Nov 112019
 

In case you’re wondering, in the parlance of the Francophone West Indies, the term “cabresse” (or “chabine”) refers to a light skinned mulatto, what Guyanese would call a dougla gyal – not altogether politically correct these days, but French Caribbean folks have always been somewhat more casual about such terms (witness the “Negrita” series of rums, for example) so perhaps for them it’s less of a big deal. The rum in question comes from French Guiana in this case, made there by the same distillery of St. Maurice which also provides the stock for the rhums of that little indie out of Toulouse, Toucan. It is now the only distillery in the country, though back in the 1930s there were about twenty others.

The blanc is the standard white rum of the company and the brand name of La Cabresse – other brands they make are La Cayennaise and La Coeur de Chauffe, none of which I’ve tried thus far. Like all their rums, its a column still product based on a 48-hour fermentation cycle of the fresh cane juice harvested from their own fields, and it’s bottled at what could almost be seen as a standard for whites, 50% ABV.  And that’s sufficient to give it some heft while not being too milquetoast for a hard charging bar cocktail.

Certainly it gives the flavours ample room to emerge. It’s self-evidently a cane juice rhum, redolent of fresh wet grass, sugar cane sap, swank, and white fruits like ripe pears and guavas, and without any tart tang or bite. There’s a touch of avocados, brine and olives mixed up with lime leaves, and a clear hint of anise in the background. 

The rhum presents as warm rather than hot or sharp, so relatively tame to sniff, and this continues on to the palate. There a certain sweetness, light and clear, that is more pronounced in the initial sips, and the citrus notes are more noticeable, as are the brine and slight rottenness.  What’s most distinct is the emergent strain of ouzo, of licorice (mostly absent from the nose until after it opens up a bit) … but fortunately this doesn’t take over, integrating reasonably well with tastes of clear bubble gum and strawberry soda pop that round out the crisp profile. Finish is medium long, dry, sweet, warm  Guavas and white fruits and watery pears mingle with oranges and citrus peel and a slight dusting of salt, and that’s just about the whole story.

When it comes to French island rums, agricoles or otherwise, my attention tends to be attracted more by the whites than the majority of the aged rhums.  It’s not that the older rhums are bad by any stretch – quite the reverse, in fact – just that I find the whites fascinating and original and occasionally just plain weird. There’s usually something interesting about them, even when they are perfectly normal products.  Perhaps it’s because I was raised on whites that were too often bland, lightly-flavoured and inoffensive and just served their purpose of providing a jolt of alcohol to a mix, that I appreciate rums willing to take a chance here and there.

Not all whites conform to that, of course, and this one isn’t going to break the mould, or the bank, or your tonsils. It’s a perfectly serviceable mid-level white rum, nothing extra special, nothing extra bad. It’s not a crazy screaming face-melter, nor a boring, take-one-sip-and-fall-asleep yawn-through. I’d suggest it’s a little too rough to take neat, while also lacking that element of crazy that makes you want to try it that way just to prove you could; and at the same time it is sprightly enough to boost a cocktail like a Ti’Punch real well. At the end, then, you could with justification state that La Belle Cabresse remains one of those all-round rhums which doesn’t excel at anything in particular, but provides solid support for just about everything you want it for. 

(#674)(82/100)

Nov 042019
 

There was a lot of interest in and written about Mhoba between the UK 2018 and Paris 2019 rumfests, and when one checks out the rums they make, it’s not hard to see why.  It’s from a unique part of the world, has been deep-dived by Steve James in a thee-part-post that could hardly be bettered (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 are here), has a pot still action going on, and the rums themselves are solidly distinct. So we should beware of letting them fall off our mental rum radar in between expos – because they’re good, and, perhaps more important, well made, unmessed-with, cask strength, and very, very original.

Mhoba’s founder Robert Greaves originally considered making a South African version of cachaca…but fortunately for us, changed his mind. He built his own small stills (many of them, each evolving from the previous iteration), played around with the technical aspects of crushing, fermenting and distilling for two years, applied for a Liquor License in South Africa, and it all finally came together in 2015. Initial samples sent to the Miami Rum Festival in 2016 resulted in more tweaking, and by 2018 he had a blend of rum aged for about a year in six scraped, scoured, seared and toasted French oak casks (the epic of how he ended up there is worth a read so head over to Rum Revelations for some background), which he presented in London that year — though the one I tried was from a six-months-older blend of the same barrels, which yielded 330 bottles and which was shown off in the Paris Rumfest in early 2019.

