Sep 122019
 

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

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

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

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

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

(#656)(86.5/100)

Sep 092019
 

Usually, I don’t worry about not acquiring all those aged, rare or otherwise amazing rums that make the social headlines, since I know that most exceed the reach of my scrawny purse, my ability to beg, or the extent my nonexistent wheedling skills.  Too, after ten years of this, I’ve been fortunate enough to try so many rums that many of my personal unicorns have been tried and written about. Therefore I know it will strike many as rather peculiar that for the last two years I’ve been hunting for two very special rums issued by Tristan Prodhomme – and this one was the one I wanted most

Why?  Because L’Esprit, in making the great white shark of the Diamond 2017, did Velier one step better, creating a rum whose stats would make just about every writer reflexively haul out the word “beast” and be correct to use it, whose profile not just encourages but demands adverbial density — and which I’m convinced will stand the test of time to become a baseline for all the makes-no-sense-but-by-God-we’re-glad-to-have-tried-it white rums that will be issued from now until the Rapture.  It’s nobody’s unicorn but my own, and I’ve been looking for it since the day it got issued.

The Diamond white was confirmed to me as being a Port Mourant unaged pot still rum; it sat there, dissolving a stainless steel tank between 2017 and 2018, until Tristan, in a fit of madness, joy, bravery or unbridled enthusiasm (maybe all these at once) engendered by the birth of his son Edgar in 2017, decided to commemorate the event by releasing 276 bottles at 85% – and I don’t know what happened, but they seemed to sink without a trace. But with the rise of white rums as taste-stuffed forces in their own right, I certainly hope others will get a chance to try something as torqued-to-the-max as this one is.

I’ll get straight to it, then, and merely mention that at 85% ABV, care was taken – I poured, covered the glass, waited, removed the cover, and prudently stepped way back.

Which was the right thing to do because a rapidly expanding blast wave of rumstink assailed me without hesitation.  An enormously pungent cloud of wax and brine and tequila notes hit me broadside, so hot and fierce that somewhere in the basement I heard the Sajous weep. It was a massively powerful, sharp and meaty nose, squirting aromas with the cheerful abandon of a construction haul truck which knows nobody is likely to argue with it for the command of the road. Brine, olives, dates and figs and some sort of faintly rank meat was what I got straight off, batted aside by the smells of licorice, light molasses, sugar water and flowers, before bags and bags of fruit took  over. Ripe yellow guavas, mangoes, papaya, avocado, overripe oranges, pears…the rum just wouldn’t stop spitting out more and more as time went on.

As for the taste, well, wow.  My tongue was battered hard and fast with the sheer range of what was on display here. Being unaged and issued as a white didn’t hurt it or diminish it in the slightest, I assure you, because the integration was so well done that it actually tasted twenty proof points lower. It was redolent of brine.  Of salt fish with Guyanese chilis (ask Gregers about those, I dare ya). Of wax, floor polish, olives. Of licorice. Of fresh scallions in a vegetable soup (I know, right?). Only when these dissipated did more regular flavours timidly come out to let me know they existed…flowers, fruits, lemon meringue pie, raisins, pears, oranges, bitter chocolate, cucumbers and watermelon.  I had this glass going for two hours and it was every bit as pungent at the end as it had been at the beginning, and the finish – epic, long-lasting, hot, spicy – was similarly strong, diminished itself not one bit, and provided closing memories of sweet soya, brine, swank, pears and other light fruits. It was almost a disappointment when the experience was finally over. And lest you think my own experience is a little over-enthusiastic, Jazz Singh from Skylark got poured a shot of this thing at 4pm, and was still tasting, mumbling and drooling rapturously about the profile five hours later when we shoehorned him into an Uber. It’s that kind of rum.

The best thing about it may well be that it reminds us of the sheer range of what rums are, how over-the-top and off-the-scale they can be, even as so many rum makers try to inhabit the inoffensive centre. There are few indies or producers out there who would dare bottle something this feral as single mindedly as Tristan has done here – only the Habitation Velier whites immediately spring to mind.  It’s an unaged white badass that boasts an impeccable pedigree from one of the most famous stills in the world, it has a proof nearly off the scale, and is not for the meek, the beginner, or the careful. One either dives in and takes the entire shot, or not at all — because the Diamond white is a stunner, a slayer, a majestically vulgar shot of pure canecutter sweat, proofed and jacked to the max, and if it’s not one of the best rums I’ve had all year, I can absolutely assure you it will always rank among the most memorable.

