Jun 172019
 

It’s remarkable how fast the SBS line of rums have exploded onto the rumconsciousness of the world. This is a series released by 1423, the same Danish outfit which made the really quite elegant 2008 Mauritius rum I wrote about with such love a while back, and has received enormously positive word of mouth on social media for the last year or so.  The only similar company I can call to mind that rose so quickly in the public’s esteem would be the Compagnie des Indes, which shared a similarly exacting (and excellent) sense of which barrels to choose and which rums to bottle.

Three things make Jamaica in general — and Worthy Park and Hampden in particular — the current belle du jour for rums.  One there’s the fairy tale story of old and noble rum houses in previously shabby circumstances rising phoenix-like from the ashes of near closure and bankruptcy, to establish their own brands and not just sell bulk.  Two, there’s that thing about pure rums, pot still rums, traditionally made, from lovingly maintained, decades-old equipment, eschewing anonymous blends. And three, there’s the ever-expanding circle of rum enthusiasts who simply can’t get enough of the dunder, the hogo, the rancio, that funky flavour for which the island is famous.

By that standard, this rum presses all the right buttons for Jamaican rum lovers.  It has much in common with both the Wild Tiger rum, and the NRJ series released by Velier last year, and some of the Habitation Velier rums before that.  It’s a Hampden rum, massively ester-laden at close the the bleeding max of 1600, thereby earning the marque of DOK (which actually stands for Dermot Owen Kelly-Lawson, a Hampden distiller who died in 1934). It’s unaged except for six months’ rest in PX barrels, and released at a firm but not obnoxious 59.7% ABV – more than good enough for Government work.

Now me, after the shattering experiences with the TECA and TECC (and to some extent the Wild Tiger), I approached it cautiously.  I spoke gently, kept my head bowed low, and did not make eye contact immediately. Maybe the PX casks’ ageing ameliorated the furious acid-sweet and rotting rancio of such high ester funk bombs, but I wasn’t taking any chances. It might have ninja knives hidden behind the demure facade of the minimalist labelling.

I needn’t have worried. The nose started off with the dust of old clothes cupboards with one too many mothballs, leavened with fruits, lots of fruits, all sweet and acidic and very sharp (a hallmark of the DOK, you might say).  Pineapples, yellow mangoes, ripe apricots and peaches, cashews, and soursop all duelled for bragging rights here. It’s what was underneath all those ripe and rotting and tear-inducing aromas that made it special – because after a while one could sense acetones, glue, nail polish, damp sawdust mixed in with white chocolate, sour cream, and vanilla in a nose that seemed to stretch from here to the horizon. I had this rum on the go for three hours, so pungent and rich were the smells coming from it, and it never faltered, never stopped.

And the palate was right up there too.  Not for this rum the thick odour of mouldering rancio which occasionally mars extreme high-ester rums – here the sherry influence tamed the flavours and gave it an extra dimension of texture which was very pleasant (and perhaps points the way forward for such rums in the future).  The tastes were excellent: sweet honey, dates and almonds, together with licorice, bitter chocolate, cumin, a dusting of nutmeg and lemon zest. As it opened up, the parade of fruits came banging through the door: dark grapes, five-finger, green apples, pineapples, unripe kiwi fruit, more soursop, more lemon zest…merde, was there anything that was not stuffed in here? As for the finish, really good – long, dry, hot, breathy.  Almost everything I had tasted and smelled came thundering down the slope to a rousing finale, with all the fruits and spices and ancillary notes coming together…a little unbalanced, true, a little sharp, yes, a shade “off” for sure, but still very much an original.

Summing up then. The SBS Jamaican 2018 is a Hampden rum, though this is nowhere mentioned on the label.  It’s a furiously crisp and elegant drink, a powerfully and sharply drawn rum underneath which one could always sense the fangs lying in wait, biding their time.  I noted that some of its tastes are a bit off, and one could definitely taste what must have been a much more pronounced hogo. The sherry notes are actually more background than dominant, and it was the right decision, I think, to make it a finish rather than a full out maturation as this provides roundness and filler, without burying the pungent profile of the original.