This is where good labelling helps understand what you’re getting.  Mine read that it was a sugar cane juice rum, single blended, the bottle outturn (330 bottles, of which this was a sample), batch 2019FC1, South African made, and 65% ABV (ouch!). Actually, the only things missing from the label were the age statement (website says just over a year) and the still of origin (it’s a pot still), which I imagine subsequent labels will correct, especially as additional aged varietals begin to enter the market and a stock of different aged expressions gets built up – already, the company site lists eight different rums, so they’re not wasting any time.

I liked the pungency and herbal nature of Mhoba’s white rum, and remarked it compared nicely to a Neisson or a civilized clairin.  The French cask was a horse of a different colour, though I can’t definitively state whether this was because of the ageing, the cuts made or the tweaking of the still. One thing for sure – the casks had their say here.  Just the nose made that clear – very little of the vegetal, herbal notes of the white made it through here. Indeed, what I smelled was a combination of dialled-down Jamaican funk – sharp, overripe, sour fruits, oddly shy for such a powerful rum – combined with damp cardboard, hot earth after a rain, and paint thinner. Gradually, over the half hour I spent smelling it, it released citrus zest, toffee, chocolate oranges, dill and just a hint of brine. And yet it remained curiously indistinct, hard to come to grips with and pick apart.

The palate was better, very dry, very strong, yet that vagueness persisted here too, if perhaps not as much. Sour fruits gone off were there – mangoes, apricots, peaches, cashews (the ones with the seeds outside) — plus mint, dill and rosemary, brine, ginger and lemongrass. These were the sharper aspects, balanced off by some light coffee, caramel, wine, black grapes and those dusky earth and cardboard and coffee notes, leading to a roaring sharp finish which was long and dry, closing off with hints of nuts, coffee, caramel, and a last whiff of fruitiness

I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this.  The minimal ageing toned down the rawness of an unaged spirit in a way that polished off some of the rough edges, so that was good; the additional fruitiness imparted by the Cape Brandy left in the staves (even after the sanding and scraping away of a few millimeters of impregnated wood) was nice – overall, it was a solid, strong drink. This, paradoxically, was also its weakness.  The strength was so great that it overpowered the subtle notes that a mere year-and-a-bit of ageing had provided, and it failed to cohere in a way that would allow the individual taste components to shine more. Here then was a rum that I felt could either use some more ageing, or some water, and indeed I did put a few drops into my drink and it became much more approachable that way.

Still, it remained something of an odd duck, hard to pigeonhole, tough to nail down precisely.  It had aspects of an aged agricole, and points that reminded me of a Jamaican high-ester rum, all combined with the dampening anonymity of a column-still, high-proofed, lightly-aged filtered product from, say, Bacardi.  In that lay its originality and its attraction because in a market crowded with ever more indie cask strength releases, new experiments from old houses, and ever more cheap column still plonk, anything new and well made and tasting the way it does is a welcome breath of fresh air. I may not have been entirely sold on its quality, but I won’t forget it any time soon — and as the years go by I can see my shelf having more than just a few of the rums from this small South African company, because they’re surely one to watch.

(#672)(83/100)

Sep 232019
 

If you doubt the interconnectedness of the modern world, let me relate this circular story. About three or four years ago Gregers Nielsen (now of the Danish company 1423 and someone I enjoy heckling in every rumfest I see him at) introduced me to Richland Rum from Georgia, which I thought was nice, if perhaps not a world beating standout. Fast forward a couple of years and I’m doing research on rums of Africa and in looking at Liberia I come across Sangar rums, made by an expatriate American who was consulting with – Richland Rum. Another year passes, and at the 2019 Berlin rumfest the very first stand I’m told to go to is a new rum from Liberia – Sangar.  And who told me this and pointed in their direction? Gregers…who then ended up working two booths over. I rest my case.

That amusing if irrelevant tale aside, here is some of the background of Sangar. My initial research a year or so back created some confusion – the application for equity  investment called it Sehzue Distillers; the contact email at the time said Nimba Valley Rum and the official site referred to Miseh Distilling even though the website is for Sangar rum – but in all cases the principal force behind it is Mike Sehzue, an American West Point graduate with an MBA whose father was born in Liberia.