(#655)(85/100)


Other notes

I keep score, and the Diamond takes its place among the growliest overproofs ever issued.  I’ve tasted the following:

Sep 042019
 

Outside the independents who release from all points of the compass, the rums du jour are the New Jamaicans, the pot still Bajans, the wooden-still Guyanese, the fancy St Lucian still-experimentals, French island aged and unaged rums, new Asian whites, grogues and of course the clairins (and we’re all waiting for Renegade).  In the maelstrom of so many releases, Latin rums as a class are less popular than in their heydey, outside their countries of origin, and even I tend to view them with some impatience at times, wondering when they’re going to get back in the game with some sh*t-kicking romper-stomper of their own.

Although Diplomatico’s Reserva Exclusiva sells well and remains popular, the company’s online buzz as a whole has sagged in recent years. Efforts to revive the global awareness of the Diplo-brand with exclusive premiums like the Single Vintage or the Ambassador may have succeeded —  but the absence of any stories or articles or reviews or gleeful “I got this!” photos on social media suggests a rather more downbeat story for the company that was once known as Problemático. Their success is therefore hard to gauge in an increasingly crowded and informed marketplace spoiled for choice at every price point (and every additive point, the wit suggests).

Things took an interesting turn around 2017 when No.1 and No.2 versions of the “Distillery Collection” were trotted out with much fanfare. The purpose of the Collection was to showcase other stills they had – a “kettle” (sort of a boosted pot still, for release No.1), a Barbet continuous still (release No.2) and an undefined pot still (release No.3, released in April 2019). These stills, all of which were acquired the year the original company was founded, in 1959, were and are used to provide the distillates which are blended into their various commercial marques, and  until recently, such blends were all we got. One imagines that they took note of DDL’s killer app and the rush by Jamaica and St Lucia to work with the concept and decided to go beyond their blended range into something more specific. 

We’ll look at the No.1 today.  This derives from cane “honey” (which is just rendered cane juice), aged for six years in American oak, a 5000 bottle outturn of 47% ABV. The question of course, is whether it deserves the cachet of “premium” and the price it commands, and whether it displaces the perennial front runner, the DRE (marketed as ‘Botucal’ in Germany).

So, briefly, tasing notes, then.  Nose: started off promisingly with some pencil shavings, fresh and damp sawdust, followed by brine, good olive oil and leather.  These aromas were balanced off with overripe cherries, citrus, apples, ripe grapes, which in turn provided a backdrop for heavier, muskier notes of caramel, molasses and oatmeal cookies. So definitely a step away from the more standard fare, and the 47% ABV helped give the nose a firmness and coherence that a lesser proof would not have.

I also liked the palate — up to a point. It was warm and fragrant and yeasty as bread fresh out of the oven. One could taste vanilla, treacle, oatmeal with chocolate chips and butter, a nice creamy/cereal-y sort of amalgam, and fruits then popped up — light apples, pears, watermelon, raisins, that kind of thing — combining with a delicate citrus line, leading to a short, arm, inoffensive finish that was mostly vanilla, faint brine and fruity notes, all vanishing quite quickly.

Out of six Spanish/Latin-type rums I ran past each other that day when I had nothing better to do, this Diplomatico surprised me by scoring, in aggregate right up there with the Santiago de Cuba 25 YO.  That was unexpected, almost unprecedented given the disparity in ages. The strength had something to do with it (40% SdC vs 47% Diplo), but overall the Diplo No.1 – even within its limitations – is simply more intriguing, and more original, while the Santiago was, well, very much in the vein of much we had seen before (though quite well done, let me hasten to add).

In the past, I expressed hope for a more aggressive, rough-n-tough new rum to elevate the Latin rum category. This isn’t it. For all its new-age thinking, even 47% isn’t enough, and neither is the pot still, not entirely — because although the rum is admittedly different,  one gets the impression that the creators are still too in love with their softer Spanish rums to abandon their more soothing profiles entirely, go the whole hog and aim for a growly glute-flexing pot-still brute clocking in at 50% or greater. In trying to be all things to all people —  gain credit for something uniquely new while not pissing off the loyalists — they steered a middle course which allowed for a decent new rum to emerge….just not one that blew up the stage, the stills and everyone within a radius of fifty yards. And that’s a shame, because that’s what I wanted.