The other day I was asked which of the Jamaican high ester funky chickens I thought was best: the TECC, the Wild Tiger, or this SBS version.  After thinking about it, I’d have to say the Wild Tiger was rough and raw and ready and needed some further taming to become a standout – it scored decently, but trotted in third. The real difficulty came with the other two.  On balance I’d have to say the TECC had more character, more depth, more overall maturity…not entirely surprising given its age and who picked it. But right behind it, for different reasons, came the SBS Jamaica. I thought that even for its young age, it comported itself well.  It was tasty, it was funky to a fault, the PX gave it elegance and a nice background, and overall it was a drink that represented the profile of the high ester marques quite well.

DOK Jamaican rums that are identified and marketed as such are a recent phenomenon, and were previously not released at all (and if they were, it was hardly mentioned). They’ve quickly formed an audience all their own, and irrespective of the sneering dismissal of the marque by some distillers who persist in seeing them as flavouring agents not meant for drinking, this is pissing into the wind — because nothing will stop the dunderheads from getting their fix, as the rapid online sellout of the SBS’s 217 bottles demonstrated.  When one tastes a rum like this one, it’s not hard to understand the attraction. So what if it does not conform to what others say a Jamaican rum should be? Who cares about it being too hogo-centric? It’s distinctive to a fault, nicely finished, well assembled and an all-round good drink — and that may be the very mark of individuality to which many a DOK made in the future can and should aspire.

(#633)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • According to 1423, the rum was freshly distilled in 2018 and aged for six months in four 40 litre casks, then blended together, rested and issued outside the normal release cycle, in November 2018, as a sort of individual bottling.
  • All ageing done in Europe
  • A week after this review came out, Flo of Barrel aged Thoughts posted a comparison of six DOK rums including this one (in German), which is worth going through.
Jun 132019
 

Photo (c) Romdeluxe

Romdeluxe in Denmark is more a commercial rum club that makes private label bottlings and runs promotions around the country, than a true independent bottler — but since they do several releases, I’ll call them an indie and move right on from there.  Earlier, in May 2019, they lit up FB by releasing this limited-edition high-ester funk-bomb, the first in their “Wild Series” of rums, with a suitably feral tiger on the label. I can’t tell whether it’s yawning or snarling, but it sure looks like it can do you some damage without busting a sweat either way.

This is not surprising.  Not only is this Jamaican bottled at one of the highest ABVs ever recorded for a commercially issued rum – growling in at 85.2%, thereby beating out the Sunset Very Strong and SMWS Long Pond 9 YO but missing the brass ring held by the Marienburg – but it goes almost to the screaming edge of Esterland, clocking in, according to the label, at between 1500-1600 g/hlpa (the legal maximum is 1600)….hence the DOK moniker. Moreover, the rum is officially ten years old but has not actually been aged that long – it rested in steel tanks for those ten years, and a bit of edge was sanded away by finishing it for three months in small 40-liter ex-Madeira casks.  So it’s a young fella, barely out of rum nappies, unrefined, uncouth and possibly badass enough to make you lose a week or two of your life if you’re not careful.

Knowing that, to say I was both doubtful and cautious going in would be an understatement, because the rum had a profile so ginormous that cracking the cap on my sample nearly lifted the roof of of the ten-storey hotel where I was tasting it (and I was on the second floor). The nose was, quite simply, Brobdingnagian, a fact I relate with equal parts respect and fear.

The crazy thing was how immediately sweet it was – a huge dose of fleshy fruits bordering on going bad for good, creme brulee, sugar water, honey, raisins and a salted caramel ice cream were the first flavours screaming out the gate (was this seriously just three months in Madeira?). It was huge and sharp and very very strong, and was just getting started, because after sitting it down (by the open window) for half an hour, it came back with vegetable soup, mature cheddar, brine, black olives, crisp celery, followed by the solid billowing aroma of the door being opened into a musty old library with uncared-for books strewn about and mouldering away. I say it was strong, but the nose really struck me as being more akin to a well-honed stainless-steel chef’s knife — clear, and glittering and sharp and thin and very very precise.