Mr. Sehzue had no idea how to make rum, but on a visit to Liberia in 2010, he became more aware of the local cane juice alcohol with its long grass-roots history and, realizing that expertise and raw materials were on hand, he decided to open a medium sized distillery both to encourage industry in a country now recovering from a protracted and bitter civil war, and to showcase the potential of locally made rum.  A chance meeting led to an introduction (in 2014) to Erik and Karin Vonk of Richland Rum distinction and they provided him with the encouragement and technical advice which permitted him to open his distillery for business a few years later. The result is the only rum they make at the moment, the 40% Sangar White, sold primarily in Liberia, with the festival circuit raising awareness for export plans to the USA, EU and UK in later 2019 and 2020.

The rum is pot-still produced and derives from cane juice, not molasses. Sangar has no cane fields of its own, and contracts with seventeen or so local farmers in the surrounding area to source its cane, which is brought to the distillery and crushed within eight hours of cutting, with the juice put to ferment for five days.  Then it’s run through their copper pot still, and bar filtration for sediment, is bottled pretty much as it is, unaged, clear, at a relatively demure 40% (which I suspect is so that it can more easily be appreciated by the target audience in the USA).

For the hardcore rum junkie, 40% would not normally excite serious interest (although the prospect of trying a new and relatively unknown African rum absolutely should), but trust me, the combination of a rum incorporating magic words like “pot still” and “unaged” and “clear” was and is well worth seeking out when it comes to the festival near you because the aromas and tastes are barely held in check even by those softer standards. The nose, for example announced its potential badassery with an initial tantara of salt, wax, gherkins in vinegar and just enough bite to make one wonder if a red chili wasn’t hiding in there someplace. Brine and olives were at the fore, followed by crisp green apples, lemon zest, cinnamon, and cumin.

Tastewise, I would have preferred something released at a higher proof, because the profile was mild instead of forceful, slightly muddled instead of really crisp — and while that will allow anyone to drink it neat without an issue, it also muted the flavours, almost losing some, that could have used a little beefing up.  Clearly discernible were citrus, light fruit (papaya, white guavas, pears), sugar water, watermelons, sweet green peas (!!), and the rum retained just enough of the attitude to permit a good interaction with the brine and olives with the lighter components. Unsurprisingly the finish was short and wispy, mostly a mix of sweet and salt, soya, light fruits and a dash of cumin to close up the show.

So let’s sum up, then. The balance was excellent, the interplay of flavours spot on, and I was quietly impressed that so much could be packed into a package with so little aggro. Choosing my words carefully, I can say that this is a near perfect 40% white homunculus of a rumlet, and there will be an audience for it, no question – but it won’t be those who cut their teeth on agricole blancs north of 50%, for whom this will be an interesting diversion without replacing their pet loves.  That said, there’s nothing at all wrong with it – it delivers at its proof point for those who appreciate that, and for those looking for an interestingly taste-filled mild white sipper, it delivers there as well.

Sangar points to several developing themes in today’s rumworld, which I‘ve almost  inadvertently been following through my reviews and only become clearer in hindsight. First there’s the gradually increasing amount of micro-distilleries who aren’t seeking to make whisky or gin or vodka (or everything at once, as much as they can), but rum, full stop.  Bar the United States, these micros are in remote areas of the world far from the Caribbean, like Africa and the Far East. And they seem to have a near-unnatural love for issuing unaged white rums at higher proofs, which is a subset of rums drawing more attention in recent years, especially in the cocktail circuit

With respect to that last remark, Sangar is something of an outlier, since the white reviewed here is bottled at standard. And the agricole blancs from the old and proud houses of the French West Indies are not in danger of losing their pride of place any time soon, not to the Far Eastern micros, or to Sangar. But as I noted above, with the interconnectedness of the world and transmigration of skills to any place with enough desire and smarts to make a good rum, it’s possibly just a matter of time before Sangar becomes a rum producer who really does earn the use of both the words “artisanal” and “craft” … without turning the words into the meaningless marketing twaddle that afflicts so many others.

(#659)(82/100)


Other notes

Sangar has small quantities of rum ageing away in port casks in Liberia: it’s unknown when these will be released as aged rums to the market, but it does point to their long term development strategy.