(#653)(83/100)

Jul 222019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#644)(82/100)

Jul 112019
 

Photo (c) 1423.dk

There’s another S.B.S rum from Trinidad I should really be writing about, tried on that magical evening in Paris when I ran heedless and headfirst into the Mauritius 2008 and the Jamaican DOK 2018, but naah – there’s this other one they made back in 2016, probably long sold out and gone, which I remember equally well.  And that’s the S.B.S. Enmore, distilled in 1988, bottled twenty seven years later, with the sort of solid 51.8% ABV strength that would make the near legendary Bristol Spirits PM 1980 nod approvingly and dab a single ethanol tear from its metaphorical eye.

1423, the parent company making the Single Barrel Selection series laboured in obscurity in Denmark for years, it seems to me, before coming to the attention of the larger world with startling suddenness.  All this time – ever since 2009 when they released their first rum from barrel #1423 – this small concern founded by four friends (now five) expanded. And although they were primarily into distribution, they never ceased sourcing and bottling their own rums on the side – this culminated around 2016 with the formation of the more exclusive SBS brand, which, as the name implies, does rums from single barrels.  The first year they bottled juice from Panama, Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Fiji and Guyana, and haven’t stopped running since.

You’ll forgive me for having a soft spot for Guyanese rums.  The profile of the wooden stills’ output appeals to me more than most, when it isn’t dumbed down and tarted up with the sweet stuff (I move off fast when that happens because if I wanted a Tiger Bay strumpet I’d go there to get rolled, thank you very much).  Anyway SBS follows the indie maxim of not messing with what’s in the barrel, so we have something clean here, as I’d expect.

It smells perfectly fine.  It reeks of well polished leather, aromatic tobacco smoke, prunes and unsweetened dark chocolate, and that’s just for openers.  There’s also raisins, salted caramel, brine, an olive or two, some mild coffee and some moist brown sugar that still has the whiff of molasses in it. And behind all that is damp black earth, rotting bananas and a darkness that makes you think perhaps it’s trying to channel a HP Lovecraft or something.

I enjoyed the nose for sure, but it’s the taste that makes or breaks a wooden still rum.  Here, it was excellent – thick, dark, and almost creamy, like Irish coffee. Some licorice and mint chocolate led off, a bit of raisins, toffee, nougat, a twitch of ripe apples.  And then it opened up and out came the coffee, the leather, salt caramel, prunes, plums, blackberries, molasses … and was that ripe avocados with salt I was getting in the background?  Quite possibly – the richness of the rum, both in taste and in texture, could hardly be faulted. And the finish was excellent, solid and breathy, not giving anything new, but sort of summing things up – so, some leather, tobacco, stale coffee grounds, caramel and those fruits again, fainter this time.

Now, there’s no doubt in my mind that this was as Guyanese as pepperpot and DDL – the real question is, which still made the rum?  The label says it’s an Enmore from a pot still, all of SBS’s records (here and here) say “Enmore” and “pot” but the Enmore still itself is a wooden coffey, so that only leaves two options – either the label is wrong, or it’s one of the two other stills, the Port Mourant wooden double pot, or the Versailles wooden single pot. And since Marco makes no mention of the PM still ever going near Enmore (it was moved to Albion, then to Uitvlugt and then to Diamond), and since the Versailles still was in Enmore in 1995 (the last year that estate’s distillery made rum) then the balance of probability says it’s a Versailles, as Marius of Single Cask Rum stated without attribution in his own rundown of the SBS rums. 

Assuming my line of reasoning is correct, then it’s a Versailles-still rum (SBS are digging to clear this mystery up on my behalf after I contacted them about the discrepancy), but maybe this is all just pedantry and anal-retentive detail mongering.  After all, it tastes a lot like the Moon Import Enmore 1988-2011 which supposedly was a coffey still rum from there, and even if it was (or wasn’t), who that drinks this thing really deep-down cares? I thought that the rum was more solid and “thicker” than a true — and usually more elegant — Enmore, yet more civilized than the Versailles rums tend to be. It was deep, dark, and delicious, a very good rum indeed for those who like that profile, and if we can’t identify its origins with precision, at least we can drink it, enjoy it, love it — and thank SBS for bringing it to our attention.  We just don’t see enough of such rums any more and that’s reason enough to appreciate what they did, even without the business about which still it came off of.