The clear and fruity sweet was also quite noticeable when tasted, combining badly with much more mucky, mouldy, dunder-like notes: think of a person with overnight dragon’s breath blowing Wrigley’s Spearmint gum into your face on a hot day.  It was oily, sweaty, earthy, loamy and near-rank, but damnit, those fruits pushed through somehow, and combined with vanilla and winey tastes, breakfast spices, caramel, some burnt sugar, prunes, green bananas and some very tart yellow mangoes, all of which culminated in a very long, very intense finish that was again, extremely fruity – ripe cherries, peaches, apricots, prunes, together with thyme, mint lemonade, and chocolate oranges.

Whew!  This was a hell of a rum and we sure got a lot, but did it all work?  And also, the question a rum like this raises is this: does the near titanic strength, the massive ester count, the aged/unaged nature of it and the final concentrated finish, give us a rum that is worth the price tag?

Me, I’d say a qualified “Yes.” On the good side, the Wild Tiger thing stops just short of epic. It’s huge, displaying a near halitotic intensity, has a real variety of tastes on display, with the sulphur notes that marred the TECA or some other DOKs I’ve tried, being held back.  On the other hand, there’s a lack of balance. The tastes and smells jostle and elbow each other around, madly, loudly, without coordination or logic, like screeching online responses to a Foursquare diss. There’s a lot going on, most not working well together. It’s way too hot and sharp, the Madeira finish I think is too short to round it off properly – so you won’t get much enjoyment from it except by mixing it with something else – because by itself it’s just a headache-inducing explosive discharge of pointless violence.

Then there’s the price, about €225. Even with the outturn limited to 170 bottles, I would hesitate to buy, because there are rums out there selling at a lesser cost and more quaffable strength, with greater pedigree behind them.  Such rums are also completely barrel-aged (and tropically) instead of rested, and require no finishes to be emblematic of their country.

But I know there are those who would buy this rum for all the same reasons others might shudder and take a fearful step back. These are people who want the max of everything: the oldest, the rarest, the strongest, the highest, the bestest, the mostest, the baddest.  Usefulness, elegance and quality are aspects that take a back seat to all the various “-estests” which a purchaser now has bragging rights to. I would say that this is certainly worth doing if your tastes bend that way (like mine do, for instance), but if your better half demands what the hell you were thinking of, buying a rum so young and so rough and so expensive, and starts crushing your…well, you know…then along with a sore throat and hurting head, you might also end up knowing what the true expression of the tiger on the label is.

(#632)(84/100)


Other notes

  • It’s not mentioned on the label or website but as far as I know, it’s a Hampden.
  • Like the Laodi Brown, the Wild Tiger Jamaican rum raises issues of what ageing truly means – it is 10 years old, but it’s not 10 years aged (in that sense, the label is misleading).  If that kind of treatment for a rum catches on, the word “aged” will have to be more rigorously defined.

Comment

These days I don’t usually comment on the price, but in this case there have been disgruntled mumbles online about the cost relative to the age, to say nothing of the packaging with that distinctive “10” suggesting it’s ten years old.  Well, strictly speaking it is that old, but as noted before, just not aged that much and one can only wonder why on earth people bothered to arrest its development at all by having it in steel tanks, for such an unusually long time.

So on that basis, to blow more than €200 on a rum which has truly only been aged for three months (by accepted conventions of the term) seems crazy, and to set that price in the first place is extortionate. 

But it’s not, not really. 

At that ABV, you could cut it by half, make 340 bottles of 42% juice, and sell it for €100 as a finished experimental, and people would buy it like they would the white Habitation Veliers, maybe, for exotic value and perhaps curiosity.  Moreover, there are no reductions in costs for the expenses of advertising, marketing and packaging for a smaller bottle run (design, printing, ads, labels, boxes, crates, etc) so the production cost per bottle is higher, and that has to be recouped somehow.  And lastly, for a rum this strong and obscure, even if from Hampden, there is likely to be an extremely limited market of dedicated Jamaica lovers, and this rum is made for those few, not the general public…and those super geeks are usually high fliers with enough coin to actually afford to get one when they want one. 

I’m not trying to justify the cost, of course, just suggest explanations for its level.  Not many will buy this thing, not many can, and at end maybe only the deep-pocketed Jamaica lovers will. The rest of us will have to be content with samples, alas.

