Oct 122020
 

Every now and then you come across a rum in its nascent stages which you just itch to write about — even if it’s not (yet) for sale. The Mim from Ghana was one such, an aged St. Aubin was another, and last year, Reuben Virasami (currently tending bar in Toronto) passed on a new Vietnamese rhum that I felt really deserved rather more attention than it got (even from those who made it). 

In brief, two expat Frenchmen, Jérémy Marcillaud and Nicolas Plesse, seeing all that lovely cane growing in Vietnam, were looking around for something to do with it and decided – without a lick of experience or any concept of the difficulties – to start a small distillery and make some juice.  Perhaps they were inspired by the new Asians like Mia, Vientiane, Laodi, Issan, Chalong Bay or Sampan — who can tell? — and got their little outfit L’Arrangé off the ground; designed and had an inox stainless steel pot still built locally (they call it “The Beast”); contracted local farmers to supply cane, and proceeded through trial and error and many attempts over 6-8 months, to finally get some cane-juice agricole-style rhum that was actually worth bottling, and drinking (in December 2016). 

Their aim was always to make a white rhum but they found rather more immediate success using the spirit for fruit infusions and arrangés (hence the name), and, as Jeremy told me when I contacted him, to export a good white requires a rather more scaled-up enterprise (and better economies of scale) than they were capable of doing at that time.  As such, they sold their spiced rhums and arrangés to local bars and tried to raise visibility via the Saigon Rum Club and the city’s rum festival…but for my money, it’s that base white rhum they made that captures my interest and hopefully one day can be a commercially successful endeavour for these guys.

L’Arrange Company Logo

So, no fancy label or bottle pic to go with the article this time – as I said, it’s not for sale. That said, these are the basics: it’s a cane juice rhum, pot still, rested for four months (sorry, ye detail-mongers, I forgot to ask about the yeast, though it seems to be a combination of locally available and wild yeast), squeezed off the still at 70% ABV then diluted to 55%. After that it goes into whatever products they’re playing with that day. Me, I tried my sample neat.

The smell is definitely suggestive of pale pot still rumstink: salt, wax, glue, olives and a trace of peeling rubber on a hot day on the highway.  It turns sweet later, though it remains rough and sharp, and provides aromas of watermelons, papayas, ripe mangoes, and just a touch of passion fruit. While it’s not quite as civilized to sniff as some of the other Asian whites mentioned above, it isn’t far behind them either.

The same thing goes for the palate. It’s rough and jagged on the tongue, but has a delicious and oily thick sweet tang to it: papaya, pineapple, mangoes, sugar water, strawberries, more watermelons. There is a sort of crisp snap to it, combining sugar, flowers,citrus peel, brine — even some very faint hints of vegetable soup.  Finish was short, intense, sharp and redolent of flowers, citrusd, sugar water and thyme.

Overall, this rhum not one you would, on balance, rate as highly as others with more market presence.  You would likely try it blind, shrug and remark as you walked away “Meh – it’s just another white rhum. I’ve had better” And that makes sense, for its shortcomings haven’t all been ironed out yet – it’s rough and sharp, the balance is a bit off (tilts rather more to the sour and salt than co-existing harmoniously with the sweet and umami). But I feel that might simply be inexperience at making a pure single white rhum and their being okay with producing one made for adding fruit and spices to, not to drink by itself.

Myself I don’t drink spiced rums or arrangés. I don’t have to, with all the other juice out there. Under normal circumstances, I’d just walk away from this one.  But that white…it was pungently original, yes, rough and unpolished, sure…it lacks some of the polish and sure confidence that marked, say, Mhoba (after their years of tinkering), and yet it stayed with me. Underneath was a real potential for something even better, and that’s why I am drawing attention to this little company that few outside Asia have ever heard of.  Jérémy and Nicolas might one day be successful enough to market a white, maybe even export a bit around Asia, attend a rumfest to show it off. I can hope, I guess.  And all I’m saying is that if you ever see them demonstrating their work, and one of their bottles is an unaged 55% white, you could do a whole lot worse than giving it a try, because I honestly believe it’ll be one of the most interesting things in the neighborhood that day.