Sep 122019
 

This is a rhum to drive you to tears, or transports of ecstasy, because it’s almost guaranteed that either you’ll regret you never tried it (though you’ll only know that after you do), or fall in lust with it immediately, then bang yourself over the head for not buying more when you did.  It’s a white rhum screwed tight to a screaming 60%, unaged, and made, Lord save us, from St. James’s old pot stills — which created a juice so unlike anything else from the island that people crossed themselves when they saw it, it couldn’t be labelled as an AOC, could not even be designated as Martinique rhum, and all we get is the almost embarrassed note that it’s made from “French Antilles.” 

White rhums like this have a strong and cheerfully disreputable DNA, going back right to the beginning when all the various estates and plantations had was leaky, farty stills slapped together from cast-aside copper, steel dinner plates and maybe a leather shoe or three. We’ve had primitives like this before – the Sajous and the Paranubes come to mind, Sangar from Liberia, MIM from Ghana, South Africa’s Mhoba, the Barik rhums from Moscoso’s jury rigged column still, and even Habitation Velier’s Foursquare and TECA whites, and that mastodon of the L’Esprit from Guyana.  Yet I assure you, this innocent and demure looking pale yellow-white was on a level all its own, not just because of its origins, but because it hearkens back to rum’s origins while not forgetting a single damn thing St. James have ever learned in over two hundred years, about how to make sh*t that knocks you flat.

And also because, man, did this thing ever smell pungent — it was a bottle-sized 60-proof ode to whup-ass and rumstink.  A barrage of nail polish, spoiling fruit, wood chips, wax, salt, and gluey notes all charged right out without pause or hesitation, spoiling for a fight. Even without making a point of it, the rhum unfolded with uncommon firmness into aromas of sweet, grassy herbals.green apples, sugar water, dill, cider, vegetables, toasted bread, a sharp mature cheddar, all mixed in with moist dark earth, sugar water, biscuits, orange peel. And the balance of all of them was really quite good, truly.

Could the palate live up to all that stuff I was smelling? I got the impression it was sure trying, and it displayed an uncommon lack of roughness and jagged edges for something at that strength (the L’Esprit 85% white had a similar quality, you’ll recall).  It slid smoothly across the tongue before hijacking it with tastes of sugar water, white chocolate, almonds cumin, citrus peel and brine. Then, as if unsatisfied, it added ashes, warm bread fresh from the oven, ginger snaps, cloves, soursop…in all that time it never crossed into something excessively sweet or allowed any one element to dominate the others, and while it lacked the true complexity of a rhum I would call “great”, it didn’t fall much short either, and the finish wrapped things up with a flourish – warm, really long, with ginger, cinnamon,  herbs, citrus peel and bitter chocolate and sea salt.

Until 2019, the Coeur de Chauffe — “the Heart of the Distillation” — was an underground cult rum limited to no more than 5000 liters per year, sold only on Martinique itself. It is, in point of fact, not an AOC rhum at all since it is a pot still product. Having tried it twice now and come to grips with its elemental nature, I think of it as a throwback, an ancestor, an old-style white agricole from Ago. I appreciate it’s a rhum that will likely find only a niche audience and is not for the sweet-toothed who love gentler products; but anyone who loves his juice should one day try sampling something like this, if only to experience new tastes, or old ones expressed in different ways.  I drank it with St. James’s own more traditional Fleur de Canne 50% and some of DePaz’s work — yet somehow, even though they were all good, all tasty, it’s this one I remember for its fire and its taste and its furious energy. Clearly something so pungent and unique could not be kept hidden forever, and for all those looking for something interesting, perhaps even an alternative to some of Jamaica’s funky bad boys, well, here may just be the droid you’re looking for.

(#656)(86.5/100)

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 222019
 

South Africa has been making wine for centuries, backyard bathtub liquors are a local staple, and rums and rotgut of some kind (and quality) have always been made. Still, we may want to pay more attention to those rums going forward because in the last decade there have been quite a few small local companies starting up operations there, making small batch rums with little-stills-that-could and quietly garnering kudos for themselves for some interesting products, none of which I’ve tried (which is my loss). Companies like Copeland, Inverroche, Tapanga, Whistler, 25° South, DeVry, Distillery 031, Brickmakers, and the list goes on.