 

Jun 092019
 

“Could grogue be the next clairin?” asked Dwayne Stewart in a facebook post the other day, when he and Richard Blesgraaf were discussing the Vulcão, and his respondent (you could almost see him smile) replied with a sort of yoda-like zen calm, “Clairin is clairin.”  Which is true. Because beyond the superficial similarities of the two island nations – the relative isolation of the islands, the artisanal nature of their juice, the mom-and-pop rural distillation of the spirit far away from modern developments or technological interference – the truth is that you could not mistake one for the other. At least, not those that I’ve tried.

Take, for example, the subject of today’s review, the Vulcão grogue, which is nowhere near as ominous as its name suggests.  If you have previously tried one of the four main Velier-distributed Haitian clarins (the Sajous, Vaval, Casimir and Le Rocher), marvelled at their in-your-snoot take-no-prisoners ferocity and taste, and took Dwayne’s question to heart, you might be expecting some kind of long-gestated uber-strong clear xenomorph hammered out of Vulcan’s forge, that threatened to melt your tonsils.  But it’s not. In fact, it’s closer to an off-beat agricole than anything else, and a particularly good one at that.

Even at 45% – which is practically tame for a clear rhum these days — the Vulcão smelled lovely, and started off with brine, thyme-infused water and lemon sherbet poured over a meringue cake. After five minutes or so, it also gave off scents that were creamy, salty, olive-y, with a dusting of white chocolate and vanilla, and as if impatient to continue, belched out some additional fruity whiffs — watermelon, pears, white guavas and bananas. There were also some odd minerals and ashes and iodine (not quite medicinal, but close), with overtones of sugar-water.  

Short version – a yummy nose, and fortunately, it didn’t falter on the palate either. It was strong, and quite dry, unusual for a cane-juice based rhum (last time I had something so sere was years ago, with the Flor de Cana Extra Dry white).  The brine and olives really came out and made an initial statement here, and combined with the sweeter elements with impressive control and in well-nigh perfect balance, making for a worthy sipping rum by anyone’s standards. With a drop or two of water came white fruits, flowers and sugar water, all of which were the slightest bit tart.  And as if all that wasn’t enough, there was a light creaminess of butter pastry, Danish cookies and anise hanging about in the background, reminding me of the freshly baked croissants Mrs. Caner so loves to have in Paris. The finish is rather subdued, even faint – perhaps we should not expect too much of 45% but after that nose and that taste I sort of was, sorry, and even though I noted almonds, toblerone, sugar water, nougat, pears, ripe apples, it seemed a bit less than what had come before. Not shabby, not bad…just not up to the same standard.

Anyway, finish aside, the development and movement the rhum displays on the tongue is excellent, first salt, then sweet, then creamy, well-balanced and overall a remarkable drink by any standard. It remembers its antecedents, being both a fierce and forceful rhum…but is also a nicely integrated and tasty sipping drink, crisp and clear, displaying a smorgasbord of contrasting, even competing, yet at all times well-melded series of sweet and sour and salt flavours in delicious harmony. Sip or mix, it’ll do well in either case.

So, to answer Dwayne’s perhaps rhetorical question with respect to taste and production details, my own response would be “Not really.” While grogues are a fascinating subset of rums, an intriguing branch on Yggdrasil (The Great Rum Tree), they are too different — too elegant, maybe — to really be classed with or as clairins.  They do share some of the same DNA: fresh cut cane juice and wild yeast fermentation (for ten days) and no ageing, for example, but also go in their own direction by using pot stills (as here) not columnar ones. What comes out the other end, then, are terroire-driven white rums with a character all their own, with this one, one of the best I tried in Paris, absolutely worth trying, and close to being an undiscovered steal.  In the sense of that last statement, now that I think about it, I’d answer Dwayne differently…and tell him that they’re exactly like clairins.

