Sep 162019
 

Going back to familiar rums we liked back in the day is something in the nature of revisiting the comfort food of our youth. The memories are strong and consoling, recalling a time of less snark, less cynicism and a whole lot more enjoyment. Surely such positively-associated, fondly-remembered rums deserve a place on the high-scorers list? The problem is, that’s all some of these are – memories.  The reality, informed by a more discerning palate and more varied experience, tends to deflate such candidates and show us both what we liked about them then, and maybe don’t so much, now.

Which brings me to the Zafra 21 Master Reserve which is almighty peculiar in that I tried it a lot in the early years, yet never took notes on it…and almost nobody else in the current rum-reviewing landscape has either.  Back then, I really liked Panamanian rums, before their overall placid sameness eroded my enjoyment and other, more exciting, forceful, original rums came to dominate my pantheon. Taste-wise, I always associated and linked the Zafra — perhaps subliminally — to Diplomatico, Zaya and Zacapa – and (to a lesser extent) to Dictador and Santa Teresa.  They all share certain similarities…a smooth velvety mouthfeel, sometimes solera production, with an oft-accompanying sweetness so characteristic of the type…and a kind of amazing longevity and popularity. I mean, just take a gander at the notes on Rum Ratings – almost 80% of the 201 respondents give it a score of 8 or better. That’s far from the massive 1,472 ratings of the Zacapa 23 or the 1,721 of the Diplo Res Ex, but it shows something of the way popular opinion bends for these soft Latin-style rums.

Still, it’s been many years, so has anything except my hairline and chubbier corpus changed in any significant way here? For example, is it still made the same way?  Does it still taste as easy-going and slickly-smooth as my recollections suggest? 

Based on research I had done at the time, and again for this essay, I’d say it is.  It remains a rum whose original blend dating back to 2009 when it was first released, has not appreciably changed.  It’s a Panamanian column-still rum created by Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez who is better known for both his moniker “The Minister of Rum” (not to be taken seriously, since there is no such position), and a true 21 year old aged in bourbon barrels – though trust issues such as those which afflict other aged Panamanians in these sadly suspicious times might make one take that with a pinch of salt.  In yet another odd thing about the rum, nobody has ever done a hydrometer test on it and post-2010, good look finding a reviewer who’s written anything (back then the reviews were mostly positive, but of course Johnny Drejer had yet to upend the rumiverse for us).

Yet for its adherents the Zafra 21 YO remains a popular — if faded — star, and people like it, and trying the gold-brown rum makes it clear why this is the case.  At 40% it’s hardly going to blow your socks off, and when inhaled, there was nothing I wasn’t already expecting: caramel, creme brulee, dark fruit, leather, sawdust.  There were subtler notes of cinnamon, vanilla, brown sugar and ginger. The problem with it – for me at any rate – was that it was just too faint – it smelled watered-down, weak, with hardly any kind of serious enjoyment available for the nose, and complexity of any kind was just a vanished dream.

Nothing about the palate and mouthfeel greatly impressed me either, though I must admit, it was nice. Inoffensive might be the kindest word I can come up with to describe the faint driness, saltiness and sweetness, too vague to make a serious impression (and I was trying this first thing in the morning before a single rum greater than 45% had crossed my glass).  Caramel, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon led off, with some additional brown sugar, treacle, molasses. Trying to elicit and identify the fruity notes was as pointless as sniffing an orchard shut down for the winter. It simply had no edge, and stayed light, warm and smooth, with a finish that was short, sweet and light, with light oak, vanilla, pancake syrup and some peanut butter.  Big yawn. How 21 years of ageing in the tropics can impart so little character is the great weakness of the rum, and raises all kinds of flags to the wary.

Look, the Zafra 21 is a completely comfortable drink, like a worn pair of familiar slippers and if that lights up your wheelhouse, go for it, you won’t be disappointed.  The thing is, that’s all you get – it’s something of a one-trick pony, lacking in excitement or oomph of any kind. Thinking I was being unduly critical, I sampled nothing but 40% rums all day and then returned, but it still failed to impress. It’s one of those rums we enjoy for its unaggressive nature and decent profile, but sooner or later, when we have moved on and come back to it, we realize that the nose is anemic, the taste boring, the complexity a let down and the finish lacking any kind of fire.  Then we sit back and wonder how we ever loved it so much at all.

(#657)(75/100)

Sep 062019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#654)(75/100)

Aug 182019
 

The French islands provide a reviewer with a peculiar problem when trying to pick a single rum as being a “Key” anything. This is largely because Martinique and Guadeloupe are alone in the world in possessing such a gathering of world-famous rum distilleries in such a concentrated geographical space (a comparison to Islay, say, is not entirely out to lunch). Several Caribbean islands have a single large distiller (St. Lucia, Trinidad) or two (Grenada) or a few (Cuba, Barbados, Jamaica), and Haiti of course comes up for special mention — but none have so many whose names resound through the rumiverse.  So how to pick just one?

