Dec 182019
 

Without bombast or any kind of major marketing push, without hype or hurry, Savanna on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean quietly built up its reputation over the last decade with the Grand Arôme series of rums deriving from their high ester still, and probably gave the new high-ester Jamaicans serious conniption fits. Yet for all its burgeoning street cred, it remains something of a relative unknown, while much more attention is lavished on the New Jamaicans and other companies around the Caribbean who are jacking up their taste levels. 

Savanna has of course been making rums its own way for ages, and by releasing this little gem with them, the Genoese concern of Velier might just be the one to catapult them to the next level and greater renown outside Europe.  After all, they did it for Caroini and DDL, why not here? 

The “Indian Ocean Still” series of rums have a labelling concept somewhat different from the stark wealth of detail that usually accompanies a Velier collaboration.  Personally, I find it very attractive from an artistic point of view – I love the man riding on the elephant motif of this and the companion Chamarel rum (although I must concede that my all time favourite design is the architectural-quality drawings of the various stills of the Habitation line). In any event, most of the info is on the back label (repeated in the copperplate-style narrative on the front): distilled November 2012, aged on Reunion in French oak casks, bottled February 2019.  It’s a column still product, but not, as far as I’m aware, of the HERR still.

It’s been said on many occasions of Velier’s rums, especially with the Jamaicans and Demeraras, that “the rum doesn’t feel like it’s X%”.  Perhaps nowhere is that more true than here, where the Savanna clocked in at 61% ABV, but nosed — and later tasted — like it was no more than standard strength. I mean, it started with a truly lovely, sweet, soft, warm nose.  Peaches in syrup and cream melded well with sugar water, ripe yellow mangoes, red grapes,and sweet red olives. Delectable in a good way, and I particularly enjoyed the lemon and cumin background, plus the yoghurt and sour cream with dill.  

The palate was also an amalgam of many good things, starting off tasting of sweet and very strong black tea with milk.  It developed fruity, sweet, sour and creamy notes which all met and had a party in the middle. There was lime zest, bags of ripe, fleshy fruits, cereals, red grapes, apples, cashews – it’s a smorgasbord of ongoing flavour porn, both sharp and crisp, and later one could even taste fanta and bubbly soda pop mixed in with a clean Riesling.  The strength was more discernible than it had been when I smelled it, just not in a bad way, and it was really well tamped down into something eminently drinkable, finishing off with a flourish of olive oil and brine, a touch of sweetness from the fanta, and more crisp almost ripe fruits.

Man, this was a really good dram.  It adhered to most of the tasting points of a true agricole — grassiness, crisp herbs, citrus, that kind of thing — without being slavish about it.  It took a sideways turn here or there that made it quite distinct from most other agricoles I’ve tried. If I had to classify it, I’d say it was like a cross between the fruity silkiness of a St. James and the salt-oily notes of a Neisson.

It’s instructive that although Savanna has been making high ester rums for at least the last two decades, their reputation was never as sterling or widespread as Hampden and Worthy Park who have been getting raves for their new branded rums from almost the very first moment they appeared on the stage. Perhaps that says something about the need in today’s world to have a promoter in one’s corner who acts as a barker for the good stuff. That could be a well known importer, it could be the use of a deep-pocketed secondary bottler with a separate rep of their own (think Rum Nation’s 2018 Reunion rum as an example), or a regular FB commentator.  

These forces have all now intersected, I think, and the rum is a win for everyone concerned. Savanna has greater exposure and fantastic word of mouth dating back to its seminal HERR 2006 10 year old; Velier has shown that even with the winding down of the Demeraras and Caronis they can find tasty, intriguing rums from around the world and bring them for us to taste; and I can almost guarantee that if this rum finds its way into enough hands, there will be no shortage of positive online blurbs and opinions from across the commenterati, many of whom will be happy to say that they knew it all along and are happy to be proved right.