(#631)(85/100)


Other notes

  • I’ve put some feelers out regarding the company that makes it, and if/when/once this is received the post will be updated with some more factual background info.
  • Made in in the Tarrafal village just south of Monte Trigo on the island of Santo Antão, the most north-westerly of the series of islands making up Cabo Verde. I was told five small “distilleries” exist in this tiny place, and three of them supply the grogue which is blended into the Vulcão.
  • Back label translation: The island of Santo Antao in Cabo Verde is undoubtedly one of the first cradles of cane spirits. Before rum or cachaca, it has been unchanging for hundreds of years. Distilled in ancient pot-stills made from pure cane juice, this rum ancestor is an extraordinary witness of the past.
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 302019
 

In any rum festival, if you are moving around with a posse or simply keep your ears open, there’s always one or two new or unknown rums that create an underground buzz. You drift from booth to booth, tasting, talking, writing, thinking, listening, and gradually you separate voices from the din, that quietly remark “Check out that one over there” or “Did you hear about….?” or “You really gotta try…” or a simple, disbelieving “Holy crap!”

The Whisper Antigua rum was one of those, Lazy Dodo another; in various years there was the Toucan white, the Compagnie’s Indonesian rum,  the first edition of Nine Leaves, the first new Worthy Park rums…and in Paris 2019, it was the Teeda five year old made by the Japanese Helios Distillery, which I heard mentioned up and down the aisles by at least five separate people on the very first day (along with the Madeirans, the Cabo Verde grogues and Mhoba)

Helios has been around since 1961, when it was called the Taiyou distillery, and made rum from sugar cane grown in Okinawa itself (the climate favours it and all rum made in Japan uses cane from there) to cater to the locally-based Americans of the US post-war civil administration – and so as not to use rice which was needed for food to make alcohols like sake. In 1969 as the fortunes of the company and Okinawa improved, the name was changed to Helios and over the next two decades it branched out and gained licenses to make sake, shōchū, awamori (an Okinawan local spirit made from rice), whiskey and, in 1996, beer, which became one of its primary products with amawori and for which it is now best known.  Yet they started with and always made a sort of cheap blended rum (both white and lightly aged), and in the last few years expanded that into an aged product they named Teeda (an Okinawan word for “sun” – goes well with Helios, doesn’t it?), which is a blend of rums of five to fifteen years old aged in ex-bourbon barrels, I am led to understand, and pot still distilled. No caramel or other additions, a pure rum.

I don’t know how much of the blend was five years old and how much was greater, but whatever they did, the results were great.  The pot still component was particularly aggressive right out of the gate (even with a relatively staid 40% ABV strength) – yes it had a pronounced initial rumstink of sweet fruits and rinds decomposing in the sun, rotting bananas and paint remover, but there was also fanta and soda pop, a clear sweet line of bubble gum and strawberries, apricots, cherries, very ripe yellow mangoes, all tied together with brine, olives, and a really rich vegetable soup chock full of noodles and green onions (seriously!).

Palate…hmmm.  Different, yet decidedly intriguing and original without straying too far from rum’s roots. It was supple and firm on the tongue, sweet and almost gentle – I sensed iodine, minerals, wet charcoal, ashes, redolent of that woody and yeasty fresh-baked sourdough action of shōchūs I’ve had, which worked…sort of. Gradually that released additional muskier flavours of licorice, molasses, vanilla, even red olives.  It was also musty, with all the pungency of a barn made from old wood and long abandoned. Whatever fruits there were took a back seat, and only really came into their own on the finish which, though short, was creamy and sharp both at once, and allowed final notes of ripe cherries and apricots to make a final bow before disappearing.

What to make of something like this?  A Caribbean rum it was clearly not, and it was quite separate from the light rums from South America; neither did it conform to India’s rich and sweet rums like the Amrut, and it had little in common with the feral whites now coming out of Asia.  Given that in many cases Japanese rum makers are often adding rum to their lineup of whiskies or sake or shōchū as opposed to starting rum distilling from scratch, I argue that too often the profiles of those drinks bleed over into the way their rums taste (Seven Seas, Ryoma, Cor Cor and Ogasawara are examples of this, with Nine Leaves a marked exception).