The selection of the first of what will be several candidates from the French islands – because to limit oneself just to one or two or even three is to do the entire subset of agricole rums an enormous disservice – is made even more difficult by the fact that Guadeloupe is not seen as a “pure” agricole maker. This is primarily because, of course, they sometimes mess around with both molasses and cane juice styles of rhum, and have never actively sought the AOC designation which so enhances the street cred of rhums from Martinique.

But even so, I like the rhums of Guadeloupe (Grande Terre and Basse Terre and Marie-Galante) — a lot. To me, the work of Gardal, Karukera, Bielle, Longueteau, Severin, Bellevue, Montebello, Pere Labat, Reimonenq, Capovilla and Damoiseau are as good as any the world over, and behind them all still reverbrates the majestic quality of Courcelles, the one that switched me on to agricoles all those years ago when the Little Caner was not yet the Big Caner and I was just getting serious about French island hooch.

So why start with Damoiseau?  The easiest answer is to say “Gotta begin someplace.” More seriously, it’s certainly one of the better known brands from there, the leading producer on Guadeloupe; back in 2016 I remember Josh Miller awarding their white 55% first place in his agricole challenge; years before that, Velier gained confidence to issue more full proof rums by releasing their excellent 1980 version at 60.3% (the first such strong rum in their portfolio); Matt Pietrek suggested the Damoiseau 4 year old Réserve Spécial VSOP was a great rum to have for under US$45 and a good ambassador for the country’s rum-making tradition; and lastly, I simply have good memories of most of their work I’ve tried.  But for me, the VSOP is a bit young and rough, and my affection is given to the very slightly older version which we shall get into without further ado.

Made from cane juice and then aged in ex-bourbon casks, Damoiseau has the occasional peculiarity (in my eyes, at least) of making aged rhums that don’t always or completely showcase the crisp herbal sweet grassiness we have come to associate with agricoles. Here, that isn’t the case at all…up to a point. The cane-juice-derived 5YO, which is near to standard strength (42% ABV) and therefore very approachable by those who want to dip their toes, is remarkably clean and yet still full-bodied for that strength. Immediately there is vanilla, a little oakiness, pears, prunes and the light notes of some pineapple slices.  Also cane sap and sugar water, flavoured with a dusting of cinnamon. And, oddly, a nip of molasses, brown sugar and caramel in the background, which I can’t explain, but find pleasing nevertheless.

The palate isn’t quite as sterling as the nose, though still a cut above normal: a little thin, perhaps – blame it on the 42%, which is, let’s face it, somewhat lacklustre against the shining vibrancy of the whites, so often torqued up to 50%. The rhum tastes a little dry, a little briny, with vanilla, dates, prunes, blackberries and dark grapes leading in, followed by some florals, crisp oak notes, breakfast spices, cereals…and again, that strange hint of caramel syrup and molasses poured over fresh hot pancakes flitting behind all the other tastes.  It’s a perfectly nice drink for all that, and the finish is a fitting conclusion: nice and long with oily, salty and tequila notes, to which are added light oakiness, vanillins, fruits and florals, nothing specific, nothing overly complex just the entire smorgasbord sailing into a serene conclusion.

Personally, I’d suggest that some extra strength would be useful, but by no means does that disqualify the Damoiseau 5 Year Old as a good all-rounder, equally at home in a mix of some kind or by itself. You can tell it’s been aged, it’s slightly sweet and has the requisite fruits and other flavours combining decently, and the rhum navigates its way between a light and heavy profile quite nicely. That slight touch of caramel or molasses was something I liked as well  — if memory serves, it was a similar ”contaminant” that prevented the 1980 from being released as appellation-compliant and that was why it was sold to Velier, but whether in this instance that’s deliberate or my imagination is anyone’s guess. All I can say is that for me it was there, and it did not detract but enhanced.

So at the end, the 5YO ticks all the boxes we look for in such a rhum. Young as it is, it’s a tasty, unique product from Damoiseau; it’s of reasonable strength — and therefore doesn’t frighten those now moving out of their comfort zones and getting into different styles, with some stratospheric ABV or a profile of off-the-wall lunacy; and best of all for those who just want to nibble at its edges without biting the whole thing, the price point is right on the midpoint between two other candidates for the position. It’s slightly more expensive than the VSOP, but more elegant; and cheaper than the 8 YO but more versatile.  Any of these three could be a rum that celebrates Guadeloupe, but for my money and what I want out of a rhum like this, the 5 YO is the one that nails it.