(#769)(79/100)


Other notes

  • I drew on the very interesting 2018 Saigoneer interview (timestamp 00:25:14) for some of the supplementary details, and the company kindly filled in the remainder. 
  • It may be just my imagination, but the company logo reminds me of the jungle scenes of the French artist Henri Rousseau.  I quite like it.
Aug 172020
 

Mauritius is another one of those rum producing areas that flits in and out of our collective rumconsciousness, and seems to come up for mention mostly (and only) when a blogger checks out a new indie expression (SBS and Velier spring to mind). Cognoscenti might recall Penny Blue, New Grove, Chamarel or Lazy Dodo rums from the graveyard of reviews past, but honestly, when was the last time you saw one yourself, tried one, or even bought one?

St. Aubin is one of the Indian Ocean island distilleries that have been gathering some goodwill of late and should not be left out of anyone’s purchasing calculations, and with good reason: they taste pretty damned good, and they have a long history of both pot and column still production stretching back two centuries. If distribution can be sorted out beyond Europe, and there’s a resumption of the rum festivals where one can find their products, then we can hope their reputation ticks up more than it has so far.  This particular rum is the top of their line, being a limited edition of not only a set number of bottles (2,080) but from a particular harvest (2003), cane juice source, completely copper-pot-still distilled, aged a solid ten years and aimed at a wider audience by tamping it down to 43%.  Based on those specs it’s practically a must-have, 

Certainly the 2003 10 YO does its next-best relative the St. Aubin Grande Reserve (which is itself a combo of 30% pot still 10YO from 2004 and 70% rested 7YO column still juice) quite a bit better, simply by not diluting its own core fully-pot-still essence. This is key to understanding how good the 2003 smells, because it noses cleaner, crisper, even a shade lighter…and quite a bit more is going on under there.  What was, in the other aged expressions, a sort of sweetness is more delicate here, closer to sugar cane sap and sugar water than the slight heaviness often attendant on molasses based rums. There are aromas of flowers, masala spice, cloves and a dash of cinnamon. And leaving it standing to open up, one gets additional hints of coffee grounds, unsweetened chocolate, and a nice delicate vein of vanilla and citrus. 

The oak influence takes on a more dominant note on the palate, which is initially sweet, dry and intense.  There’s bitter chocolate, caramel, cinnamon and a vague grassiness more sensed than actually experienced, plus citrus peel, chocolate oranges, cumin and the slightest hint of cilantro.  Plus some Fanta and 7-up, which I was not expecting, but no entirely unhappy to taste.  The whole drink is clean, crisp and dry, and the gradually emergent and assertive herbals and tart notes make it a pretty nifty neat pour.  Finish is not too shabby – medium long, mostly bon-bons, caramel, light flowers and lemon meringue pie.

The cost of this ten year old rum released in 2014 is in the €140 range (when it can be tracked down – I found that price in the Mauritius duty free, but not much elsewhere) and this is one of those instances where even with the modest strength, I think it worth picking up if you’re in funds.  Because on top of how well it noses and tastes, those stats are impressive – pot still, ten years tropical ageing, cane juice distillate, its own peculiar terroire, something not from the Caribbean….that’s pressing a lot of buttons at once.  Too often we uncritically and unthinkingly fork out that kind of coin for regularly issued blends, just because of the associated name. The new and the unknown needs to be tried on its own terms as well, and here, I think that for what St. Aubin provides us with and what we get out of it, it’s well worth pausing to try, to share, and to buy. 

(#753)(86/100)


A brief history

The Domaine de St. Aubin, named after the first sugar cane mill established by Pierre de St. Aubin in 1819 or thereabouts, is located in the extreme south of Mauritius in the Rivière des Anguilles, and has been cultivating cane since that year – however the date of first distillation of spirits is harder to pin down – it’s likely within a few decades of the original opening of the sugar factory (there are records of the Harel family starting a distillery which is now New Grove in the 1850s, which also makes the Lazy Dodo brand). In the late 1960s the Franco-Mauritian Guimbeau family – who made their fortune in the tea trade for which Mauritius is also renowned – acquired the estate and retained the name, and gradually developed a stable of rums produced both by a pot still (which produces what they term their “artisanal” rums) and a relatively recent columnar still for larger volume agricoles. 

