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)

Jul 142019
 

It’s been some time since a current production Cuban rum not made by a third party crossed my path.  Among those was the Santiago de Cuba 12 YO, which, at the time, I enjoyed a lot, and made me anxious to see how older versions from the Cuba Rum Corporation’s stable would work out.  So when the 25 YO became available, you’d better believe I snapped it up, and ran it past a bunch of other Latin rums: a Don Q, two of the Diplomatico “Distillery Collection” rums, a Zafra 21 and just because I could, a Kirk & Sweeney 18 YO.

The Cuba Rum Corporation is the state owned organization located in the southern town of Santiago de Cuba, and is the oldest factory in the country, being established in 1862 by the Bacardi family who were expropriated after the Cuban Revolution in 1960. The CRC kept up the tradition of making light column-still Cuban rum and nowadays make the Ron Caney, Varadero and Santiago de Cuba lines, the last of which consists of an underproof blanca and sub-5YO anejo, and 40% 12 YO, 20 YO and this 25 YO. The 25 YO is their halo product, introduced in 2005 in honour of the 490th anniversary of the city of Santiago de Cuba’s founding and is lavish bottle and box presentation undescores the point (if the price doesn’t already do that).

Could a rum tropically aged for that long be anything but a success? Certainly the comments on the crowd-sourced Rum Ratings site (all thirteen of them, ten of which rated it 9 or 10 points out of ten) suggest that it is nothing short of spectacular. 

The nose was certainly good – it smelled richly of leather, mint, creme brulee, caramel, raisins, cherries, and vanilla.  The aromas were soft, yet with something of an edge to them as well, a bit of oak and tar, some citrus peel and lemon juice (just a little), plus a whiff of charcoal and smoke that was not displeasing. Even at 40% (and I wish it was more) it was enormously satisfying, if unavoidably light.  Good thing I tried it early in the session – had it come after a bunch of cask strength hooligans, I might have passed it by with indifference and without further comment.

The challenge came as it was tasted, because this is where standard strength 40% ABV usually falls flat and betrays itself as it disappears into a wispy nothingness, but no, somehow the 25 year old got up and kept running, in spite of that light profile.  The mouthfeel was silky, quite smooth and easy, tasting of cinnamon, aromatic tobacco, a bit of coffee. Then came citrus, nuts, some very faint fruits – raisins again, ripe red grapes, kiwi fruits, sapodilla, yellow mangoes – that was impressive, sure, it’s just that one had to reach and strain and really pay attention to tease out those notes…which may be defeating the purpose of a leisurely dram sipped as the sun goes down somewhere tropical.  Unsurprisingly the finish failed (for me at any rate – your mileage may, of course, vary): it puffed some leather and light fruits and cherries, added a hint of cocoa and vanilla, and then it was over.

The Santiago de Cuba brand was supposedly Castro’s favourite, which may be why the Isla del Tesoro presentation quality rum retails for a cool £475 on the Whisky Exchange and this one retails for around £300 or so.  Personally I find it a rum that needs strengthening. The tastes and smells are great – the nose, as noted, was really quite outstanding – the balance nicely handled, with sweet and tart and acidity and muskiness in a delicate harmony, and that they did it without any adulteration goes without saying. It would, six years ago, have scored as good or better than the 12 year old (86 points, to save you looking). 

But these days I can’t quite endorse it as enthusiastically as before even if it is a quarter of a century old, and so must give it the score I do…but with the usual caveat: if you love Cubans and prefer softer, lighter, standard proofed rums, then add five points to my score to see where it should rank for you.  Even if you don’t, rest assured that this is one of the better Cuban rums out there, tasty, languorous, complex, well-balanced….and too light.  It’s undone – and only in the eyes of this one reviewer – by being made for the palates of yesteryear, instead of beefing itself up (even incrementally) to something more for those who, like me, prefer something more forceful and distinct.

(#641)(82/100)


Other notes

Pierre-Olivier Coté’s informative 2015 review on Quebec Rum noted the outturn as 8,000 botles.  One wonders whether this is a one-off, or an annual release level.