(#685)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Habitation Velier has released a Savanna HERR Unaged 2017 white rhum, which is a good companion to this one, though it’s a bit more energetic and rambunctious and displayed less refinement…yet perhaps more character. 
  • I heard a rumour that Velier intended to release three Indian Ocean rums in this 2019 series, and indeed, around 2018, there were photos of Luca in India that surfaced briefly on FB.  However, nothing seems to have come of it and never responded to my queries on the matter.
Oct 232019
 

For all the faux-evasions about “a historic 250 year old Jamaican distillery” and the hints on the website, let’s not dick around – the Stolen Overproof is a Hampden Estate rum. You can disregard all the marketing adjectives and descriptors like “undiscovered”, “handmade” etc etc and just focus on what it is: a New Jamaican pot still rum, released at a tonsil-chewing 61.5%, aged six years and remarkably underpriced for what it is.

The Stolen Overproof has gotten favourable press from across the board almost without exception since its launch, even if there are few formal (i.e., review-website based) ones from the US itself — perhaps that’s because there’s no-one left writing essay-style rum reviews there these days except Paul Senft, and shorter ones from various Redditors (here, here, here and here). In my opinion, this is a rum that takes its place in the mid-range area right next to Rum Bar, Rum Fire, Smith & Cross and Dr. Bird — and snaps at the heels of Habitation Velier’s 2010 HLCF, of which this is not a cousin, but an actual brother. 

If you doubt me, permit me to offer you a glass of this stuff, as my old-schoolfriend and sometime rum-chum Cecil R. did when he passed me a sample and insisted I try it. You’d think that Stolen Spirits, a company founded in 2010 which has released some underwhelming underpoofs and “smoked” rums was hardly one warrant serious consideration, but this rum changed my mind in a hurry, and it’ll likely surprise you as well.

The nose was pure Jamaica, pure funk. It was dusty, briny, glue-y and wine-y, sharp and sweet and acidic. and redolent of a massive parade of fruits that came stomping through the nose with cheerful abandon. Peaches in syrup, near-ripe mangoes, guavas, pineapple, all dusted with a little salt and black pepper.  It held not only these sharpish tart fruits but raisins, flambeed bananas, red currants, and as it opened further is also provided the lighter crispness of fanta, bubble-gum and flowers.  

The rum is dark gold in the glass, 61.5% of high-test hooch and a Hampden, so a fierce palate is almost a given.  Nor did it disappoint: it was sharp, with gasoline ((!!), glue, acetones and olive oil charging right out of the gate.  It tasted of fuel oil, coconut shavings, wet ashes, salt and pepper, slight molasses, tobacco and pancakes drenched in sweet syrup, cashew nuts…and bags and bags of fruit and other flavours, marching in stately order, one by one, past your senses – green apples, grapes, cloves, red currants, strawberries, ripe pineapples, soursop, lemon zest, burnt sugar cane, salt caramel and toffee.  Whew! That was quite a handful. Even the finish – long and heated – added something: licorice, bubble gum, apples, pineapple and damp, fresh sawdust.

Whew!  That’s quite a rum, representing the island in really fine style. I mean, the only way you’re getting closer to Jamaica without actually being there is to hug Christelle Harris in Brooklyn (which won’t get you drunk and might be a lot more fun, but also earn you a fight with everyone else around her who was thinking of doing the same thing).  Essentially, it’s a Jamaican flavour bomb and the other remarkable thing about it is who made it, and from where.

The Stolen Overproof is an indie bottling — the company was formed in 2010 in New Zealand, and seems to be a primarily US based op these days — and the story I heard was that somehow they laid hands on some barrels of Hampden distillate way back in 2016 and brought it to market. This is fairly recently, you might say, but even a mere three years ago, Hampden was not a household name, having just launched themselves into the global marketplace, and Velier’s 2010 6 YO HLCF only reached the greater rum audience in 2017 – apparently this rum is from the same batch of barrels.  The Stolen is still relatively affordable if you can find it (US$18 for a 375ml bottle), and my only guess is that they literally did not know what they had and put a standard markup on the rum, never imagining how huge Jamaica rum of this kind would become in the years ahead. 

