Mar 232020
 

Photo (c) Excellencerhum since mine turned out to be useless

If I had a single regret about tasting this exceptional cask strength millésime rum from Trois Rivieres which was distilled in August 2006 and bottled eight years later, it’s that I neglected the opportunity to find and try the single cask version of the same vintage.  That one was bottled at 43% while the cask strength I was trying here was more than ten points higher, and it would have been fascinating to see how they ranked against each other.

Yet even without that comparison, there’s no doubt when you put together a range of variously aged agricoles (as I had the opportunity to), the Trois Rivieres Millésime 2006 is going to be right up there in the rankings when the dust settles and the arguments are over. Not just because of its strength, which is spoiling-for-a-fight-strong 55.5% ABV, but because of excellence of its assembly. Trois Rivières has made one of the best indie agricole bottlings ever (the Chantal Comte 1980), and here, for themselves, they have done something almost as good.

The Trois Rivières Brut de fût Millésime 2006 (which is its official name) is relatively unusual: it’s aged in new American oak barrels, not Limousin, and bottled at cask strength, not the more common 43-48%. And that gives it a solidity that elevates it somewhat over the standards we’ve become used to. Let’s start, as always, with the nose — it just becomes more assertive, and more clearly defined…although it seems somehow gentler (which is quite a neat trick when you think about it). It is redolent of caramel and vanilla first off, and then adds green apples, tart yoghurt, pears, white guavas, watermelon and papaya, and behind all that is a delectable series of herbs – rosemary, dill, even a hint of basil and aromatic pipe tobacco.

That’s all fine, but agricole aromas are usually a cut above the norm anyway – I’d have been disappointed if I was displeased. What really distinguishes the 2006 – the year was apparently a very good one – is the palate.  It’s a smorgasbord of macerated fruit (apricots, papaya, pineapple and apples), some light but clear florals, crushed hazelnuts, honey … and marshmallows. It all comes together in a delectable combo of sweet, crisp and mellow tastes that almost demands to be had neat — and all this time, the profile continues to be rock-solid rather than sharp or clawing, going right down the line to the fruity, tart, citrus-y finish with its last fine dusting of coffee grounds, crushed nuts and vanilla.

How they developed and assembled it in such a way that the high ABV was completely tamed and smoothened out without losing any of its force, is a mystery.  The balance and complexity harmonize well, it’s tailor made for a late night sip and it encourages rhum appreciation. It’s unlike the rhum we looked at last week, even an opposite: the La Mauny was a low-rent starter rhum made to accompany cheerful and noisily boisterous back-alley socializing, while the 2006 demands somewhat more reflection and is, perhaps, better for that purpose. But to cut a long summary short, I’m just and simply impressed, and maybe I should stop writing, go out there, buy another one, and share it with my domino-playing squaddies. Because I’m pretty sure they’d quaff this one by the glassful.

(#712)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • There are two variations of this Millésime: the 2006 Private Vintage (45%) and the 2006 Single Cask (43%). Entrhums out of Belgium sampled them here (French). Seems like I’m not the only one to really like Trois Rivières.
  • My personal opinion is that this is not quite as good as the TR 1986, but a smidgen better than the TR 1975
Mar 192020
 

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

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

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

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

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

(#711)(80/100)


History

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

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

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

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

Sources:


Other Notes

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

Mar 162020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#710)(80/100)


A quick history:

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

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

Mar 122020
 

The Cor Cor “Green”, cousin to the molasses-based “Red” (both are actually white – the colours refer to their labels’ hues) is an order of magnitude more expensive than its scarlet labelled relative, largely because it is made from cane juice, not molasses, and therefore rather more seasonal in production.  The question is, how does the cane juice white compare when run up against its intriguing (if off-beat) molasses-based white. Both are, after all, made by the same master blender who wanted to apply an awamori sensibility to making rum.

Tasting the Red and Green side by side, then, is an instructive experience, akin to doing a flight of white Habitation Veliers. Given that everything else is constant – sugar cane, the pot still distillation apparatus, the resting in steel tanks (neither is “aged” in the classical sense), the lack of any additives or filtration – then the only thing that should make a difference in the taste is the molasses versus cane juice, and the length and method of the fermentation cycle.