Yet I liked this thing, quite a bit.  It was like a dialled-down Islay mixing it up with a Jamaican pot-still bruiser (with a Versailles acting as referee), and was, in my estimation, something of an original to sample, blending both the traditional “rummy” flavours with something new.  It skated over many of the issues mentioned above and came out at the other end with a really mellow, rich, tasty, different rum, the likes of which I have not had before. Even with the few weaknesses it had — the balance and integration of the disparate components were not completely successful, and it could have been stronger for sure — there’s nothing here that would make me tell you to walk away.  Quite the reverse, in fact – this rum is absolutely worth a try, and it makes me glad I listened to the buzz.

(#629)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks and a hat-tip to Yoshiharu Takeuchi and Manabu Sadamoto for help with the background notes
  • A 2019 RhumFest masterclass video of Ms. Matsuda (grandaughter of the founder of Helios) can be found on FB in English, with a running French translation.  This confirms the pot still comment (it is stainless steel) as well as noting that fermentation is 2 weeks, leading to a 60% distillate from the still; white rum is rested in steel tanks for about six months, while aged rums are put in oak casks for the appropriate period
May 272019
 

When you really get down to it, Pusser’s claim to fame rests on two main planks. The first is that it is they are the true inheritors of the actual British Navy rum recipe after Black Tot Day in 1970.  The second is that they follow it.

Unfortunately, neither is completely true, depending on how you look at the background.

With respect to the first point, any research done on Navy rums shows that Lyman Hart, Lamb’s and ED&F Man, among others, sold rums to the Royal Navy back in the 1800s (Man became the major supplier in the 1900s, though I don’t think they were the sole source even then), and it is highly unlikely they were consistent in what they provided.  Moreover, the rum (from whatever source) was always a blend, and the components did not stay rock solid stable for centuries. In fact, according to the booklet about the Black Tot accompanying the bottle and written by Dave Broom, the Navy rum of the 1940s had been a complex blend – kind of solera – and over the centuries the Jamaican component had continually been reduced because of its funky taste which sailors did not like.  Moreover there’s that modern tested-for adulteration of Pusser’s — 29 g/L additives by some estimates — which surely was not part of the original recipe no matter who made it.

Secondly, the very fact that the recipe was tweaked more than once — as recently as 2008 it was supposedly a blend of five West Indian rums — shows up the fallacy of completely buying into the idea this is a true heritage rum: it’s hardly an inheritor of a tradition that once included Guyanese, Jamaican, Trini and maybe even Bajan rums, which progressively got reduced down to Guyana and Trini components, and now is Guyana only. Even by 2018, one could taste that the blend was favouring Guyanese distillate and that might taste good, but wasn’t exactly the Royal Navy recipe now, was it?  

So, strictly speaking, neither statement holds water.  The Gunpowder Proof Black Label is probably closer to the way navy rums used to be made, but yet somehow, in spite of all that, it’s the 15 YO which people remember, which they refer to as one of the touchstones of their early drinking experiences.  The thing is utterly unkillable and regularly turns up on the various Facebook fora with delighted chirps and snazzy photographs and the pride of some person who has either bought one for the first time, or tried it for the first time. It is also one of the most reviewed of the entire Pusser’s line, with just about every writer sooner or later passing by to talk about it (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for some examples, almost universally positive)

And why shouldn’t they?  It’s a fifteen year old rum issued at a relatively affordable price, and is widely available, has been around for decades and has decent flavour chops for those who don’t have the interest or the coin for the limited edition independents.

So what was it like?  The tasting notes below reflect the blend as it was in April 2018, and this is different to both the initial rum I tried back in 2011 and again in 2019 when the “new and improved” Guyana-only blend crossed my path.

The nose, for example, certainly has lots of stationery: ruber, pencil erasers, pencil shavings.  Also sawdust, citrus, lumber – reminds me a lot of the Port Mourant or Versailles distillate, if a little dumbed down. After some time, molasses crept timidly out the back end with caramel, toffee, ginger and vanilla hiding in its skirts, but their overall reticence was something of a surprise given my tasting memories — I seem to recall them as much more forward.  Blame it on increasing age, I guess – mine, not the rum’s.