Another one of these is Mhoba, which Steve James of the Rum Diaries Blog brilliantly detailed a couple of months ago. Mhoba has been experimenting and playing around with making rums as far back as 2012, when the founder Robert Greaves thought of making a South African version of cachaca…but he changed his mind after a seminal 2013 encounter in a hotel bar in Mauritius introduced him to all the variety global rums possessed. This led to two years of trial and error, attempting to improve the quality of his spirit on a self-constructed pot still (he has a mechanical engineering background, which undoubtedly helped – in that way he’s a lot like Mike Moscoso of Barik in Haiti), as well as applying for a Liquor License, which all finally came together in 2015.  Samples went out the door in 2016 to the Miami Rum Festival which resulted in feedback and more tweaking, and 2017 at the UK provided an opportunity for a more serious intro of the company’s work to the public. It was successful enough that by 2019 it was being distributed in Europe and gained a lot of interest and word of mouth by being probably the only cane-juice derived rum in South Africa.

I’ll leave you to peruse Steve’s enormously informative company profile for production details (it’s really worth reading just to see what it takes to start something like a craft distillery), and just mention that the rum is pot still distilled from juice which is initially fermented naturally before boosting it with a strain of commercial yeast.  The company makes three different kinds of white rums – pot still white, high ester white and a blended white, all unaged. I tried what is probably the tamest of the three, the Select, which the last one, blended from several cuts taken from batches processed between October to December of 2018 and bottled at 58%.  All of this is clearly marked on the onsite-produced label (self-engraved, self-printed, manually-applied), which is one of the most informative on the market: it details batch number, date, strength, variety of cane, still, number of bottles in the run…it’s really impressive work. 

Ah, but how does it taste, you ask. What does it smell like? Well, it’s not a sharp as 58% might lead you to believe, but man, that pot still action is very nice indeed. The briny notes of a humid day at the seaside, combined with olives, acetones and sour fruit, showing that the still was alive and well, and that the esters retained their influence.  There was something nice and tart about it too, like macerated gooseberries mixed up with some soursop and then dropped into a can of paint or furniture polish, and the odd thing is, it gets sweeter and saltier the longer it sits in the glass, which is quite a trick for any rum to pull off. It relaxes after some time, and adds some lemon zest, cucumbers and pimentos to the mix, after which there isn’t much more to be found – but what there was was plenty, let me assure you. The blending doesn’t entirely take the edge off the rum, which retains a sort of youthful raw intensity to the aromas.

It tastes somewhat sharper than it nosed, which is fine, something to be expected.  Again, salt, brine, olives to begin with, plus the sour fruit, acetones, nail polish.  I enjoyed the background hints of lemon zest and cinnamon and the overall crispness of the profile, which was not an amalgam of melded tastes, but a procession of crisp, high-steppin’ flavour notes that were sharp and distinct as a bayonet. What is of interest is the overall herbal, grassy aspect to it which wasn’t quite as evident on the nose: in other words it tasted something like an agricole.  Too, there was some earth, musky spices in there lending a nice balance to the experience: tumeric, I’d say, and some masala. The finish was short and dry, but nicely balanced, sweet, salty and crisp, and summed up most of the action here: salty notes, some sweet, some spices, some earth. 

Overall, my general opinion is that it resembled Neisson’s agricoles more than most, or maybe a civilized clairin (if the comparison needs to be made at all, and it doesn’t, really). It wasn’t exactly a furiously complex hurricane of a jillion different things all wanting to get your attention at once: what it did do was focus on what it had, and crisply emphasized the notes it did play, without straying too far from its strengths. I didn’t get a chance to try the pot still or the high ester whites as comparators to this white rum, but I have to admit, the sheer rough quality of this one makes me wish I had. This juice is quietly badass, and I want me some more.

(#644)(82/100)

Jul 182019
 

“This is a distillery … which deserve some serious attention” I wrote back in 2017.  I should have taken my own advice and picked up more from there, because this rhum is really well done, and one to share generously. 

Located just south of dead centre on the tiny island of Marie Galante (itself south of Guadeloupe), Bielle is a small sugar plantation dating back to the late 1700s, named after Jean-Pierre Bielle (he also owned a coffee shop), which went through a series of owners and went belly-up in the 1930s; the property was sold to a local landowner, Paul Rameaux, who had no more success than his predecessors in reviving its fortunes. 1975 marked a revival of Bielle when la Société d’Exploitation de la Distillerie Bielle (SEDB) took over the assets, and nowadays a nephew of Mr. Rameaux, Dominique Thiery, runs the distillery. So, it’s another small outfit from the French West Indies about whom only the islanders themselves and the French seem to know very much.  