But even that is quite enough to make a clear difference, I assure you.  The Green is most definitely not the Red, and is discernibly an agricole style cane juice rum with all this implies, filtered through the mind of the Japanese culture and love for their own spirits.  However, let it also be noted that it is not a standard agricole by any means…and therein lies both its attraction to the curious, and potentially its downfall to the masses.

To illustrate the point, consider how it noses: it’s intriguing and pleasantly flinty, and has the initial tang of mineral water into which have been dunked some salt and olives, a sort of poor man’s martini.  There is a background of sweet and light florals and white fruit, and if you stick with it, also something more maritime – seaweed and iodine, I suggest. It’s mild, which is a function of the living room strength at which it’s issued (40% ABV), and the memory you’ll carry away from smelling it, is of the sea: brine and iodine and herbaceousness, only partially balanced off by sweeter and lighter components.

The taste is where the resemblance to a French island agricole comes more clearly into focus. Sweet sugar water, fresh-cut grass, citrus peel, some eucalyptus and gherkins in pimento vinegar, and a very nicely balanced series of light fruit notes – papaya, guavas, pears, watermelon.  As I said above, it’s different from the Red (to be expected – the sources are Montague and Capulet, after all) yet some minor family resemblance is noticeable; and although the rum tastes a little watery, the finish lasts so long and it coats the mouth and tongue so well, it allows it to skate past such concerns, leaving behind the fond memories of miso soup, pimento, apple cider and some citrus…and, of course, an olive or two.

Even though the Green was offbeat in its own way, I liked it more than the Red. It’s not really a true agricole (comes off a pot still, for example, produced with a different distillation philosophy) and lacks something of that feral nature of those whites bottled in the Caribbean that have spoiled me.  Clairins and blancs are a take-no-prisoners bunch of badass 50% rowdies, and I like them precisely for that air of untamed wild joy with which they gallop and spur across the palate — and the Green is not at that level.

So, it’s unusual, and decent, and complies with some of the notes we want and look for in a cane juice rum.  It’ll excite some interest in the regular rum world for sure. But to my mind it’s not yet aggressive enough, strong enough, good enough, in a way that would make a bitchin’ daiquiri or a ti-punch, or cause a drinker to wake up, sit up, and say wtf in Japanese. Not yet. Though admittedly, if they stick with it and continue developing juice like this, then they’re getting close to making a rum that does precisely that.

(#709)(82/100)


Other Notes

The label is a stylized map of South Borodino island (the Russians named it so in the 19th century after the ship Borodino surveyed it – the Japanese name is Minamidaito) where the distillery is, overlaid with a poem I’ll quote here without comment:

Bats, dancing in the night sky
Suspended magic, falling in drops
These are the things
That make men and women covet love
This is the magic of rum,
a sugarcane love potion

Mar 092020
 

In a time of exploding visibility of masterful ladies in the rum world – Joy Spence, Maggie Campbell, Trudiann Branker, Karen Hoskins, Dianne Medrano, and so many others – it’s good to also remember Chantal Comte, who bottled her first rum in 1983 (it was a Depaz, and possibly even this one, though I’m still tracking that down), who has fiercely and doggedly stuck with her first love of the French islands’ rums in all the years from then to now.  She is, in my opinion, along with Tristan Prodhomme, one of the undiscovered treasures of the indie bottling scene. 

Yet her rhums remain peculiarly elusive: it’s rare to find a review of anything the woman has released, let alone any of the older bottlings, and this in spite of the fact that the quality of her wares is beyond dispute.  A few years ago a newspaperman in Trinidad wrote about a secret handshake that united the underground lovers of Luca’s Caronis, but the statement really should be applied to hers – and most especially for the one she herself considers her favourite, the Depaz 1975, which is almost as good as the utterly spectacular Trois Rivieres 1980 I was fortunate enough to find all those years ago..