When discussing Bacardi’s near-forgotten foray into limited bottlings, I remarked that just because you slap a Jamaican distillery name on a label does not mean you instantly have a great juice. But the reverse can also be true: you can have an almost-unobserved release of an unidentifed Jamaican rum from a near-unknown third-tier bottler, and done right and done well, it’ll do its best to wow your socks off. This is one of those.

(#669)(85/100)


Other Notes

60,000 1/2 sized 375ml bottles were issued, so ~22,500 liters. All ageing was confirmed to be at Hampden Estate.


Opinion, somewhat tangential to the review….

If you want to know why I generally disregard the scorings and opinions on Rum Ratings, searching for this rum tells you why.  This is a really good piece of work that’s been on the market for three years, and on that site and in all that time, it has garnered a rich and varied total of six scores – one 9-pointer, three at 7 points, one of 4 … and Joola69’s rating of 1. “Just another Jamaican glue and funk rum” he sneered rather contemptuously from the commanding heights of his 2,350 other rum ratings (the top choices of which are mostly devoted to Spanish/Latin column still spirits). If you want a contrary opinion that indicts the New Jamaicans as a class, there’s one for you.

Certainly such rums as the gentleman champions have their place and they remain great sellers and crowd pleasing favourites. But really good rums should — and do — adhere to rather higher standards than just pleasing everyone with soft sweet smoothness, and in this case, a dismissive remark like the one made simply shows the author does not know what good rums have developed into, and, sadly, that having scored more than 2000 rums hasn’t improved or changed his outlook.  Which is bad for all those who blindly follow and therefore never try a rum like these New Jamaicans, but good for the rest of us who can now get more of the good stuff for ourselves. Perhaps I should be more grateful.

Sep 062019
 

If Diplomatico’s Distillery Collection No.1 (the one from the kettle still) was a garden sprinkler trying to be a fire hose, then this one is no more than a quick leg-lift against the tree.  It is a decent enough rum for the style, but lacks any kind of serious chops to make it rise above its more famous and distinct Distillery Collection siblings, or even that perennial favourite of the tippling class, the Diplo Res Ex. And that makes its price-point and supposed street cred a dubious proposition at best.

The Distillery Collection is an attempt by Diplomatico to capitalize on their various stills, much as St. Lucia Distillers or DDL do. The rums also function — maybe — to deflect attention away from their traditionally added-to products of the line, or even to break into previously untapped and dismissed niche markets for the more discerning rum drinkers. Unlike the No.1 which comes from a pot still, the No.2 owes its origin to a straight-out French-made Barbet column still, which leads one to wonder what the purpose was, because what came out the other end wasn’t anything we haven’t had before.

I’m not kidding. The nose was lighter than the No.1 — no shocks there, though the ABV was the same in both, 47%. Some smokiness, light oak, salt caramel ice cream, tobacco, molasses and some brine but it lacks any kind of acidic bite of (say) citrus, and there is barely any of the fruitiness that would have made it better.  You’ll sense the vague sweetness of bananas, squash, papaya, melons – those neutral fruits which add little to the experience – maybe an apple starting to go, and will have to be content with that.

Unsurprisingly, the palate dials into those same coordinates: it’s warm, light, smooth, unaggressive, with the musky tastes of muscovado sugar, molasses, caramel, toffee, toblerone (the white kind). Then it falters, not because of these things, but because of the stuff that’s not there, the tart balancing notes, the sharper parts of the profile that are notable only for their lightness or complete absence – florals, fruits, oakiness.  Sometimes a reasonably robust proof point rescues or bolsters such deficiencies – not here. It all leads to a lacklustre finish of medium length which displays no closing notes one would hurry back to the glass to experience: it had some salt caramel, light and overripe fruit notes, some vanilla, and it was all quite light and – dare I say it? – indifferent.