By the time it got around to tasting, the Guyanese component of the blend was much more evident, definitely favouring the wooden pot stills’ aggressive taste profiles. Glue, rubber, nail polish, varnish were the tastes most clearly discernible at the inception, followed by bitter chocolate and damp sawdust from freshly sawn lumber.  It’s beneath that that it shines even at the paltry strength – creme brulee, warm caramel dribbled over vanilla ice cream, coffee and molasses, with just a hint of dark fruits (raisins, plums) and indistinct floral notes tidying things up. The finish, as is normal for standard proof spirits, is fairly short but nicely rounded, summarizing the aforementioned tastes and smells – caramel, vanilla, flowers, ginger, anise, raisins, dark fruits and pineapple for the most part.  The added whatever-it-is makes it sweet and nicely rounded and a decent sip – non-rum-junkies would likely find favour with that, while deep-diving rum chums would equally sniff and say it’s over-sweetened and dampened down, with the good notes being obscured.

Well, each to his own, I guess.  My notes here aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. At the end of it all, it is a tasty all-round rum for most, which survives in people’s tasting memories in spite of its adulteration, and constantly gains new (young) acolytes because of it. My own opinion is that while Pusser’s sells well, its glory days are behind it.  It has not maintained the core blend, being forced by market pressures to simplify the components rather than keep them in play. They have extended their line over the years to add to the stable with the gunpowder proof, various strengths and other iterations, spiced versions and this to some extent dilutes the brand, good as they may all be.

So why do I call this a key rum?  Because it is a good rum which should be remembered and appreciated; because it hewed and hews as close to the line of the old navy rums as we’re ever likely to get; because it’s 15 years old and still affordable; and because for all its blended nature and therefore indeterminate origins, it’s just a well-made, well-aged product with a whiff of true historical pedigree and naval heritage behind it. Even now, so many rums down the road,  I remember why I liked it in the first place.

And aside from all that, even if you don’t buy into my premise, and dislike the brand dilution (or expansion), and even with all the competition, Pussers still has a lustre and brand awareness that can’t be shrugged off.  Almost all bloggers sooner or later pass by and check it out, some more than once. It is a milestone marker on anyone’s journey down the myriad highways of rum. It remains relevant because no matter how many pretenders to the throne there are, this one company supposedly does actually have the (or an) original recipe for the navy rum, and if they chose to change it over time, well, okay.  But the 15 year old remains one of the core rums of the lineup, one of the best they made and make, and nobody who tries it as part of their education, is ever likely to completely put it out of their minds, no matter how far past it they end up walking to other milestones down the road.

(#627)(83/100)

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 222019
 

Let me run you past the tasting notes of this lower-proofed, higher-aged companion rum to the Laodi White I wrote about last time. It was an amber-coloured 42% which was aged, according to the rep at the 2019 rhumfest in Paris, for 5 years in French oak…so it seemed like it would be relatively tame and mild, taking into account the milquetoast strength and a barely-enough aging regimen (at least, compared to its unaged 56% blanc bro’).

But it wasn’t. To begin with, the nose – well, that was quite a nose, a Cyrano de Bergerac of rum noses.  It was big, it was odd, it was startling and overall rather impossible to ignore. It smelled of old bookcases and old books in a disused manor-house library, of glue holding tattered paper together, of dark furniture and its varnish, and of a gone-to-seed aristocrat smoking an aromatic cigar while wearing a pair of brand new leather brogues still reeking of polish.  It was a rum that was so peculiar that it encouraged equally peculiar phrasing just to describe it properly…at least at the inception. And after a while it did settle down to somewhat more traditional notes, and then we got a basketful of dark, ripe fruits – prunes, plums and apricots set off by the brighter and chirpier red currants and pomegranates, behind which lurked a faint aroma of coffee and unsweetened chocolate and a very pleasant nutty hint.

It smelled light and delicate, and dark and heavy, all at the same time, and one could only wonder what the thing could possibly taste like after such an entrance.  “Flavourful” is one word that could be used without apology. The dustiness of age receded into memory and a nicely solid rum emerged and snapped into focus. It tasted of caramel, toffee, blancmange, white chocolate, almonds, coffee, vanilla, breakfast spices, cinnamon – all the expected hits, I guess you could say.  But it took a step up once the fruits come marching in, because then there was a balanced offset of tart fruits to the firm and thick tastes that came before: prunes and plums, as well as guavas, overripe mangoes, peaches in syrup, green peas (not a fruit, I know) – and a much stronger shading of coffee grounds, as if this thing was channelling Dictador or something.  It never quit went went away, that coffee taste, even on the finish, which was well balanced but far too short, ending with a final exhale, a last shuddering sigh, of fruit and caramel and vanilla, and then was gone.