Jul 072019
 

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

HyperFocal: 0

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

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

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

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

(#639)(86/100)

Jul 042019
 

2014 was both too late and a bad year for those who started to wake up and realize that Velier’s Demerara rums were something special, because by then the positive reviews had started coming out the door, the prices began their inexorable rise, and, though we did not know it, it would mark the last issuance of any Demeraras of the Age by the Genoese concern headed by Luca Gargano.  Yesu Persaud – DDL’s chairman – was slated to retire by the end of that year, and in early 2015 the new chairman terminated the preferential relationship.

That said, it was not entirely a disaster for Luca, because, as he remarked to me in 2018 when we were discussing that remarkable series of rums, he was already seeing a diminution in the quality of the casks he was being allowed to select from. And these consisted of marques of lesser ages, experimental work and overall diminishing returns. So perhaps it was time to move on to other things.

The Uitvlugt rum we’re looking at today, one of the last bottled in that year and in that Age, was still quite respectable based on its stats: distilled in 1996 on the four-column French Savalle Still (at the time housed at the estate, not Diamond); full tropical ageing in Guyana resulting in a 78% angel’s share losses and four remaining barrels which went into 1124 bottles; and a solid strength of 57.2%.

Did it sample well? Judge for yourself. The nose of the dark amber rum was refined, gentle…even easy. This was surprising given it was just about navy strength (one can wonder if that was a coincidence).  But even with that lack of oomph, it was remarkably distinct, even precise with the clarity of the dusky aromas it emitted. These began with molasses, brown sugar, caramel and vanilla, and added a thread of licorice, cinnamon, lemon zest, and then dumped in bags of dark, fleshy fruits like plums, prunes and ripe peaches. In a way it was like stepping back into a time, when those flavours defined “good” without anyone bothering to look for additional complexity – what distinguished this nose was the way they all came together in a refined olfactory melange, orderly, measured, balanced. 

Tasting it showed that the strength which had not been so apparent when smelled was simply biding its time.  It didn’t come across as aggressive or glittering sharp, just firm and very controlled, biting just enough to let you know it wasn’t to be taken for granted. The immediate tastes were of salty olives, cider, apples, quite strong.  Slowly (and with a drop or two of water) this developed into molasses, brown sugar, black currants, prunes plus smoke and a well-worn, well-cared for leather jacket. But what really stood out — over and beyond the rich dark fruits and the sense of well-controlled oakiness — was the sense of a rum-infused hot mocha with caramel, molasses, whipped cream, and a dusting of almonds and sweet spices, and it’s out and out delectable, even elegant.  I spent a lot of time sniffing it, sure, but much more just tasting. This thing is dangerous because it’s tasty enough to encourage rampant sipping, and the finish – slow, long-lasting, deeply flavoured with spices, chocolate, almonds and raisins – doesn’t assist in one’s self control in the slightest. 

For those who have a love affair with rums from the famed wooden stills, the Uitvlugt marques – whether by Velier or other independents, light or heavy, dark or blonde, tropical or continental – occasionally appear to be second-tier efforts, even throwaway fillers made with less elan and dedication than more famous rums we know better. Coming as they do from a column still, they are sometimes overlooked.

But they should not be. Admittedly, the Uitvlugt 1996 was not a severely complex rum with a million different subtleties chasing each other up and down the rabbit hole, the enjoyment of which lay in teasing out all the various notes, and sensing ever more around the corner.  It was more a coming together of all the flavours we associate with rum, in an exciting yet somehow still traditional way, impeccably assembled, elegantly balanced, exactingly chosen, and hearkening back to familiar old favourites from simpler times which now reside only in our memories.

So even then, at the end of the Age, when all was coming to a close and we thought we had seen pretty much everything, Luca still managed to pull a few last Guyanese rum rabbits out of his hat.  The Uitvlugt 1996 will likely not be one of the pot-still decades-old classics that fetches a few thousand dollars at auction, but for those who want to see what all the fuss about Velier is, while not straying too far out of their comfort zone, I can’t think of many better places to start than this unsung gem.  