The full and rather unwieldy title of the rum today is the Chantal Comte Rhum Agricole 1975 Extra Vieux de la Plantation de la Montagne Pelée, but let that not dissuade you.  Consider it a column-still, cane-juice rhum aged around eight years, sourced from Depaz when it was still André Depaz’s property and the man was – astoundingly enough in today’s market – having real difficulty selling his aged stock. Ms. Comte, who was born in Morocco but had strong Martinique familial connections, had interned in the wine world, and was also mentored by Depaz and Paul Hayot (of Clement) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Martinique was suffering from overstock and poor sales.. And having access at low cost to such ignored and unknown stocks allowed her to really pick some amazing rums, of this is one.

Still, if we disregard the bottle and just do the pour, the mud-brown liquid does not, at the inception, inspire. That misleading first impression lasts about as long as it takes the nose to take the first sniff. Because it’s thick, it’s fruity, it’s juicy and it feels solid enough to get your teeth into.  The whole thing is a smorgasbord of fruits – ripe pineapple and mangoes for sure, pears, white guavas and papaya (all the light hits of the agricole pantheon)…but also more dark fruits than we usually associate with rhums – black grapes, kiwi fruits, rich plums, dates. No tartness here, though a whiff of citrus peel pervades the background, just a combined fruit smoothie in harmonious combination with a trace of molasses, cereal and chocolate brownies

And that’s not all: the palate is equally complex and well-crafted, and at 45% – usually a middling strength which can be too soft or delicate or thin if done indifferently or badly – it expands the tableaux of observable notes. It melds the soft smell of old leather satchels with pears, herbs, spices, coffee grounds and a touch of brine, and if you hang around long enough the light acidity of citrus peel and tartness of sour cream coil behind and lend some texture and depth.  Which is to say nothing of the delicate grassiness and softer caramel hints that you can almost, but not quite, taste – they are sensed rather than experienced, and just enhance the supple, smooth drinking experience. I would have preferred the finish to be a little longer and perhaps a shade more emphatic, but overall, the closing notes of prunes, apricots, ginger, 5-spice and light sugar water was quite enough to give the rhum a lovely, low-key send off. 

Clearing away the dishes – this is not a rum that revels in strength and furious points of power.  It lacks decisive and clearly discernible tastes like funk or woodsiness. What it does do, and well, is subtly combine the component profiles while at all times allowing the drinker to pick up some element that pleases, and identify it precisely within the amalgam. It’s interesting that Ms. Comte remarked once that she felt a product (rums) so complex and of such quality could not – should not! – possibly be overlooked or despised the way it was, just around the same time as Luca Gargano was coming to similar conclusions over at Saint James: one gets the impression she’s followed that principle ever since, of not worrying about singular taste profiles, but more pleasing symphonic harmonies.

Anyway, the Depaz 1975 is, at end, a rum that reminds us what a long journey agricoles have made since back in the 1980s when it came out.  It starts off by seeming quite ordinary, an agricole like many others we’ve tried — then it gathers force and power, it gets better with every passing sip, and by the time you’re done it will take its place as one of those rums you can’t imagine yourself forgetting. Deservedly so, in my opinion, for here is one of a series of bottlings which raised the bar for the French Caribbean islands, indie bottlings and La Maison de Chantal, and forced everyone to sit up and pay attention. We have never forgotten, and they have never looked back, and that’s all as it should be.

(#708)(89/100)


Other Notes

  • Many thanks to Sascha Junkert and Johnny Drejer for their forbearance – they both know why 🙂
  • Outturn unknown, exact age unknown – I think it’s around 8-10 years old.  A query is pending.
Feb 232020
 

Recently we’ve looked at rums from Jamaica, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Japan, India, Australia, Guadeloupe, Haiti and Mauritius (and that’s just since the year began) which goes a far way to showcasing the incredible variety of the spirit.  Today we’ll try something from Martinique – and when one considers the fame of Saint James, home of the near legendary 1885 Rhum (one of oldest rhums I’ve ever tried) and from which I’ve tasted several old editions from the past, well, it’s a wonder I haven’t come here more often to try their current offerings.