(#640)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Distilled November 1988, bottled October 2016.  For my money that’s a 28 year old
  • Many thanks to Nicolai Wachmann, who sourced me the sample quite a while back. I seem to have lost my glass-and-sample-bottle picture, hence my using stock photos
  • The rum is red brown in colour, very pretty in a glass.
Jul 012019
 

M&G out of Cabo Verde, as noted in the review of their tasty little white, stands for Musica e Grogue, a hat tip to the love of island music and island rum that characterized the founders, Jean-Pierre Engelbach (with his fascinating involvement in the dramatic and musical arts over the decades), and Simão Évora, a local Cabo Verde grogue producer and music-devotee. Using one of the five grogue producers in the tiny village of Tarrafal (population = 450, stills = 5, a stat that fascinates everyone who’s read it) they produce two main products, the white, and a slightly more out-of-nappies version, the Velha which stands for “aged” in the local vernacular.

Essentially, the Velha is just their white grogue that’s been allowed to sleep a while longer.  It has the same 10-15 day natural fermentation of organic, cane-derived juice, and the same distillation in a fire fed pot still, which is then collected and set to mature.  Now, back in 2017 they obtained eight oak barrels imported from a French winemaker from the Gaillac terroir (Brocol varietal), and not having a warehouse, proceeded to dig a cellar for them in the middle of the village (!!), and left the grogue to age there for 13 months, then bottled it in 2018 with an outturn of less than a thousand bottles — 604, to be exact — captured at a firm 44%.

With such a short ageing cycle we might be anticipating something a bit off the reservation, slightly tamed by the barrels and the sub-50% strength. Naah, not really. It smelled sweet and soft, of fanta and sprite and a bowl of red olives.  There was a whiff of anise and vanilla and oak and coffee grounds, and after some minutes, also raisins, dates, figs, and aromatic pipe tobacco, flowers and a sly little wine note set off by just a hint of lemon zest.

That was quite a medley on the nose, yet oddly the palate didn’t have quite have as many tunes playing. It was initially briny with those olives coming back, a little peanut brittle, salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, all held back.  What I liked was its general softness and ease of delivery – there was honey and cream, set off by a touch of citrus and tannics, all in a pleasant and understated sort of combination that had a surprisingly good balance that one would not always imagine a rhum so young could keep juggling as well as it it did.  Or as long. Even the finish, while simple, came together well – it gave up some short and aromatic notes, slightly woody and tannic, and balanced them out with soft fruits, pipe tobacco, coffee and vanilla, before exhaling gently on the way out. Nice.

Since I’ve started searching out and encountering these rums from Cabo Verde, I have been wondering about the dichotomy between how I had thought they would taste and how they actually tasted. That misconception – mine, at any rate – derived from an almost complete lack of familiarity with Cabo Verde grogues.  So far I’ve tried just a few, but those few have impressed me quite a bit.  While not yet world beaters, they show that the best new rums (or undiscovered old ones) are not always the biggest names or those with the loudest voices or even the best reputations, because we just don’t know enough about so many of them, even now. The M&G Velha and the Natural — quietly and cogently and without fuss — make the point that when these rums become available, it’s well worth giving them a try even if we never heard of them before,  just to see where else rums can go, how well they can be made, and how good they can taste.

(#637)(84/100)


Other notes

While the Velha and the white are the main products of the company, M&G also make a number of grogue-based punches at around 22-25 % ABV that are flavoured with local fruit.

Back label translation:

“This blonde rum comes from the terroir of Tarrafal of Mont Trigo on the island of Santo Antao (Cape Verde). For decades, our producers have been carrying on the tradition of making the Grogue, an artisanal rum with a surprising flavor, with tastes of fruit, cane and spices. Cultivated on a volcanic soil, without fertilizer or pesticide, the sugar cane benefits from dry tropical climate and good irrigation

It comes from a fair trade. Aged for more than a year in Bordeaux barrels available in our cellar, this grogue velha has acquired woody flavors that enhance the original taste and confer a beautiful roundness.

Exceptional cuvée limited to 604 bottles.”

Jun 202019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#634)(83/100)


Additional background

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

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


Other Notes

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

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

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

A first release limited to 639 bottles

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 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.
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