(#638)(87/100)


Other notes

Jun 262019
 

The fourth and last of the four Dutch West Indies rums that I obtained solely to shed some light on the islands is a pale 35% shrug of indifference called the Palmera White Aruba rum. You know me, I have a thing for unapologetically barking-mad high-proofed white rums – but dis ain’ dat, as my bushmen squaddies would say back in the old days.

Were you to google it, you’d find that the Palmera Quality Products company produces several rums – notably the White and the Dark “authentic Arubian rums with a rich heritage flavour” at standard strength, and is at pains to mention on its About page that “…PQP produces many different beverages in its own processing plant…[and] produces products locally from carefully developed formulas that meet international standards.” No mention of a distillery, a blender, a sugar cane source, an ageing regimen. Call me a cynic, but it sure implies a mass-produced neutral-spirits-treatment operation to me, not a rum made by a dynamic master blender who knows his sh*t, let alone by a distillery that can be identified.  

And maybe that’s why I can never find out anything about these companies, and why the Dutch West Indian islands’ rums – the San Pablo Gold label and Platinum White from Curacao and the Carta Reserva from Aruba – have singularly failed to make any lasting impression on the rumisphere. That might also explain why nobody ever posts an ecstatic hosanna on FB saying “I got this!” and then basks in the glory of the hunt concluded, the find immortalized, the cheers of the envious crowd modestly acknowledged.

So then, what was in the glass that day? A white rum, 35%, supposedly from Aruba (I suppose otherwise), and very little to go on beyond that. As befitting its puny mouse-that-roared proofage, it didn’t give off much of an aroma – sugar water, grass, dill, the sweetness of laundry detergent and a tad of lemon juice.  It was marginally more assertive than the Carta Reserva, and maybe a shade better balanced between some sweet and lemony components.

The taste was mostly sodas: 7-Up or Sprite, cream soda.  Some vanilla, coconut, and vague herbaceous flavours, sugar water and pears, and believe me, that was reaching. Maybe it’s an island thing, to make rums this weak (the current rums listed on the website are similarly proofed, bar a pair of 151s), but all a rum like this one can do is juice up a cocktail or give you a headache in hot weather because you won’t think something so mild could affect you, when of course it can.

The Palmera is as unprepossessing as all the others from the region I’ve sampled (bar the untried overproofed 151s).  It’s light and white, weak and meek, and after the first three tries with its cousins, I approached it with distinct lack of enthusiasm, and finished the tasting exercise with relief. The rum just, I dunno, has this indifferent air of “good ‘nuff” that offends me for some reason, like barely enough effort was put into it to make it sell, and no more. Even the Curacao San Pablo rums at least had the courage to go to 40% instead of messing around with this underwhelming strength.

Socrates remarked that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Where I to apply that here and paraphrase, I’d add a codicil that the Palmera and its cousins makes inevitable – “Sometimes the examined rum is not worth drinking.”  Sorry, but here that’s God’s own truth, and the best I can say about it is that although it’s pointless and purposeless and near tasteless, let’s be grateful that at least it’s painless.

(#636)(64/100)


Other notes

The design of the modern labels is quite different from the one I bought, so I assume there’s been some changes over the years.  I don’t know if the blend or recipe was changed when the label did, nor am I aware when this happened

Jun 032019
 

The Kiyomi white rum is made by the Helios Distillery, the same outfit in Japan that makes the very tasty five year old Teeda rum we looked at before. Formed by Tadashi Matsuda in the postwar years (1961) at a time of economic hardship and food privation for Okinawa , the decision was made to distill rum because (a) it could easily be sold to American soldiers stationed there (b) Okinawan sugar was readily available and (c) rice, which normally would have been used to make the more popular local sake, was needed as a food source and could not be spared for alcohol production.