At this time, the Saint James lineup consists of five blanc rhums (Imperial, Royal, the 55º, Fleur de Canne and the really quite amazing pot-still Coeur de Chauffe), two basic mixers (Rhum Paille Agricole, Rhum Ambré Agricole), nine more “tasting rhums” which are the aged variants of the 3, Vieux, XO, 7, 12, 15, Cuvee 1765, Cuvee d’excellence and Brut de Fut 2003…and lastly, five “exceptional rhums” (their phrase, not mine), which are special editions, millesimes and so on. 

Today I won’t aim for the stratosphere with some ultra-expensive halo rum from the top end which none but the 1% can afford, but just speak to the mid-range 7 Year Old. All the usual stats apply for a Saint James rhum – AOC certified, cane juice origin, creole still, 43% strength, and nicely tropically-aged in small ex-bourbon casks.  

What’s interesting about Saint James is not only the distinctiveness of their rhum here, but its divergence from what is almost seen as the sine-qua-non of rhum agricole – the grassy, herbal lightness of a cane juice distillate. Nowhere in the initial nose do I detect herbs and green grass and that light crispness – instead, what I smell is  luscious, sweet, and spicy, almost but not quite heavy with fruits. There’s preaches in syrup, pineapple, light anise, unsweetened yoghurt, coffee grounds, honey and vanilla, and later, also some cinnamon. I think you have to admit, for a 7 year old to have all that is really quite remarkable. 

Ah but when sipped, all that changes, and the clodhoppers go away and it dons a pair of ballet slippers.  It’s stunningly fragrant, not quite delicate – that ballerina does have an extra pound or two – very firm and robust in flavour profile.  Just on the first sip you can taste flowers, pears, papaya, honey, vanilla, raisins, grapes, all pulled together with a delectable light and salty note. There are nice citrus hints, a tease from the oak, ginger and cinnamon, and overall, it sips as nicely as it mixes.  The finish is well handled, though content to play it safe – things are beginning to quieten down here, and it fades quietly without stomping on you – and certainly nothing new or original comes into being; the rhum is content to follow where the nose and palate led – fruits, pineapple, spices, ginger, vanilla – without breaking any new ground.

So all in all, a really vibrant piece of tropically aged work, deserving many of its plaudits. I’ve noticed on many a social media post that people throw around the words “gateway rum” and apply it consistently to the oversweetened bestsellers like the Zacapas or some of the traditional Demeraras from DDL.  Here’s one rum where the term really does apply, and what makes it so apropos is that there’s no messing around with the 7 YO Vieux, no enticement or blandishment with additives or fancy maturation or finishing (or those tiresome old made-up backstories).  It’s simply a very good mid range rhum, drinkable, mixable, flexible, and its great quality might just be that it makes you want to go up the ladder to the older rums immediately, just to see what magic Mark Sassier has done with those. Now that’s a gateway that means business, and completely earns the title.

(#703)(83/100)


Other notes

  • The Fat Rum Pirate noted the odd lack of agricole-ness on the nose as well, in his 2018 4.5 star review.
  • It’s completely irrelevant, but Luca Gargano started his rum career working for Saint James as a brand ambassador in the 1970s, before buying Velier.
Jan 022020
 

The actual title of this rhum is Chamarel Pure Sugar Cane Juice 2014 4 YO Rum, but Mauritius doesn’t have license to use the term “agricole” the way Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion and Madeira do.  And while some new producers from the Far East and America seem to have no problem casually appropriating a name that is supposedly restricted to only those four locations, we know that Luca Gargano of Velier, whose brainchild these Indian rums are, would never countenance or promote such a subversion of convention.  And so a “pure sugar cane juice” rum it is.

Now, Mauritius has been making rhums and rums for ages – companies like New Grove, St. Aubin, Lazy Dodo are new and old stalwarts of the island, and third parties take juice from International Distillers Mauritius (IDM) to make Penny Blue, Green Island or Cascavel brands, mostly for sale in the UK and Europe.  But there’s another distillery there which has only recently been established and come to more prominence, and that’s Chamarel, which was established in 2008 (see historical and production notes below). I hesitate to say that Velier’s including them in their 70th Anniversary collection kickstarted their rise to greater visibility – but it sure didn’t hurt either.