Jun 222020
 

Clement has a stable line of releases that have remained consistent for a long time – the “Bar and Cocktail” range of mixers and the “Classic” mid-level bottlings of the Ambre, Vieux, Canne Bleu and three blancs (40º, 50º, 55º)’. There is also the “Prestige” range consisting of the VSOP, 6YO, 10YO, single cask, Cuvée Homère, the XO, and that famed set of really aged millésimes which comprised the original XO — the 1952, 1970 and 1976.  And for those with more money than they know what to do with, the Carafe Cristal, ultimate top of the line for the company but out of the reach of most of us proles.

Yet oddly, the trio of The Distiller Edition of their rhums, of which I only ever saw a single example (this one) receives little or no attention at all these days, and has dropped from popular consciousness. It seems to be a small series released around 2007 and sold primarily in Italy, perhaps an unrepeated experiment and included a “Cask Strength” 57.8% edition, and a “Non filtre” 43.5% variation. It suggests a tentative strategy to branch out into craft bottlings that never quite worked out and was then quietly shelved, which may be why it’s not shown on Clement’s website.

Photo courtesy of Sascha Junkert

That said, what are the stats? Of course, this being Clement, it’s from Martinique, AOC-certified, column still, aged in American oak, with 1,650 bottles released at a near standard 43.5% (aside from its blancs, most of the the company ‘s rums are in the mid-forties). The tres vieux appellation tells us it is a minimum of four years old, but my own feeling its that it’s probably grater than five, as I’ve read it was bottled around 2005 or so, which fits in with the somewhat elevated nature of its title and presentation (there’s one reference which says it’s 7-9 years old).

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s an awesome undiscovered masterpiece, but it is a cut above the ordinary vieux rhums from Clement which most people have had.  It has a dark and sweet nose, redolent of plums and dark red cherries, caramel, vanilla ice cream and a touch of cinnamon dusted mocha.  Where’s the herbals? I scribbled in my notes, because those light, white-fruit, grassy notes weren’t really that much in evidence. Mind you, I did also smell olives, brine, flowers and a touch of nutmeg, so it wasn’t as if good stuff wasn’t there.

The palate was about par for the course for a rum bottled at this strength. Initially it felt like it was weak and not enough was going on (as if the profile should have emerged on some kind of schedule), but it was just a slow starter: it gets going with citrus, vanilla, flowers, a lemon meringue pie, plums and blackberry jam. This faded out and is replaced by sugar cane sap, swank and the grassy vegetal notes mixed up with ashes (!!) and burnt sugar. Out of curiosity I added some water , and was rewarded with citrus, lemon-ginger tea, the tartness of ripe gooseberries, pimentos and spanish olives. It took concentration and time to tease them out, but they were, once discerned, quite precise and clear. Still, strong they weren’t (“forceful” would not be an adjective used to describe it) and as expected the finish was easygoing, a bit crisp, with light fruit, fleshy and sweet and juicy, quite ripe, not so much citrus this time. The grassy and herbal notes are very much absent by this stage, replaced by a woody and spicy backnote, medium long and warm

Clement has always been a hard act for me to pin down precisely.  Their rhums don’t adhere to any one clear-cut company standard — like, say, Neisson, or Saint James or Damoiseau —  and it’s like they always try to sneak something in under the radar to test you, to rock the barrel a bit. That means that peculiar attention has to be paid to appreciate them – they do not reward those in a hurry. I make this point because although I usually feel a sense of frustrated impatience with the weak wispiness of standard proofed rums, some surpass this limitation and bat beyond their strength class, and I think this is one of these…up to a point. The Distiller’s Edition 2000 is not at the level of intensity or quality that so marked the haunting memories evoked by the XO, yet I enjoyed it, and could see the outlines of their better and older rhums take shape in its unformed yet tasty profile, and by no means could I write it off as a loss. 