That the company succeeded is evidenced by the fact that it is still in existence, has expanded its operations and is still making rums.  The two most popular are the Teeda 5 YO and the Kiyomi Unaged White, which do not share the same production process: while both source Okinawa sugar cane which is crushed to juice, the Kiyomi rum is fermented for longer (30 days instead of two weeks) and run through a double column still (not the pot).  It is then left to rest (and not aged) in steel tanks for six months and gradually reduced from 60% ABV off the still, to the 40% at which it is bottled.

I’ve never been completely clear as to what effect a resting period in neutral-impact tanks would actually have on a rum – perhaps smoothen it out a bit and take the edge off the rough and sharp straight-off-the-still heart cuts. What is clear is that here, both the time and the reduction gentle the spirit down without completely losing what makes an unaged white worth checking out.  Take the nose: it was relatively mild at 40%, but retained a brief memory of its original ferocity, reeking of wet soot, iodine, brine, black olives and cornbread. A few additional nosings spread out over time reveal more delicate notes of thyme, mint, cinnamon mingling nicely with a background of sugar water, sliced cucumbers in salt and vinegar, and watermelon juice. It sure started like it was out to lunch, but developed very nicely over time, and the initial sniff should not make one throw it out just because it seems a bit off.

It was much more traditional to taste – soft, gentle, quite easy to sip, the proof helping out there. After the adventurousness of the nose which careened left and right and up and down like your head was a pinball machine, this was actually quite surprising (and somewhat disappointing as well).  Anyway it lacked any kind of aggressiveness, and tasted initially of glue, brine, olives, gherkins and cucumbers – the ashes and iodine I had sniffed earlier disappeared completely. It developed with the sweet (sugar water, light white fruits, watermelon juice) and salt (olives, brine, vegetable soup) coming together pleasantly with light florals and spices (cinnamon, cardamom, dill), finishing off with a sort of quick and subdued exit that left some biscuits, salt crackers, fruits and rapidly disappearing spices on the tongue and fading rapidly from memory.

This is a rum that started with a flourish but finished…well, not in first place.  Though its initial notes were distinct and shown off with firm emphasis, it didn’t hold to that line when tasted, but turned faint, and ended up taming much of what made it come off as an exciting drink at the inception. That said, it wasn’t a bad one either: the integration of the various notes was well done, I liked most of what I did taste, and it could as easily be a sipping drink as a mixer of some kind.  What makes it noteworthy in this respect is that it doesn’t entirely become some sort of anonymously cute and light Cuban blanco wannabe you forget five minutes after putting down the glass, but retains a small spark of individuality and interest for the diligent. A shame then, that all this makes you think of, is that you’re holding an unfulfilled and unfinished promise — a castrated clairin  if you will — in your hand. And that’s a crying shame for something that’s otherwise so well made.

(#630)(82/100)

May 262019
 

The Sampan Vietnamese Rhum is made by the Distillerie d’Indochine: and Antoine Pourcuitte, a long haired Frenchman who seems to be channelling Fabio and who lives in Vietnam, is the man who bootstrapped his desire to make good rums into a business that combines a small hotel and bar close to the beach with a distillery he pretty much built himself (officially it opened for business in late 2018). This newly constructed establishment, which produces one of those excellent white rhums which must be causing the French islands conniption fits, is his brainchild… and it can take its place proudly in the league of small and new fast moving ops who are taking a pure rhum approach to distillation in Asia.

Vietnam’s common tipple of choice is rượu (ruou), a local artisanal spirit somewhat akin to arrack of Indonesia, made from fermented rice or molasses or cane juice and run through backroad, backwoods or back-alley alembics and home-made stills that puff and fart and produce some low grade (but very palatable) moonshine. Like in other rural regions of the world which have a long history of indigenous small-scale spirits manufacture – Africa, Haiti and Mexico come to mind – these are largely individual enterprises not regulated or even acknowledged by any authority.