Brief stats: a 4 year old rum distilled in September 2014, aged in situ in French oak casks and bottled in February 2019 at a strength of 58% ABV.  Love the labelling and it’s sure to be a fascinating experience not just because of the selection by Velier, or its location (we have tried few rums from there though those we tried we mostly liked), or that strength, but because it’s always interesting to see how such a relatively brief tropical ageing regimen can affect the resultant rum when it hits our glasses.

In short, not enough.  It sure smelled nice – peaches in cream to start, sweetly crisp and quite flavourful, with lots of ripe fruit and no off notes to speak of; waves of cherries, mangoes, apples, bubble gum, gummi-bears bathed in a soft solution of sugar water, cola and 7-up.  It’s a bit less rounded and even than Velier’s Savanna rum from the Indian Ocean still series, but pleasant enough in its own way.

It’s on the palate that its youth – with all the teenage Groot this implies – becomes more apparent.  There’s peanut butter on rye bread; brine and sweet olives, figs, dates, leavened with a little vanilla and caramel, but with the fruits that had been evidenced on the nose dialled severely back.  It’s dry, with slightly sour and bitter notes that come forward and clash with the sweet muskiness of the ripe fruits.. This gets to the point where the whole taste experience is somewhat derailed, and while staying relatively warm and firm, never quite coheres into a clear set of discernible tastes that one can sit back and relax with – you keep waiting for some quick box on the ears or something.  Even the finish, which was dry and long, with some saltiness and ripe fruits, feels like a work in progress and not quite tamed, for all its firm character.

So somehow, even with its 58% strength, the Chamarel doesn’t enthuse quite as much as the Savanna rhum did. Maybe that was because it didn’t allow clear tastes to punch through and show their quality – they all got into into a sort of indistinct alcohol-infused fight over your palate that you know has stuff going on in there someplace…just not what. To an extent that it showed off its young age and provided a flavourful jolt, I liked it and it’s a good-enough representative of what the distillery and Mauritius can do. I just like other rhums the company and the island has made better — even if they didn’t have any of Luca’s fingerprints over it.

(#689)(81/100)


Other Notes

La Rhumerie de Chamarel, located in a small valley in the south west of Mauritius, is one of the rare operational distilleries to cultivate its own sugarcane, which itself has a history on the island going back centuries. The distillery takes the title of a small nearby village named after a Frenchman who lived there around 1800 and owned most of the land upon which the village now rests. The area has had long-lived plantations growing pineapples and sugar cane, and in 2008 the owners of the Beachcomber Hotel chain (New Mauritius Hotels, one of the largest companies in Mauritius), created the new distillery on their estate of 400 hectares, perhaps to take on the other large rum makers on the island, all of whom were trying to wean themselves off of sugar production at a time of weakening demand and reduced EU subsidies. Rum really started taking off in post 2006 when production was legalized – previously all sugar cane had to be processed into sugar by law. 

The sugar cane is grown onsite and cut without pre-burning between July and December. The harvest is transported directly to the distillery and the crushed sugarcane juice filtered and taken to steel tanks for fermentation after which the wash is run through a copper Barbet-type plate column still (for white rums), or the two-column 24-plate still they call an alembic (for aged and other rums). In all cases the rums are left post-distillation in inert stainless steel vats for three months before being transferred to ageing barrels of various kinds, or released as white rums, or further processed into spiced variations.