Ivar de Laat, the Dutch-born FB-commentator who recently began his own site Rum Revelations, made an interesting comment on the No.1 and Diplomatico – that they were light rum makers and it would be too much to expect them to make big and bold rums without a massive internal cultural change…which he felt was unlikely given that such rums are their style, the one upon which their revenues rested. And “as long as it’s making them money, I don’t see why they should change it.” 

That’s the subtle trap of these rums, because if producers only make what sells, then there’d be ten times as many dosed rums out there (pure rums at high proof have to be really good to be sellers to succeed, because their prices are higher). We are being offered incremental change at a premium, but without real improvement or major difference. It’s cosmetic. In the case of the No.2, it’s plain boring. I could live with such a deficiency in the pot still No.1 which was at least interesting, if ultimately stopping short of being a rave recommendation.  But in a column still product being marketed with pizzazz and hooplah and a tantara of trumpets…naaah.  

So I give it 75, which is on the median between good and bad.  It’s a rum that tastes like one and technically can be had without a problem — it would be incorrect for me to penalize what is not a really crappy product, and which many will like (assuming they can afford it, or want to). Its true failure lies in the expectations it raises and the price it commands, without deserving either. When it comes to the loosening of my purse strings, then, like Bartleby, I think I’ll chose not to.

(#654)(75/100)

Sep 042019
 

Outside the independents who release from all points of the compass, the rums du jour are the New Jamaicans, the pot still Bajans, the wooden-still Guyanese, the fancy St Lucian still-experimentals, French island aged and unaged rums, new Asian whites, grogues and of course the clairins (and we’re all waiting for Renegade).  In the maelstrom of so many releases, Latin rums as a class are less popular than in their heydey, outside their countries of origin, and even I tend to view them with some impatience at times, wondering when they’re going to get back in the game with some sh*t-kicking romper-stomper of their own.

Although Diplomatico’s Reserva Exclusiva sells well and remains popular, the company’s online buzz as a whole has sagged in recent years. Efforts to revive the global awareness of the Diplo-brand with exclusive premiums like the Single Vintage or the Ambassador may have succeeded —  but the absence of any stories or articles or reviews or gleeful “I got this!” photos on social media suggests a rather more downbeat story for the company that was once known as Problemático. Their success is therefore hard to gauge in an increasingly crowded and informed marketplace spoiled for choice at every price point (and every additive point, the wit suggests).

Things took an interesting turn around 2017 when No.1 and No.2 versions of the “Distillery Collection” were trotted out with much fanfare. The purpose of the Collection was to showcase other stills they had – a “kettle” (sort of a boosted pot still, for release No.1), a Barbet continuous still (release No.2) and an undefined pot still (release No.3, released in April 2019). These stills, all of which were acquired the year the original company was founded, in 1959, were and are used to provide the distillates which are blended into their various commercial marques, and  until recently, such blends were all we got. One imagines that they took note of DDL’s killer app and the rush by Jamaica and St Lucia to work with the concept and decided to go beyond their blended range into something more specific. 

We’ll look at the No.1 today.  This derives from cane “honey” (which is just rendered cane juice), aged for six years in American oak, a 5000 bottle outturn of 47% ABV. The question of course, is whether it deserves the cachet of “premium” and the price it commands, and whether it displaces the perennial front runner, the DRE (marketed as ‘Botucal’ in Germany).

So, briefly, tasing notes, then.  Nose: started off promisingly with some pencil shavings, fresh and damp sawdust, followed by brine, good olive oil and leather.  These aromas were balanced off with overripe cherries, citrus, apples, ripe grapes, which in turn provided a backdrop for heavier, muskier notes of caramel, molasses and oatmeal cookies. So definitely a step away from the more standard fare, and the 47% ABV helped give the nose a firmness and coherence that a lesser proof would not have.