Mr. Poircuitte, who came to rum via wine and not whisky (something like Florent of the Compagnie) put a bit more professionalism into his company, and production cycle is not too different from the Caribbean islands, all in all.  The cane is all organic, pesticide free, grown in the area around Hội An, in the Qu lang Nam province, harvested by hand and then transported within 24 hours to the distillery, which is 40km away from the fields, for crushing. The resultant juice is fermented for 3 to 4 days, resulting in an initial wash of about 11% ABV, which is then run through their 11-plate single-column copper still that torques things up to around 70% ABV. Three varieties of this rhum are produced, at various strengths: 45% standard, 54% overproof and the 65% full proof.

What’s interesting here is that Sampan does not bottle it straight off the still, but lets it rest for something under one year in inert inox tanks, and this gives the resultant rum – which is not filtered except for sediments – a taste of serious fresh-off-the-still juice.

Consider first the nose of this blanc, which is stuffed into the bottle at a beefy 54% ABV. It’s musty, redolent of freshly turned sod and grass.  I could say it smells dirty and not mean it in a bad way, and that is not all: it also smells briny, olive-y, balanced off with clear, fresh, 7-Up and lemon juice and sugar cane sap, plus a smorgasbord of light fruits like pears, ripe apples, and white guavas, a little vanilla and cookies.  The strength doesn’t hurt it at all, it’s strong and firm without every being too sharp to enjoy as it is.

Thankfully, it doesn’t sink on the taste, but follows smoothly on from what had been discerned on the nose. Here, we didn’t just have a few olives, but what seemed like a whole grove of them. Again it tasted dirty, loamy, and also pungent, with initially clear notes of sweet sugar cane juice and sweet yellow corn, to which are added some lemon sherbet, vanilla and aromatic light fruits (pears, watermelon, strawberries) plus herbs – dill and basil.  Soft and lightly sweet, and there’s a background hint of anise as well, or licorice, really nice. Throughout the tasting it stays firm and assertive on the tongue, with a near silky mouthfeel leading to an exit that is pleasantly long lasting and with closing notes of fruits, vanilla, coconut water, and breakfast spices.

This is a really nice white rhum – it married the freshness of an agricole with the slight complexity of an entry level vieux and the balance between the various elements was very nicely handled. That pungent opening clearly makes the case that even with the resting period, it was an unaged rhum, something like the Sajous, the Paranubes, A1710, Toucan, Barbosa Grogue, HSE Parcellaire or others of that kind – I liked it a lot, and if it didn’t win any medals, I firmly believe it should at least win a few wallets.

Many of the older Asian rhums which have sold  gangbusters in their countries of origin for decades, catered to indigenous tastes, and cared little for western styles of rum.  They were (and are) sometimes made in different ways, using different materials in the process, are sometimes spiced up and almost always light column-still blends issued at standard strength. We are seeing a gradual change here, as a wave of small distilleries are setting up shop in Asia and producing small quantities of some really interesting juice. This one from Vietnam is now on my radar, and I look forward to seeing not only what they come up with in the future, but what that Overproof 65% of theirs tastes like — and if it blows my hair back and my socks off, well, then I’ll consider it money well spent…as I did with this one.

(#627)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The company is named after the slow moving boats similar to Chinese junks, which ply the Mekhong River and the coastal areas around South East Asia.
  • My intial review noted that it was aged for 8 months in ex-French-oak casks, based on my conversation and scribbled notes at the Paris rhumfest (not with Mr. Poircuitte but with his pretty assistant, in the maelstrom of the first day’s crowds) – I was later contacted directly to be advised this was a miscommunication, that the rum rested for 8 months in steel tanks, and so I have amended the post for the correction.
May 202019
 

The word agricole is nowadays used indiscriminately to refer to any cane juice distillate, no matter where it is made, and by consumer and producers both.  Discussions have recently popped up on FB arguing that appropriating the term under such circumstances was (and is) theft of reputation and quality, which the French Island rum makers had garnered for themselves over long decades (if not centuries) of quality rhum-making, and was therefore being ripped off by any producer not from those islands who used the term.  And here comes a rum company from the Far East, Laodi, seeming to have found an admirable way of getting around that issue, by referring to their hooch as “Pure Sugar Cane Rhum,” which I think is just missing the word “juice” to be completely accurate.