This might be a grievous oversight on our part, because I’ve tried quite a few of their rhums (and wrote about one of them before this), and they’re good, very good — both this one and the Brut de Fut 2007 scored high. And if Bielle was not well represented in the medal roundup of the recently concluded Martinique Rhum Awards, it might just mean their work is as yet undiscovered while other, better-known estates hog all the glory.

The profile of this 2001 tropically aged 14 year old demonstrated clearly, however, that these were no reasons to pass it by. Consider first the way smelled, dense, fragrant, and rich enough to make a grasping harpy sign the divorce papers and then faint.  Plums, peaches, mangoes, blackberries, molasses, citrus, all jammed together in joyous, near riotous abandon of sweet, acidic, tart and musky aromas. I particularly appreciated the additional, subtle notes of molasses-soaked damp brown sugar, white chocolate and danish cookies, which added a nice fillip to the whole experience.

Even someone used to standard strength would find little to criticize with the solid 53.1% ABV, which provided a good, very sippable drink.  All the fruits listed above came back for a smooth encore, and adding to the fun were gherkins in pickling sauce, brine, anchovies…you know, something meaty you could almost sink your teeth into – a little denser and this thing might have been a sandwich.  But it’s the molasses, overripe bananas, caramel and vanilla combining with all that, which binds it all together (sort of like a rumForce). I thought it was excellent, delectable stuff, skirting a fine line between rich and delicate, dark and light, thick and crisp. And the finish did not disappoint — it was dry yet luscious, exhaling vanilla, molasses, bananas, olives, nougat, cherries and a dusting of nuts

The Bielle deepens my admiration for Guadeloupe rhums, which are sometimes (but not in this case) made from molasses as well as cane juice, Guadeloupe not being subject to the AOC regime. This liking of mine does no disservice or call into question Martinique, whose many distilleries make savoury rums of their own, as crisp, clear, and clean as a rapier wielded by le Perche du Coudray.  There’s just something a little less precise about Guadeloupe rhums that I enjoy too – something softer, a little richer, more rounded. It’s nothing specific I can put my finger on, really, or express in as many words — but I think that if you were to try a few more Bielle-made rums like this one, you’d know exactly what I mean.

(#643)(87/100)

Jun 202019
 

The “M&G” in the rhum’s title is not, as you might expect, the initials of the two founders of this small operation in Cabo Verde. In a lyrical twist, the letters actually stand for Musica e Grogue: Music and Grog.  Which is original, if nothing else, because artistic touches are not all that common in our world, and such touches are often dismissed as mere frippery meant to distract from a substandard product.

In this case, however Jean-Pierre Engelbach, who founded the company with local Cabo Verde grogue producer and music-lover Simão Évora, has an interesting background in the dramatic and musical arts, and was a singer, comedian and director on the French scene for decades…one can only wonder what drove him to amend his career at this late stage by taking a sharp U turn and heading into the undiscovered country of grogues, but for my money, we should not quibble, but be grateful that another fascinating branch of the Great Rum Tree has come to our attention. For what it’s worth, he told me he fell in love with Cabo Verde music a long time ago, leading to visits and a growing appreciation and love for the local rhums and eventually the two men chose to entwine their passions in the name of the company.

Anyway, this particular product is an unaged white, a grogue by the islands’ definitions (the only one that counts), derived from sugar cane in the Tarrafal village just south of Monte Trigo on the island of Santo Antão, the most north-westerly of the series of islands making up Cabo Verde..

Fire-fed pot still in Tarrafal. Photo (c) Musica e Grogue FB page

This one small village has five small artisanal distilleries (!!) that produce grogue in small quantities — about 20,000 liters annually — and M&G’s founders believe that the cane varietals there, combined with the climate and soil, produce a juice of exceptional quality. However, they only use a single preferred grogue-distiller for their juice, unlike Vulcão, also from here, which is a blend of three.

The production methods are straightforward: the cane, grown pesticide- and fertilizer-free, is crushed within 48 hours of harvesting, and fermentation is open air with natural from wild yeast for 10-15 days.  The wash is then run through a fire-heated pot still, taken off at around 45% and is left to rest for a few weeks in 20 liter demi-johns known as a “Lady Jeanne” (also referred to as a Mama Juana or Dame Jeanne in Spanish and French speaking countries respectively).  The peculiarity of this rest is that the large squat bottle in question is also stoppered with banana leaves, which “[…] allows the air to pass during the rest period of the grogue, necessary after the distillation,” said Jean-Pierre Engelbach, when I asked him.