I also liked the palate — up to a point. It was warm and fragrant and yeasty as bread fresh out of the oven. One could taste vanilla, treacle, oatmeal with chocolate chips and butter, a nice creamy/cereal-y sort of amalgam, and fruits then popped up — light apples, pears, watermelon, raisins, that kind of thing — combining with a delicate citrus line, leading to a short, arm, inoffensive finish that was mostly vanilla, faint brine and fruity notes, all vanishing quite quickly.

Out of six Spanish/Latin-type rums I ran past each other that day when I had nothing better to do, this Diplomatico surprised me by scoring, in aggregate right up there with the Santiago de Cuba 25 YO.  That was unexpected, almost unprecedented given the disparity in ages. The strength had something to do with it (40% SdC vs 47% Diplo), but overall the Diplo No.1 – even within its limitations – is simply more intriguing, and more original, while the Santiago was, well, very much in the vein of much we had seen before (though quite well done, let me hasten to add).

In the past, I expressed hope for a more aggressive, rough-n-tough new rum to elevate the Latin rum category. This isn’t it. For all its new-age thinking, even 47% isn’t enough, and neither is the pot still, not entirely — because although the rum is admittedly different,  one gets the impression that the creators are still too in love with their softer Spanish rums to abandon their more soothing profiles entirely, go the whole hog and aim for a growly glute-flexing pot-still brute clocking in at 50% or greater. In trying to be all things to all people —  gain credit for something uniquely new while not pissing off the loyalists — they steered a middle course which allowed for a decent new rum to emerge….just not one that blew up the stage, the stills and everyone within a radius of fifty yards. And that’s a shame, because that’s what I wanted.

(#653)(83/100)

Aug 052019
 

Last week when discussing the Karukera “L’Expression” I remarked that something of the agricole-ness, the grassy and herbal notes we associate with cane juice rhums from the French islands, was missing there.  To some extent the same thing could be said of the near-5000 bottles making up the limited outturn from various “select casks” (all fourteen of them) of this Black Bottle edition – but where I gave a guarded recommendation to the 2008 Rhum Vieux, here, I have to be more enthusiastic and say it’s one of the better rhums from Karukera I’ve tried — though not necessarily one of the best agricoles, for reasons that will become clear as we go on.

The brief stats behind it: a rum from Guadeloupe, made in Esperance distillery in the Domaine du Marquisat Sainte-Marie. Column still distillate aged seven years in ex-cognac casks, decanted into 4997 bottles in 2016 at 45%. I’ve also read that the distillate comes from the same canne bleue as the L’Expression, though the 2009 harvest here; and also that it’s grown on Karukera’s estate, not Longueteau’s (the two are neighbours and co-owned). And while I no longer pay much attention to appearance, I must comment on my appreciation for the black bottle and the striking black & white label design, sure to make it stand out on a shelf dominated by brightly-coloured labels from elsewhere.

Anyway, let’s begin.  How was it? Based on how it smelled, I know that some would say it’s weak because of its near standard proofage and initially faint nose, but when sniffing it, I would say it’s actually closer to subtle.  This is a rum that takes some concentration to come to grips with, because the aromas start quietly, gently and then become increasingly crisp over time, and the experience is the better for it. There’s wood and vanilla, strong black tea and anise, which gradually develops more fruity aspects, probably from the cognac barrels: pears, mangoes, oranges, both sweet and tart.  I particularly enjoyed the late-blooming, rather delicate spices – cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg, ginger plus more vanilla – and the twist of citrus zest and winey notes that suffused the overall aromas.