Laodi, whose parent company is Lao Agro Organic Industries, was formed in 2006 by Ikuzo Inoue, a then-52 year-old Japanese engineer, who, with a local Lao partner, acquired a distillery located in the village of Naxone in Laos, just north of the Thailand border — it’s actually just a short drive away from the Issan Distillery (which is south of the border).  The distillery previously made local spirits like lao-lao (based on fermented rice) but the new owner decided to switch to rum, utilizing sugar cane from one of two 10 hectare plots of land (one always remains fallow and they are rotated), and going determinedly with juice rather than molasses.

The cane is cut and transported to the factory where it is crushed (1 tonne cane = ~400  liters juice) and set to ferment in steel vats using dehydrated wine yeast, for between 3-4 days. The resultant wine is about 9% ABV and is then run through a vacuum distillation machine – using this apparatus reduces the boiling point of the liquid by lowering the pressure within the apparatus, supposedly leading to less degradation of the wine in a shorter timeframe; the separation of heads and tails and extraction of the heart remains the same as for traditional methods.  

Initially the resultant spirit came out the other end at 47% and early versions of the Laodi / Vinetiane rums were bottled at 42% – the white rum was rested for two years in stainless steel tanks and slowly reduced to that strength – clearly they’ve done some upgrading since then, as by the time one of them walked through my door and into my glass, they already were beefing it up. That rum (or rhum if you like), was the 56% Vientiane Agricole rhum I looked at two years ago, which seems to be discontinued now (or replaced by this one – note the strength which is the same, and the loss of the word “agricole”…somebody is clearly paying attention).

How does this iteration smell?  Very pungent and very powerful – it’s unclear whether their vacuum distillation method is bolted on to a pot or column still, but for my money, based on the profile, it’s column (query to the company is pending).  It smells simply massive – salty, dusty and lemon-grassy all at once, quite herbal and earthy, of musty loam, rain on hot clay bricks. This was just the opening salvo, and it was followed swiftly by other notes of acetones, polish, cinnamon, anise, sugar water, cucumber and some watermelons, papayas and white guavas.  I thought I sensed some vanilla in there somewhere, but could have been wrong – overall, for that strength, it behaved remarkably well.

The taste was excellent too: it glided across the tongue with controlled force and without trying to scrape it raw.  It tasted initially dry and pungent, of glue and furniture polish, linseed oil (the sort I used to oil my cricket bat with, back in the days when I dared to lift one), and also of brine and olives and coconut water, cider and vinegar, cucumbers in a mild pimento sauce, and behind it, the citrus zest. And on top of all that, there was a peculiar creaminess to the experience, like a snow cone with syrup and condensed milk drizzled over the shaved ice. This all led up to a very pleasant finish, crisp and citrus-like, redolent of more brine, cider, guavas, mangoes, nicely spicy, nicely tasty and an all round excellent close, which stuck around as long as regular guests at a Caner Afterparty.

Dredging back through my memories of the original Laodi Vientiane and what I thought of it back then, I think that even though the strength was the same, this was and is a different rhum, an evolution in the quest to raise the bar, up the game.  It controls its strength well, yet loses none of the force of its ABV, and isn’t trying to be bitchy or sharp or uncomfortable. We may not call it an agricole, yet its antecedents are clear – it’s a cane juice rhum, strong, well made, properly delicious, with just enough edge to keep you hopping. And made in a part of the world we should seriously start to look at, in the constant search for quality artisanal rums that fly under our western radar..