Banana-leaf-stoppered demi-johns in which the grogue rests after distillation for 3-4 weeks. Photo (c) Musica e Grogue FB Page

That out of the way, what we had here, then, was a rhum made to many of the same general specifications as a French island agricole, while preserving its own unique production methodology and, hopefully, drinking profile.  Did it succeed?

Oh yes.  On smelling it for the first time, my initial notes read “subtly different” and within its strictures, it was. It initially seemed like a crisp-yet-gentle agricole, smelling cleanly of sweet sugar cane sap, vanilla, dill, green grapes and freshly mown grass, with a teasing note of brine and olives and a whiff of watered down vegetable soup fed to a jailbird in solitary.  It was delicate and clear and different enough to hold the attention of anyone, nasal newbie or jaded rumdork, and the nice thing is, after five minutes it still was purring out aromas: flowers, cherries and pears, with a firm citrus line holding things together

While stronger and more individualistic drinks might be my personal preference these days, there was no denying that the Grogue Natural was a very pleasant drink, and I have a feeling I’ll be getting more of these things, as they provide a lovely counterpoint to agricoles in general.  It tasted light, grassy, herbal, sweetish (without actually being sweet, if you catch my drift), with hints of watery sap, cane juice, cucumbers, an olive or two, and lots of light fruits – guavas, pears, soursop, ginnip, that kind of thing, and again, that lemon zest providing a clothesline on which to hang the lot.  Finish was long and silky, surprising for something bottled at a modest 44%, but you don’t hear me complaining – it was just fine.

It’s become a sort of personal hobby for me to try unaged white rums of late, because while I love the uber-aged stuff, they do take flavours from the barrel and lose something of their original character, becoming delicious but changed spirits.  On the other hand, unaged blancs or blancos — white rums — when not filtered to nothingness for the clueless, are about as close to pure and authentic rums as anyone’s going to get these days, and Cabo Verde’s stuff is among the most authentic of the lot.

The Cap-Vert Grogue Natural that  M. Jean-Pierre and Sr. Simão are making is one of these that need to be tried for that reason alone, quite aside from its overall drinkability. Sure it lacks the meticulous clarity of the French agricoles, and you’d never mistake it for a cachaca or a clairin or a Paranubes, but the relative isolation and old-style production methods of these music-loving Cabo Verde producers have assured us of a really interesting juice here, which deserves to become much more well known than it yet is.  And drunk, of course. Yes. Preferably after a hard day’s work, as the sun goes down, while relaxing to the sounds of some really good island music.

(#634)(83/100)


Additional background

The company was formed in 2017 by the two gentlemen named above, who were drawn together by their mutual love of music and local rhum.  But it was not until 2018 that they received the formal licenses permitting them to export grogues and started shipping some to Europe. This delay may have to do with the fact that hundreds of small moonshineries and primitive stills – nearly four hundred  by one estimate – are scattered across Cabo Verde islands, with wildly varying quality of output. Indeed, according to one news report by the Expresso das Ilhas (Island Express), some 10 million liters of spirit calling it self “grogue” was marketed in 2017, but less than half of that could legitimately term itself so, since it was not made from sugar cane, and there were issues of hygiene and quality control to consider.

Be that as it may, M&G were able to navigate the new bureaucratic, quality and legal hurdles, obtain the requisite licenses and permits, and produced two grogues for the export market: the lightly-aged Velha we’ll be looking at soon, and the Natural.


Other Notes

  • M&G and Vulcão are among the frist brands to export grogue from Cabo Verde
  • M&G also makes some flavoured punches at a lower 18% strength
  • Maison Ferroni, which is the brand owner for the Vulcão, is the distributor for M&G
  • This bottle is part of the first release, and is something of a pilot project for the company’s export plans….hence the limited edition of 639 bottles.  It’s not special per se, just part of a batch of the first four hundred liters or so which they exported.
  • Back label translation:

This white rum comes from the Tarrafal terroir of Monte Trigo on the island of Santa Antao (Cape Verde). Our local producers, with their trapiches, continue the artisanal tradition of making grogue. It is distilled from fresh cane juice, cultivated on volcanic soil in the middle of fruit trees, without any fertilizer or pesticide. It benefits from a dry tropical climate and the exceptional irrigation of the village. Made in 2018 with the harvest of the year, it is a fair trade product.

In this natural grogue, with its amazing flavor, we can discover the many flavors of cane fruits and spices.

A first release limited to 639 bottles