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.
Nov 282019
 

It must be something about the French – they’re opening micro distilleries all over the place (Chalong Bay, Sampan, Whisper, Issan and Toucan are examples) and almost all of them are channelling the agricole ethos of the French West Indies, working with pure cane juice and bringing some seriously interesting unaged blancs to the attention of the world. Any time I get bored with the regular parade of rums from the lands of the pantheon, all I have to do is reach for one of them to get jazzed up about rum, all over again. í

The latest of these little companies is from Vietnam, which is rife with sugar cane juice (“Nuoc Mia”) as well as locally made bottom-house rice- or molasses-originating artisanal spirits called “rượu” (ruou); these operate in the shadows of any Government regulation, registration or oversight — many are simple moonshineries.  But Saigon Liquorists is not one of these, being the formally incorporated enterprise of two expatriate Frenchmen Clément Jarlier and Clément Daigre, who saw the cane juice liquor being sold on the streets in Ho Chi Minh City and smelled a business opportunity. The fact that one was involved in spirits distribution in Vietnam while the other had both broker experience and knew about the distillation of cognac didn’t hurt wither – already they had a background in the industry.

Photo (c) Saigon Liquorists, from FB

Sourcing a 200-liter single column still in 2017 from China, they obtained fresh cane, then the juice, experimented for three months with fermentation, distillation, cutting, finally got the profile they were after, and rolled out the first Rhum Mia in October that year at a local charity gala. In their current production system, the sugarcane comes from Tien Giang in the Mekong Delta, just south of Ho Chi Minh City, via a supplier who collects it from farmers in the area and does the initial processing. The sugarcane is peeled, and pressed once to get the first juice. That is then vacuum-packed in 5L bags and loaded into refrigerated trucks (this slows down fermentation), which transport the bags the 70km to the distillery.  There fermentation is begun and lasts about five days, before being run through the still – what comes out the other end is around 77% ABV. The rum is rested in inert, locally-made traditional clay vessels called chums (used in rice liquor fermentation in Vietnam) for eight months and then slowly diluted with water over the final two months to 45% – a strength chosen to appeal to the local market where Mia’s initial sales were made. 

The strength might prove key to broader acceptance in foreign markets where 50-55% ABV is more common for juice-based unaged rhums (Toucan had a similar issue with the No.4, as you may recall). When I nosed this 45% rhum, its initial smells took me aback – there was a deep grassy kind of aroma, mixed in with a whole lot of glue, book bindings, wax, old papers, varnish and furniture polish, that kind of thing. It reminded me of my high school studies done in GT’s National Library, complete with the mustiness and dry dust of an old chesterfield gone to mothballs, under which are stacked long unopened suitcases from Edwardian times. And after all that, there came the real rum stuff – grass, dill, sweet gherkins, sugar water, white guavas and watermelon, plus a nice clear citrus hint. Quite a combo.

The rhum distanced itself from the luggage, furniture and old tomes when I tasted it.  The attack was crisp and clean on the tongue, sharp and spicy, an uambiguous blade of pure herbal and grassy flavours – sweet sugar cane sap, dill, crushed lime leaves, brine, olives, with just a touch of fingernail polish and turpentine at the back end, as fleeting as a roué’s sly wink.  After about half an hour – longer than most will ever have this thing gestating in their glasses – faint musty dry earth smells returned, but were mixed in with sugar water, cucumbers and pimentos, cumin, and lemongrass, so that was all good. The finish was weak and somewhat quick, quite aromatic and dry, with nice hints of flowers, lemongrass, and tart fruits.

Ultimately, it’s a reasonably tasty tropical drink that would do fine in (and may even have been expressly designed for) a ti-punch, but as a rhum to have on its own, it needs some torqueing up, since the flavours are there, but too difficult to tease out and come to grips with. Based on the experience I’ve had with other micro-distilleries’ blancs (all of which are stronger), the Mia is damned intriguing though. It’s different and unusual, and in my correspondence with him, Clement suggested that this difference comes from the fact that the sugar cane peel is discarded before pressing which makes for a more grassy taste, and he takes more ‘heads’ away than most, which reduces flavour somewhat…but also the hangover, which, he remarked, is a selling point in Vietnam.

These days I don’t drink enough to get seriously wasted any more (it interferes with my ability to taste more rums), but if this easy-on-the-head agricole-style rhum really does combine both taste and a hangover-free morning after, and if the current fascination with grass-to-glass rums continues in the exclusive bars of the world – well, I’m not sure how you could stop the sales from exploding. Next time I’m in the Real World, I’ll keep an eye out for it myself.