(#738)(84/100)


Other notes

  • Over the years, knowing my fondness for stronger rums and the deadening effect these can have on the palate, I have made it a practice to do flights of standard strength first thing in the morning when the palate is fresh and still sensitive to such weaker rums’ profiles.
  • When released, the rhum retailed for about €60, but now in 2020, it goes for more than €300…if it can even be found. 
  • Post will be updated of Clement gets back to me on the background to these limited edition rhums, and what they were created to achieve.
May 112020
 

Saint James. It’s not a name that’s unknown, since it’s the source of one of the oldest surviving rums in the world (the mud-black 1885), the place where rum-swami Luca Gargano started working all those years ago, and where Marc Sassier now hangs his hat. They’ve been around — and have been among the largest Martinique agricole makers — for so long, that they sometimes get passed over in people’s estimation in favour of younger or more exciting or more innovative Martinique operations (like, oh, A1710, or the new parcellaires).  Yet year in and year out, their standard lineup continues to enthrall and impress and demonstrate they’re not laggards by any means.

Saint James divides its range of rums – and they make quite a few – into three main categories.  First, there’s the cocktail fodder, mostly whites like the Imperial Blanc Agricole, Royal Blanc Agricole, Blanc Agricole 55°, Fleur de Canne and that extraordinary pot-still Coeur de Chauffe, plus the Rhum Paille and Rhum Ambre which are young and standard strength low-end blends. At the top of the food chain lie the special “exceptional” editions, the millesimes, single casks, special blends and anniversary editions in fancy bottles which will set you back a pretty penny and provide a handsome adornment to your home bar.  But when it comes to value for money, it’s the mid-level “tasting rhums” in their stable that give most bang for the buck – the Rhum Vieux 3 Ans, the 4-5 YO blend of the Fleur de Canne Vieux, the 7 Year Old, 12 year old, and the best of this series, I think, the 15 year old…which, were it slightly cheaper, might have made it a Key Rum of the World instead of the 12

Because that 15 year old rhum is, to my mind, something of an underground, mass-produced steal.  It has the most complex nose of the “regular” lineup, and also, paradoxically, the lightest overall profile — and also the one where the grassiness and herbals and the cane sap of a true agricole comes through the most clearly.  It has the requisite crisp citrus and wet grass smells, sugar came sap and herbs, and combines that with honey, the delicacy of white roses, vanilla, light yellow fruits, green grapes and apples.  You could just close your eyes and not need ruby slippers to be transported to the island, smelling this thing.  It’s sweet, mellow and golden, a pleasure to hold in your glass and savour

The taste is a similarly striking combination of depth, lightness and flavour. White guavas and pears mix it up with gooseberries and tartly ripe white soursop; there’s caramel, vanilla, dried fruits held in delicate check by some florals and mint, without any becoming overbearing and hogging the show.  There’s so much going on here that it’s difficult to stop and just pick out the highlights.  Salted butter, dates and caramel, almost tequila-like at times, a touch of brine and olives here and there, but it’s all extremely well integrated, leading to a finish that is not particularly long, but quite fragrant with all the flowery and fruity notes of a tropical isle that perhaps exists not so much in reality, as in our fond remembrances and imaginations.

What these tasting notes describe is a top-end, well-aged rhum of a standard lineup. But these words don’t do justice to exactly how — when compared with and against the 7 and 12 YO — it rises above them, and in our esteem. I think Marc Sassier has created a masterful example of a blender’s art that somehow moves beyond being something standard or regular or “same old same old”.

You see, it’s almost received wisdom that rums showing  off any company’s possibilities and street cred, those that build the brand by demonstrating the amazing quality of which they are capable, are the flagships, the uber-expensive halo-rums, the single barrel or single year’s offerings — look no further than the El Dorado 25, Abuelo Centuria, Appleton 50 or even Saint James’s own 250th Anniversary to see that principle in action. But to my mind, the full measure of a producing company is better found in the sometimes unloved mass-market mid-level offerings, made in quantity, priced to move…the aged blends which so often are sadly lacking in any kind of lore or romance. Any run-of-the-mill rum, of any age, that emerges from this kind of assembly-line mentality and process, yet still retains fires of lust, of allure, of sheer quality, is a kind of industrial miracle. As this one is.

(#725)(88/100)

Apr 272020
 

After more than a decade of sampling rums from around the world, Martinique remains one of those islands to whose myriad distilleries I keep returning. Yet sometimes, when I remark on my liking for them, it’s a 50-50 chance that people wonder what I’m talking about (or why). But no list of Key Rums could possibly be complete without examples from that island, and the real issue is not so much that there has to be one (because there are many worthy candidates), as which it could possibly be and which one to start with when there’s so much choice available. 