(#652)(83/100)

Aug 142019
 

Damn but this rum is strong. Standard strength among the cognoscenti has been drifting up from 40% to nearly 50% (give or take), with the low sixties selling well, and the high sixties occasionally spotted running in the wild.  But over 70% ABV, and we’re entering more rarefied territory. When people see one of these, they cross themselves like Supes when he sees green kryptonite. A sip of one, and you know what it’s like to be t-boned by a fully-armoured SUV carrying a banana-republic dictator. And all his no-neck bodyguards.

What’s all the more astounding about L’Esprit’s Guyanese Diamond 11 year old which was released at 71.4% ABV and hit the shelves about three years ago (and sank without a ripple) is how really, surprisingly, forehead-smackingly good it is. It’s the sort of rum that makes me want to rush straight over to your table, babbling and drooling, waving my hands wildly in the air and suggesting — nay, demanding — that you take a sip, just to see if I was out to lunch, or telling you the God’s honest.

Think I jest?  Well, maybe a bit.  Still…just crack the bottle and give it a smell, if you please.  Release the halitotic pachyderm. What you immediately get from this is a thick bellowing snort of licorice, wood sap, chocolate and coffee, varnish, freshly baked bread liberally coated with salt butter, vanilla and molasses, all the thick and musky notes Guyana is famous for.  It’s just huge, solid as a sledge and as hard-hitting, and that’s before the sweet marshmallows and dark fruits kick in – dates, raisins, peaches, plums, black cake. Oh yeah, and in the background there’s some glue, paint, varnish, turpentine, all lurking behind like toughs in an alleyway, knuckle dusters at the ready

As for the taste, well: that was suitably shattering, and humorous metaphors and masochism aside, the truth is that taking it neat is kind of fun. It’s thick and heavy and intense – of course it is – but by no means undrinkable, and one can spend a whole hour separating out the tasting notes: what I got was caramel ice cream, molasses, Danish butter cookies and maple syrup, followed by chocolate, coffee grounds, vanilla, licorice, freshly ground black pepper, a little brine, and with water these emerge much more forcefully.  The strength mutes the vague sweetness a bit, and the overall balance is excellent, with complex interlocking elements that I really enjoyed. When I got to the finish, I was almost sorry the experience was over: it was long and hot but not viciously sharp, exhaling chocolate, caramel, cocoa, raisins, and a vein of sweet dark sugar running through the whole experience like a blade.

Based on how it initially nosed, I started out believing this was a wooden still — by the end, I was no longer so sure. The profile actually reminded me more of the Uitvlught 1996, or even DDL’s new 2018 Skeldon and Albion Rares (and, perhaps in a stretch, the old ones). After all, although the rum is labelled “Diamond”, all the stills are located at the estate of the same name these days, so it could mean anything.  In the end Tristan did confirm that the rum was pure Diamond-column-still hooch, and given the flexibility of what can come off that thing, I can only assume that they dialled in the settings to “Uitvlught”, set it to “11” and pulled the trigger.  

DDL ceased exports of bulk rum from the wooden stills a year or two back, and the word has seeped out to the Rumiverse that we’d better get existing wooden still indie rums from Guyana quick time, because one day they’ll run out.  Yet if rums of such quality as L’Esprit has found here can come off the other still, and continue to be exported for independents to bottle and rum lovers to enjoy, then I think we need have no fear that one day we’ll be without pure, cask strength, unique rums from Guyana.  L’Esprit has almost never disappointed me with their selections, and this rum, if you can still find it with its limited outturn of 166 bottles, and take a risk with its power, is really damned good and worth seeking out, even if you do flatten a city block or two after you try it.

(#651)(89/100)


Other Notes

  • Distilled 31 May 2005, bottled May 2016. Confirmed as being column still. Red brown colour.
  • Ageing in Europe, not tropical
  • I think that L’Esprit’s sample bottles are really quite superlative, but that’s just me
Jul 312019
 

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

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

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

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

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

(#647)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • Big thanks to Cyril of DuRhum for the sample
  • A smaller 1500-bottle outturn of the 2008 millesime was released for La Maison du Whisky’s 60th Anniversary in the same year, at 48.4%.  A 2008 Batch 2 was released at 47.5% with 3500 bottles but the year of bottling is unknown – it can be distinguished by a blue portion of the label, missing on the one I tried here.
  • My bottles from 2012-2013 show an AOC moniker on the labels, which is not there now.  The website also makes no mention of it, so I am left to conclude that it no longer conforms to the AOC designation. If anyone has some details, please let me know and I’ll update the post.
Jul 282019
 

If the proposed new GI for Barbados goes into force, it’s likely that rums such as this one will have to be relabelled, because the ageing will have to be done in Barbados, and it’s debatable whether a third party could be permitted to say it was a Foursquare rum(see other notes, below).  Still, even if that happens, that’s not a particularly serious problem on either count given the appreciation most have for tropical ageing these days; and one only has to see any independent bottler saying “Secret Distillery” on a label, for the rum pundits to work themselves up into a lather racing to see who can identify the distillery first, by taste alone.  It’s kind of fun, to be honest.