The palate is different though – not quite a one-eighty, but certainly a shift in direction.  Here the delicacy and subtlety was shoved aside and a more forceful profile emerged, warmer and firmer within the limitations of the proof, and all that in spite of the slightly herbal and grassy notes that were now more clearly discerned. Initially I tasted bitter chocolate, cherries in syrup, pears, mangoes, burnt sugar, black grapes, raspberries, cherries, nougat and even some background traces of molasses and honey and caramel.  Combined with those spices – nutmeg and vanilla and cinnamon, again – plus lemon zest and gooseberries, it melded tart and soft, intriguing enough to make one want to hurry through, and help oneself to more. I mean, there was really quit a lot going on here, if perhaps too much of the sweet influence of the cognac and the odd bitter tang of woodiness. The finish was fine — dry, again quite fruity, and rather short, mostly repeating the hits, more of the fruits than anything else, but always with that mellow chocolate and honey remaining in sight.

The Black Bottle 2009 has real quality and delicate sensibilities, and it adhered to many of the markers of a good rhum from anywhere: balance, complexity, a murmuring initial profile that builds to a reasonably complex palate and a decent finale. What it wasn’t was original, unique:  it didn’t showcase the island or the estate in any specific way, and the woodiness and cognac casks really held a dominance over the final product that could have been tamed more. It’s therefore too good to dismiss as “just another agricole” (as if that were possible with any of them): but just distant enough from perfect to deny it full admittance to the pantheon.

(#648)(86/100)


Other notes

Cyril of duRhum felt that the L’expression (89.5 points) was better and the Select Casks was too cognac-y (84). WhiskyFun really liked the Select Casks (88), more than L‘Expression (85)

Jul 312019
 

Karukera, that small distillery on the eastern side of the left wing of Guadeloupe also known as Basse-Terre (in the Domain of Marquisat de Sainte–Marie) used to release bottles with an AOC designation — it was clearly visible on the labels of the Millesime 1997 and the Rhum Vieux Reserve Speciale I went through some years ago.  However, by the time 2016 rolled around this apparently had been discontinued, since the “L’expression” 8 year old bottled in that year shows no sign of it. 

While Guadeloupe as a whole has always been somewhat ambivalent about going the whole hog with the AOC, no-one can doubt that their rhums do not suffer from any lack just because they are or are not part of the protocol.  The rhum under review today, for example, is quite a good product, made as it is from cane juice of the famed high sugar-content canne bleue (which also makes a rip-snorting white), column-still distilled, a firm 48.1% ABV, and released to some fanfare in early 2017, during which several prizes came its way.

That said, I did find it somewhat…odd. For one thing, though the nose initially presented as nicely sweet and deep — with pineapple, fresh baked bread, toffee, nuts, bon bons, nougat, vanilla, licorice and salted caramel in particular perking thinks up — there was a background hint of molasses that I couldn’t pin down – what was it doing there, y’know?  There was also some cumin, ginger, fennel and rosemary, a good bit of citrus zest (lemon), so it was a pleasant rhum to smell, but overall it displayed less of the grassy, sap and dry watery aromas that would normally distinguish any agricole. 

Unlike many aged agricoles that have run into my glass (and down my chin), I found this one to be quite sweet, and for all the solidity of the strength, also rather scrawny, a tad sharp.  At least at the beginning, because once a drop of water was added and I chilled out a few minutes, it settled down and it tasted softer, earthier, muskier. Creamy salt butter on black bread, sour cream, yoghurt, and also fried bananas, pineapple, anise, lemon zest, cumin, raisins, green grapes, and a few more background fruits and florals, though these never come forward in any serious way. The finish is excellent, by the way – some vague molasses, burnt sugar, the creaminess of hummus and olive oil, caramel, flowers, apples and some tart notes of soursop and yellow mangoes and maybe a gooseberry or two.  Nice.

So yeah, like I said, it’s good, but a little confusing too — initially, not much seems to be happening and then you realize it already has, and sorting out the impressions later you conclude that what you were getting was not entirely what you were expecting. For my money, it was not anything outstanding. I personally preferred the 2004 Double Maturation a lot more – that one was intriguing and complex, and navigated salt and sweet, soft and crisp, in a way this one tried to, but didn’t. The nose and the palate were at odds not just with each other but themselves, in a way, and it was overly fruity-sweet.  That’s not enough for me to give it a bad score, just to make me look elsewhere at the company’s rhums, for something that might erase the memory of a Hawaiian pizza which the L’Expression so effortlessly brings to mind every time I sip it.