(#625)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Laodi comes from the two words — “Lao” for the country and “Di” meaning “good”
  • The company also makes a lightly-aged brown-coloured rum (with an interesting variation on the ageing process), as well as a set of “married” rums which are infused or spiced and released at lower proof.
  • Rumporter magazine has an excellent 2017 article by Damien Sagnier on the company and its production techniques, which I drew on for the more technical aspects – the assumption is that these have not changed since then, of course.
  • The label is a masterpiece of minimalism, but the counterpoint to that is that it doesn’t actually provide much in the way of information – most of what I’m telling you comes from brochures, webpages and a meandering conversation at the booth at the 2019 Paris Rhumfest where I filched a hefty sample.  
May 152019
 

(c) Duty Free Philippines website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#624)(75/100)


Other notes

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

May 092019
 

Like most rums of this kind, the opinions and comments are all over the map.  Some are savagely disparaging, other more tolerant and some are almost nostalgic, conflating the rum with all the positive experiences they had in Thailand, where the rum is made. Few have had it in the west, and those that did weren’t writing much outside travel blogs and review aggregating sites.

And that’s not a surprise. If you exclude the juice emerging from new, small, fast-moving micro-distilleries in Asia, and focus on the more common brands, you’ll find that many adhere to the light latin-style column-still model of standard strength tipple…and many are not averse to adding a little something to make your experience…well, a smoother one; an easier one. These rums sell by the tanker-load to the Asian public, and while I’m sure they wouldn’t mind getting some extra sales, restrict themselves to their own region…for now.

One of these is the Thai Sang Som Special Rum, which has been around since 1977 and has supposedly garnered a 70% market share for itself in Thailand.  This is a rum made from molasses, and apparently aged for five years in charred oak barrels before being bottled at 40% ABV. Back in the 1980s it won a clutch of medals (Spain, 1982 and 1983) and again in 2006, which is prominently featured in their promo literature…yet it’s almost unknown outside Thailand, since it exports minimal quantities (< 1% of production, I’ve read).  It is made by the Sang Som company, itself a member of Thai Beverage, one of the largest spirits companies in the world (market cap ~US$15 billion) – and that company has around 18 distilleries in the region, which make most of the rum consumed in and exported by Thailand: SangSom, Mangkorn Thong, Blend 285, Hong Thong, and also the Mekhong, which I tried so many years ago on a whim.

The rum doesn’t specify, but I’m going out on a limb and saying, that this is a column still product.  I can’t say it did much for me, on any level – the nose is very thin, quite sweet, with hints of sugar cane sap, herbs, dill, rosemary, basil, chopped up and mixed into whipped cream.  Some cinnamon, rose water, vanilla, white chocolate and more cream. Depending on your viewpoint this is either extremely subtle or extremely wussy and in either case the predominance of sweet herbal notes is a cause for concern, since it isn’t natural to rum.

No redemption is to be found when tasted, alas, though to be honest I was not really expecting much here.  It’s very weak, very quiet, and at best I can suggest the word “delicate”. Some bright ripe fruits like ripe mangoes, red guavas, seed-outside cashew nuts.  Cocounts, flowers, maybe incense. Also lighter notes of sugar water, watermelon, cucumbers, cinnamon, nutmeg – Grandma Caner said “gooseberries”, but I dispute that, the tartness was too laid back for that rather assertively mouth-puckering fruit. And the finish is so light as to be to all intents and purposes, indiscernible. No heat, no bite, no final bonk to the taste buds or the nose.  Some fruit, a little soya, a bit of cream, but all in all, there’s not much going on here.

All due respect for the tourists and Asians who have no issues with a light rum and prefer their hooch to be devoid of character, this is not my cup of tea – my research showed to to be a spiced rum, which explains a lot (I didn’t know that when I was trying it).  It’s light and it’s easy and it’s delicate, and it requires exactly zero effort to drink, which is maybe why it sells so well – one is immediately ready to take another shot, real quick, just to see if the next sip can tease out all those notes that are hinted at but never quite come to the fore. The best thing you can say about the matter is that at least it doesn’t seem to be loaded to the rafters with sugar, which, however, is nowhere near enough for me to recommend it to serious rumhounds who’re looking for the next new and original thing.

(#622)(68/100)