So, all in all, a surprisingly aromatic rum from Laodi. Just to recap very briefly, this is a Laos-located, Japanese-run distillery on the Thai border, who are perhaps more known for their flavoured low-proof “marriage” rums (coming in coffee, plum, coconut, passion fruit and sugar cane varieties); they use a vaccuum-distillation machine to produce a rhum from cane juice at 47% or so and then rest it in stainless steel tanks for up to five years for the Brown rhum.

Yet they do not use actual barrels in their production process. “Ageing in oak barrels requires means that we do not have,” said Mr. Ikuzo Inoue to Damien Sagnier in a 2017 interview, and so, in an interesting departure from the norm, the company uses a different technique – it dumps French oak chips into the vat (this is also mentioned casually and without elaboration on their website) and that provides the “aged” profile, which, after all, is just the interaction between wood and spirit.  By varying the amount of chips, and the amount of char they have (and so the surface area in contact with the spirit), it is therefore possible to extract a rhum at the other end which has a more intense profile than an equivalently barrel-only-aged product.

What this means is that by common parlance, the rum is not aged at all – it is infused. Moreover, the process – both distillation and infusion – means that elements of the profile deriving from oxidation and evaporation are lacking, and there is a minimal angel’s share from the steel vats. To their credit, nowhere does Laodi say that their rhum is “aged X years” and I think the terminology used by the rep in response to my questions was not meant to imply true ageing.  It does raise some flags, though, because there is no real regulation of or accepted terminology for this kind of flavour enhancement / infusion / ersatz ageing process. The closest one can get is the process of using boisé in cognac, or creative enhancement often imputed to low-rent rum brands. Laodi might not have intended it, but surely this methodology will create food for thought for regulators and commentators in the years to come.

All that aside, for me as a reviewer, I have to ask, does it work?  I’d say yes it does – I mean, there were a lot more flavour elements coming out of the Brown than I was expecting.  I think the rhum is tasty, a bit on the weak side, too thin at the end and needs some more boosting, but a pleasant cane juice spirit that tastes aged (Mr. Sagnier himself remarked that he could not tell the difference), and is more enjoyable than that age suggests it might be.  The issues it raises, though, are likely to trouble rum chums long after the bottle they bought is finished and they move on to the next one.

(#626)(82/100)


Other notes

Some of the questions that occurred to me as I was writing the last paragraphs on the subject of using wood chips were:

  • Does it fly in the face of the standard and accepted ways that ageing is defined? (the rum does, after all, rest for the requisite number of years in a vat, according to Laodi).
  • Will it be derided and decried by those who adhere to a more traditional way of ageing rum and consider it a form of cheating?  
  • How many chips are considered the equivalent of one barrel’s surface contact area? How big do they have to be? And, if you want to go to the extreme, why not just use boise or wood powder
  • Is there a limit?
  • Is it forbidden in any way? Is it legal?

I’m not sure. No standard I’ve read addresses any of these issues, not really. Before the sugar and additives debate took over, it was often mentioned (or accusations were made) that extra wood chips were added to barrels of some rums to make the flavour more intense, but this gradually fell out of public consciousness in favour of dosing, additives and wet barrels. I believe that at bottom, ageing can be defined as the complex interaction of wood and spirit over time, and whether the wood is on the outside (barrels) or the inside (chips) can be seen as a matter of terminology, semantics and fine parsing of regulations by the pedants.

But that obscures the fact that a barrel is a barrel, of known and uniform size and internal surface area, a common and well-understood standard used the world around for centuries. Wooden chips or sticks are a totally different thing, and adding an undisclosed amount of chips to an inert vessel just doesn’t seem to be the same, somehow, especially since there are no standards governing how they are, or can be, used. 

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.