(#647)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • Big thanks to Cyril of DuRhum for the sample
  • A smaller 1500-bottle outturn of the 2008 millesime was released for La Maison du Whisky’s 60th Anniversary in the same year, at 48.4%.  A 2008 Batch 2 was released at 47.5% with 3500 bottles but the year of bottling is unknown – it can be distinguished by a blue portion of the label, missing on the one I tried here.
  • My bottles from 2012-2013 show an AOC moniker on the labels, which is not there now.  The website also makes no mention of it, so I am left to conclude that it no longer conforms to the AOC designation. If anyone has some details, please let me know and I’ll update the post.
Jul 252019
 

We hear a lot about Damoiseau, HSE, La Favorite and Tros Rivieres on social media, while J.M. almost seems to fall into the second tier of famous names. Though not through any fault of its own – as far as I’m concerned they have every right to be included in the same breath as the others, and to many, it does. 

Situated in the north of Martinique, J.M. began life with Pére Labat, who was credited with commercializing and proliferating the sugar industry in the French West Indies during the 18th century. He operated a sugar refinery at his property on the Roche Rover, and sold the estate to Antoine Leroux-Préville in 1790 – it was then renamed Habitation Fonds-Préville.  In 1845, his daughters sold the property again, this time to a merchant from Saint-Pierre names Jean-Marie Martin. With the decline in sugar production but with the concomitant rise in sales of distilled spirits, Jean-Marie recognized an opportunity, and built a small distillery on the estate, and switched the focus away from sugar and towards rum, which he aged in oak barrels branded with his initials “JM”. In 1914 Gustave Crassous de Médeuil bought the plantation from his brother Ernest (it would be positively karmic if Ernest was a descendant or relative of Jean-Marie, but it remains unknown), and merged it with his already existing estate of Maison Bellevue.  The resulting company has been family owned until recently, when Spiribam, the Hayot-family-controlled drinks conglomerate that also owns Clement and St. Lucia Distillers, bought a majority shareholding and put an end to one of the last independent single domaine plantations on Martinique.

The company makes various general blended rhums like the whites, the VO, VSOP and XO, as well as a ten and fifteen year old rum. The 45% ABV XO is one of the core range of rums JM produces, no particular year of make (otherwise it would be stated on the label and noted as being a millesime), always a minimum of six years old, made in quantity, consistent in taste and quality, and pretty widely available.

Right off, I enjoyed the smell when the bottle was cracked: luscious, well rounded ytet also a tad sharp – let’s call it crisp for now – with bags of soft tangerine zest, honey, vanilla and fudge.  It lacked much of that true herbal, grassy aroma which characterizes an agricole, yet its origin in cane juice was clear, hovering behind softer hints of marshmallow smores, caramel and white chocolate.

Palate, more of the same, with a few extra herbs and spices thrown in for good measure, quite firm and bordering on sharp.  So, some dill, cardamom, cloves, wet grass, dusky flowers (like lilies but thankfully fainter), plus softer tastes of peanut butter (the crunchy kind), caramel bon bons, rye bread and a sharp cheddar.  The finish was the bow tie, not adding anything much, just summing up the notes: medium long, warm, a tad sharp with less florals and more coffee grounds, oak and cinnamon.

This was good drinking, good sipping. I particularly liked the fact that the J.M.’s  inherent qualities kinda crept up on me without hurry: at first there was nothing bad about it, nor anything amazing, just decent quality – one could as easily mix it as sip it. Then a few extra notes began to sound, a few more joined in, and when it all came together at last I was left with a rhum that didn’t seem to have a whole lot of world-beating points of excellence – but what it had, it presented with aplomb. I finally came to the conclusion that the J.M. XO was a good rhum for both general audiences and those on a budget, a near perfect middle of the road product which didn’t seem like it was reaching for anything…but made one realize, after the party was over, that every target it was aiming for, it hit.

