living in a Golden Age of new Jamaican rums, where pole position is being taken over and held by exactingly made blends produced by the distillery of origin, retaining all their unique heritage and profiles, rather than an unknown mix marketed under the uninformative sobriquet of “Jamaican rum”.

What seems to have happened is that after years and decades of somnolence, rum aficionados gradually got acquainted (or re-acquainted) with estate-specific rums from Jamaica that weren’t Appleton as a consequence of  the efforts of the continental independents.  Through the limited single cask releases of a few hundred bottles here and there, we began to recognize the individuality, the idiosyncrasy – the sheer dynamism – of Monymusk, of New Yarmouth, of Worthy Park…and of Hampden. That gradually-building groundswell of appreciation has turned into a roaring wave in 2018, and this edition of a really superlative rum is the result – thousands of bottles, not just a few hundred, all coming from Hampden, all made and developed and aged there, and meant for all of us who love the massive taste bombs out of the island. It is, in my own estimation, one of those rums whose reputation will only increase with the passage of the years, and to have tasted the first versions out of the gate was and remains nothing less than a privilege.

(#582)(89/100)


Other Notes

Luca Gargano has made it clear that these are not Velier rums – his company is just the distributor.  I chose to believe his fingerprints are on the bottles nevertheless, most likely in the selection of which 31 barrels made up the blend.  However, in accordance with his wishes regarding attribution, I have not referred to this as a “Velier Hampden Estate Overproof Rum.” Though I think many of us harbour our own thoughts on the matter.

Dec 092018
 

Habitation Velier’s second edition of the distillate derived from Mount Gay, known as the Last Ward — a nod to the Ward family who ran Mount Gay for over a hundred years — retains much of what makes its 2007 sibling so special, but is a distinct and wonderful rum in its own right, if not entirely superseding its predecessor.  It comes close though, and does that by simply being a Barbados rum that blends a triple distilled pot-still distillate of uncommon grace and strength into something uniquely itself, leading us to wonder yet again (and probably muttering a fervent prayer of thanks at the same time) how such a rum could have been conceived of by a company that was always much more into traditional aged and blended fare.

Since much of the background data of the Last Ward was covered in the review of the 2007, here are the simple technical details for those who are into their numbers: triple-distilled in 2009 on a double retort pot still, laid to rest in ex-bourbon casks, completely aged in Barbados, and bottled in 2018 at 59% ABV after losing 64% to the angels. Oddly, the outturn is unknown…I’m still working on confirming that.

Right, so, well….what’s this rich golden-hued lass all about?  Any good?

Oh yes…though it is different – some might even sniff and say “Well, it isn’t Foursquare,” and walk away, leaving more for me to acquire, but never mind.  The thing is, it carved out its own olfactory niche, distinct from both its older brother and better known juice from St. Phillip. It was warm, almost but not quite spicy, and opened with aromas of biscuits, crackers, hot buns fresh from the oven, sawdust, caramel and vanilla, before exploding into a cornucopia of cherries, ripe peaches and delicate flowers, and even some sweet bubble gum. In no way was it either too spicy or too gentle, but navigated its way nicely between both.

The palate was similarly distinct and equally pleasant. Unlike the 2007 here was not a hard-to-separate (but delicious) melange of tastes folding into each other, but an almost crisp series of clearly discernible flavours, smooth and warm. There were ripe fruits – cider, apples, cherries, peaches – followed by almonds, cereals and vanilla, before doing a neat segue into salted butter, leather and a crisp snort of light citrus giving it some edge.  And then it faded gently into leather, smoke, fruits and lemon peel, exiting not so much with a flourish as a satisfied sigh that made one hasten to fill another glass just to get some more. A completely solid, well-made rum that would not be out of place with rums many times its age which get far more press.

Overall, it’s a rum hard to fault.  It’s smooth. It’s firm. It’s tasty.  It’s complex. It sells at a price that won’t break the bank and gives a bang-to-buck ratio that enhances its accessibility to the general audience out there who have always loved Mount Gay’s rums.  Perhaps after experiencing the originality and haunting quality that was the 2007 it’s hard to be so seminal a second time. But however you view it, from whatever angle you approach it, it’s a lovely rum based on solid antecedents and great traditions, and while I can’t speak for the greater rum-loving public out there, I know I loved it too, and would not be averse to splurging on a couple more bottles.

(#577)(87/100)