Be that as it may, we do in fact have this rum here now, from Barbados and from Foursquare, so it comes from Europe where it was at least partially aged (which strongly implies Main Rum, since [a] Scheer itself doesn’t do ageing and [b] Foursquare has had a long relationship with them), a near-brutal 62% ABV, and a 225-bottle outturn from a single barrel #FS9 (my sample was mislabelled, noting 186 bottles).  Unlike the TCRL line of rums from la Maison du Whisky, Compagnie des Indes do not show proportion of ageing done in different climes, which is the case here: 8 years tropical in Barbados, and 8 years continental in Liverpool; distilled April 1999 and bottled June 2016…a whisker under seventeen years of age, and a nice amber hue. About the only thing we don’t know whether it is pot or column still, although based on taste, I would suggest column as a purely personal opinion (and Richard Seale later confirmed that).

I don’t have any other observations to make, so let’s jump right in without further ado.  Nose first – in a word, luscious. Although there are some salty hints to begin with, the overwhelming initial smells are of ripe black grapes, prunes, honey, and plums, with some flambeed bananas and brown sugar coming up right behind. The heat and bite of a 62% strength is very well controlled, and it presents as firm and strong without any bitchiness. After leaving it to open a few minutes, there are some fainter aromas of red/black olives, not too salty, as well as the bitter astringency of very strong black tea, and oak, mellowed by the softness of a musky caramel and vanilla, plus a sprinkling of herbs and maybe cinnamon. So quite a bit going on in there, and well worth taking one’s time with and not rushing to taste.

Once one does sample, it immediately shows itself as dry, intense and rich.  The flavours just seem to trip over themselves trying to get noticed: honey, fruits, black tea, plus dark rye bread and cream cheese, but also the delightful sweetness of strawberries, peaches and whipped cream, a nice combination.  It’s sharper and rougher than the nose, not all the jagged edges of youth have been entirely sanded off, but a few drops of water sort that right out. Then it mellows out, allowing other flavours emerge – vanilla, cinnamon, prunes, providing an additional level of fruit that is quite pleasing. It ends with a dry, hot finish redolent of fruits and vanilla and honey (rather less cream here) that may be the weak point of the entire experience, because the integration of the complex profile falters somewhat and doesn’t quite ignite the jock as joyously as the nose and initial taste had done (for me, anyway – your mileage my vary).

Never mind, though. To be honest, even if bottled from a broker’s stocks by a third party independent, even if the Compagnie des Indes has a great rep for selecting good barrels, the truth is that I don’t see how this could not be seen as another feather in Foursquare’s cap…though perhaps not as long or brightly coloured as some of the others  The rum is well made, well distilled, well aged, well balanced, quite complex and a rough’n’tough-but-decent sip that may take some dialling down, yet overall a great advertisement from the distillery and island of origin. This is not to take any kudos away from Florent Beuchet, of course – I think his nose for a good rum doesn’t sneeze, and always sniffs out something interesting, even special – and here, both Foursquare and the Compagnie can walk away, leaving this bottle on the table, (me probably snoring underneath it, ha ha) tolerably satisfied that they made something pretty damned fine.  And if you can get one, I honestly think you’d agree too.

(#646)(85/100)


Other Notes

I requested further information from Foursquare, and Mr. Seale’s response was detailed enough for me to quote it in full here:

“This rum is 8 yrs at Foursquare and 8 years in Liverpool. It is all column.  We did unaged in the past and there are exceptions today where we ship unaged – but not for further aging.

The issue with the GI is complex and its a separate issue to the distillery name issue. I have taken the position that Foursquare should be named on the label. This has resulted in misuse of my trademark (not with malice) and I am trying to work with everyone to have our name present without misusing our trademark. Other distilleries have taken the easier (and perhaps wiser route) of simply prohibiting their name in any form – hence “secret distillery”.

As far as the GI goes, Barbados is a work in progress but Jamaica will only allow certification of age in Jamaica. The practical outcome of this would be a product like this could not say “16 years” and bear the Geographical certification. That is surely correct. How can something not aged in Jamaica be given a geographical certification.

That is not to say a product like this could not exist – as Lance says, it will be about labeling. The EU expressly provides for GIs and it expressly provides a work around. By Article 14, there is whisky aged in France, declared as a product of France that was distilled in Scotland.

The biggest threat to IBs like the excellent Compagnie des Indes is not GIs but availability of rum. If all small independent distillers fell into the hands of global corporations, bulk would dry up. Moving (age driven) value from Europe to the Caribbean is not a threat to rum from IBs, it is the only way to sustain it.”

Jul 252019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#645)(83/100)

Jul 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)