(#645)(83/100)

Jul 072019
 

“Austere” says the back label of Rum Nation’s massive rum beefcake from Réunion, and they weren’t kidding. The rhum traditionalle from the French Department is bottled at 60.5% ABV, is seriously violent, a tropically-aged molasses-derived brown bomber, and to my mind it’s quite a step up from the lower-proofed 45% 7 year old agricole they had previously released in 2016.  It is not recommended for people who don’t know what they’re getting into.

HyperFocal: 0

Why?  Because insofar as it has those wild, fierce and pungent smells and tastes, it’s very much like the new wave of Jamaican rums now making such big waves – Hampden and Worthy Park in particular.  Because this presses many of the same buttons, shares something of the same rum-DNA, the major one being that it’s coming off a still stuffed with the potential to crank up the ester-count. And while neither of these two bottles says so — for whatever reason — I’m going on record as saying they’re both from Savanna and the wonder of it is that they come off a savalle copper column still, not pot stills like the Jamaicans.  And yet the ‘Nation’s cask strength version from 2018 is in no way a lesser rum.

Just smelling it tells you that.  It releases such an intense aroma when cracked – a beautifully clear piece of work, smelling of caramel, vanilla, leather, wine, and a lot of red fruits: cherries, red currants and pomegranates, that kind of thing.  And that’s not all…esters come out of hiding after five minutes or so, bubble gum, sharp green fruits, sandalwood, cloves, acetones, and that’s accompanied by a sort of woody, almost meaty smell that’s tough to pin down but really quite interesting.  And as if all this was not enough it continued with sugar cane sap, a citrus line, mint, thyme, and even a twist of black licorice – seriously, you should keep that glass going for at least ten minutes, preferably more, because it just doesn’t seem to want to stop.

Some rums falter on the taste after opening up with a nose of uncommon quality – fortunately Rum Nation’s Réunion Cask Strength rum (to give it its full name) does not drop the ball. It’s sharp and crisp at the initial entry, mellowing out over time as one gets used to the fierce strength. It presents an interesting combination of fruitiness and muskiness and crispness, all at once – vanilla, lychee, apples, green grapes, mixing it up with ripe black cherries, yellow mangoes, lemongrass, leather, papaya; and behind all that is brine, olives, the earthy tang of a soya (easy on the vegetable soup), a twitch of wet cigarette tobacco (rather disgusting), bitter oak, and something vaguely medicinal.  It’s something like a Hampden or WP, yet not — it’s too distinctively itself for that. It displays a musky tawniness, a very strong and sharp texture, with softer elements planing away the roughness of the initial attack. Somewhat over-oaked perhaps but somehow it all works really well, and the finish is similarly generous with what it provides — long and dry and spicy, with some caramel, stewed apples, green grapes, cider, balsamic vinegar, and a tannic bitterness of oak, barely contained (this may be the weakest point of the rum).

I noted that it reminds me of the New Jamaican rums and that’s certainly true.  But for anyone who likes the Lontan rums, the 2006 HERR 10 YO or the two 2018 “57” expressions, its uniqueness can’t be described by simply saying it’s a version of a rum from the Caribbean. It’s fiercely and uncompromisingly itself, with tastes that complement — without replacing — the rums issued by its cousins from Jamaica. It’s dry, intense, rich, searing, complex, and that short tropical ageing period mellowed it enough to let subtler notes shine without dampening them down too much or losing the crispness of the more youthful elements. And so, summing up, what we have here is a relatively young rum that tries to wring the very last whiff or drop of flavour from its distillate — and succeeds brilliantly.

(#639)(86/100)

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)