(#680)(76/100)


Other Notes

  • All bottles, labels and corks are sourced in Vietnam and efforts are underway to begin exporting to Asia and Europe.
  • Production was around 9000 bottles a year back in 2018, so it might have increased since then.
  • Plans are in play to distill both gins and vodkas in the future.
  • Hat tip to Reuben Virasami, who spotted me the sample and alerted me to the company.  Also to Tom Walton, who explained what “chums” were. And many thanks to Clément Daigre of SL, who patiently ran me through the history of the company, and its production methods.
Nov 212019
 

Rumaniacs Review #105 | 0678

1952 – an eventful year.  Queen Elizabeth II ascends to the throne; Black Saturday in Egypt, followed by the overthrow of King Farouk; the US election puts Ike in the White House; the first steps towards the EU were taken with the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community; television debuts in Canada; Charlie Chaplin barred fro  re-entry to the US; “Mousetrap” opens in London (and never closes) – and in Martinique, Clément distills this rum and starts ageing it.

So here we are.  We’ve arrived at the oldest rum that is within the blend of the Clément XO, the Millesime 1952, while remaining in the dark as to the proportions, or even the true ages of some of the rhums themselves (as noted in the 1970). Too bad, but that’s what happens when records are incomplete, people move on and memories fade.  We take what we can.

When we go this far back in time, the AOC is a myth and we’re in the territory of rhums like the Bally 1929 or 1924 and the older St. James offerings like the 1932 and 1885.  The importance of trying such products with a modern sensibility and palate is not so much to drink from the well of history – though of course that’s part of the attraction, which I would never deny – as to see how things have changed, how much they haven’t, and to understand how developments in technology and processing have made rums what they are today.

By that standard, what to make of this one? Short answer: different and well constructed — just don’t expect the clarity and crispness of a modern agricole. 

Colour – Amber

Strength – 44% ABV

Nose – A combination of the sweet of the 1976 and the pungency of the 1970. Light red-wine- notes, fleshy fruits and almost no grassy or herbals aspects at all.  Nougat, toblerone, white chocolate, coffee grounds, anise, all surprisingly and pleasantly crisp. Flowers and the faintest hint of salt. Also the mustiness of Grandma Caner’s old basement (where once I found a Damoiseau 1953, with which this thing shared quite a few similarities).

Palate – Thicker and fuller than expected, and pretty much lacking the lighter and more precise attributes of the other two.  Fleshy red and orange fruits, like peaches, oranges, apricots. Ripe granny apples. Red olives, tobacco, licorice, brown sugar, a light brininess and even apple cider for some kick. 

Finish – Short and dry.  Salty and fruity, well balanced against each other, but admittedly it was rather unexceptional.

Thoughts – That it doesn’t fly apart under the impact of all these various competing flavours is to its credit, but tasted blind, it wasn’t my standout of the three Clément rhums. Unlike the light grassy crispness of the 1976 and 1970, I felt this one was literally more down-to-earth and musty and thicker. Clearly things were done different back in the day, and the Damoiseau ‘53 displayed similarly non-agricole characteristics.  As a reviewer and taster, I much prefer today’s versions to be honest, but as a lover of antique things made in other eras, it’s hard to completely discount something with such a heritage.

(#678 | R105)(84/100)


Other notes

  • Cyril of DuRhum has a lot of doubts about this rhum, not the least about the age claim of plus-or-minus forty (or even thirty) years. Even if it really was bottled in the early 1990s, it’s almost inconceivable that a rum could be aged in the tropics for so long without evaporating or being tannic beyond the point of drinkability. Clement makes no statement on the matter themselves. Note that unlike the other two rhums, this has no AOC notation on the label.
  • Josh Miller in a 2016 review of the Clement XO on Distiller, remarked that the stocks of the 1952 were now exhausted and the XO would have to be reformulated, but no longer recalls the source.  I’ve sent a few messages around to see if I can come up with more details.