What I believe gets in the way of agricole rhums’ wider understanding and acceptance – especially in the USA – is a combination of price, low cost tabletop rum dominance (like Bacardi), that crazy distribution system they have over there (and an equally silly one in Canada), and a general unfamiliarity with the taste. These issues lead to a lack of experience with agricoles as a whole, a dissatisfaction with the (slightly higher) price, and that oft repeated sniff-and-grumble, about how they all seem to be the same. 

In response I usually point to Neisson, with that subtle, oily, oddly tequila-like profile of its rhums, or Saint James’s pot still white. And such rhums exemplify what I like about the wide, wild variety to be found on Martinique – Neisson, as described, Clement with its classical clean and almost austere profiles, and the solid and romantic quality of Saint James. There are others I’ve enjoyed over the years, of course – Trois Rivieres, Depaz, La Favorite, and others – but when casting around for the first candidate from Martinique to include as a Key Rum, it was to these that my mind turned, and eventually at Saint James that it halted.

Saint James makes four rums as part of its regular aged lineup: the 7, 12 and 15 year old aged rums, and the white Fleur de Canne.  They make many others – millesimes, special editions, XOs, etc, (and we should never forget that amazing pot still white which will remain a perennial favourite of mine) – but for the person who wants to dive in to an appreciation of the distillery’s heart, certainly the four regulars I mention deserve to be tried first, and for the price, I think they offer among the very value-for-money “suitcase rums” anyone could ask for. And when one has to somehow chose among them for the best intersection of utility, taste, price, quality and enjoyment, I believe, in my heart, that the Saint James 12 Year old is the one to get.

To some extent, it has a lighter nose than the luscious 7 year old we looked at recently (though both are made on a creole still from cane juice, and are of the same strength, 43% ABV, similarly aged in ex bourbon casks), and it seems a little more precise, more dialled in, each note clear and distinct.  There is the same deep fruity notes of ripe mangoes, peaches, vanilla, ripe cherries, and a prune or two. It manages that peculiar trick of smelling slightly sweet without actually presenting as cloying or overripe.  Indeed, lighter hints of flowers and white, watery fruit come out to balance the fleshy fruits very nicely with guavas and pears, to which, after some time, one can sense honey and wax and a dusting of coffee grounds.

The palate follows along from this profile, mixing light and deep tastes in a not-too-sweet and juicy parade of mutually supporting flavours: dried fruits, raisins, grapes, guavas, ripe apples and prunes. The secondary, clearer notes of flowers and aromatic tobacco integrate well with the darker ones, providing a little bit of each, nothing in excess.  In the review of the 7 year old I remarked that the grassy lightness we associate with agricole rhums was almost completely absent – here, it starts to be somewhat more evident, though still in the background and its real moment in the sun comes at the close: this ends the tasting with a surprisingly long, fruity and dry aromatic finish that somehow doesn’t brake the experience so much as goose the accelerator mischievously one last time, just to show you it can.

This is a rum that is a step up from the 7 year old but also, something of a different one. The extra ageing showed its influence, the blend is a bit better – actually, I’d love to see what a few extra points of strength might achieve with this thing.  But never mind.  It is a really good dram and the only surprise about it is why it’s not better known. What the 12 year old does so well, is press all buttons of our appreciation simultaneously.  The Coeur de Chauffe white is the most original rum of its kind Saint James makes (in my opinion at least); the 15 is the best in overall quality and taste, and the 7 year old is good quality for money since it’s also the cheapest….but it’s just that the 12 does them all so very well, at a level high enough to make it a must-have. 

You see, it’s in aggregate of the things we look for, that it comes into its own:  good enough to sip, distinct enough to mix, affordable enough to buy, and all-round good enough to give as a gift without shame or apology (or to keep, for the same reasons). By making this rum, Saint James takes agricoles in an interesting, slightly offbeat and distinctive-to-the-distillery direction, and demonstrates that with skill and experience and perhaps just the simple delight in making rhum, that high-grade magic for the masses can be made in a way that doesn’t break the bank.  Any rum that can do all these things at once is a keeper…and a Key Rum for sure. 

(#721)(85/100)

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.

(#713)(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.

(#712)(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.

(#711)(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.

(#710)(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.

(#709)(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.
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