Oct 142019
 

At the opposite end of the scale from the elegant and complex mid-range rum of the Appleton 12 year old – a Key Rum in its own right – lies that long-standing rum favourite of proles and puritans, princes and peasants — the rough ‘n’ tough, cheerfully cussin’ and eight-pack powerful rippedness of the  J. Wray & Nephew White overproof, an unaged white rum bottled at a barely bearable 63%, and whose screaming yellow and green label is a fixture in just about every bar around the world I’ve ever been in and escorted out of, head held high and feet held higher.

This is a rum that was one of the first I ever wrote about back in the day when I wasn’t handing out scores, a regular fixture on the cocktail circuit, and an enormously popular rum even after all these years.  It sells like crazy both locally and in foreign lands, is bought by poor and rich alike, and no-one who’s ever penned a rum review could dare ignore it (nor should they). I don’t know what its sales numbers are like, but I honestly believe that if one goes just by word of mouth, online mentions and perusal of any bar’s rumshelf, then this must be one of the most well regarded Jamaican (or even West Indian) rums on the planet, as well as one of the most versatile.

Even in its home country the rum has enormous street cred.  Like the Guyanese Superior High Wine, it’s a local staple of the drinking scene and supposedly accounts for more than three quarters of all rum sold in Jamaica, and it is tightly woven into the entire cultural fabric of the island. It’s to be found at every bottom-house lime, jump-up or get-together.  Every household – expatriate or homeboys – has a bottle taking up shelf space, for pleasure, for business, for friends or for medicinal purposes. It has all sorts of social traditions: crack a bottle and immediately you pour a capful on the ground to return some to those who aren’t with you. Have a housewarming, and grace the floor with a drop or two; touch of the rheumatiz? – rub dem joints with a shot; mek a pickney…put a dab ‘pon he forehead if he sick; got a cold…tek a shot and rub a shot. And so on. 

This is not even counting its extraordinary market penetration in the tiki and bar scene (Martin Cate remarked that the White with Ting is the greatest highball in the world). There aren’t many rums in the world which have such high brand awareness, or this kind of enduring popularity across all strata of society.  Like the Appleton 12, it almost stands in for all of Jamaica in a way all of its competitors, old and new, seek to emulate. What’s behind it? Is it the way it smells, the way it tastes? Is it the affordable price, the strength? The marketing? Because sure as hell, it ranks high in all the metrics that make a rum visible and appreciated, and that’s even with the New Jamaicans from Worthy park and Hampden snapping at its heels.

Coming back at it after so many years made me remember something of its fierce and uncompromising nature which so startled me back in 2010. It’s a pot and column still blend (and always has been), yet one could be forgiven for thinking that here, the raw and rank pot-still hooligan took over and kicked column’s battie. It reeked of glue and acetones mixed up with a bit of gasoline good only for 1950s-era Land Rovers.  What was interesting about it was the pungent herbal and grassy background, the rotting fruits and funky pineapple and black bananas, flowers, sugar water, smoke, cinnamon, dill, all sharp and delivered with serious aggro.

Taste wise, it was clear that the thing was a mixing agent, far too sharp and flavourful to have by itself, though I know most Islanders would take it with ice and coconut water, or in a more conventional mix.  It presented rough and raw and joyous and sweaty and was definitely not for the meek and mild of disposition, wherein lay its attraction — because in that fierce uniqueness of profile lay the character which we look for in rums we remember forever.  Here, that was conveyed by a sharp and powerful series of tastes – rotten fruit (especially bananas), orange peel, pineapples, soursop and creamy tart unsweetened fresh yoghurt. There was something of the fuel-reek of a smoky kerosene stove floating around, cloves, licorice, peanut, mint, bitter chocolate.  It was a little dry, and had no shortage of funk yet remained clearly separable from Hampden and Worthy Park rums, and reminded me more of a Smith & Cross or Rum Fire, especially when considering the long, dry, sharp finish with its citrus and pineapple and wood-chip notes that took the whole experience to its long and rather violent (if tasty) conclusion.  

So maybe it’s all of these things I wrote about – taste, price, marketing, strength, visibility, reputation.  But unlike many of the key rums in this series, it remains fresh and vibrant year in and year out. I would not say it’s a gateway rum like the Pusser’s 15 or the Diplo Res Ex or the El Dorado 21, those semi-civilized drinks which introduce us to the sippers and which we one day move beyond.  It exists at the intersection of price and quality and funk and taste, and skates that delicate line between too much and too little, too rough and almost-refined. You can equally have it in a high-class bar in Manhattan, or from cheap plastic tumblers with Ting while bangin’ down de dominos in the sweltering heat of a Trenchtown yard. In its appeal to all the classes of society that choose it, you can see a Key Rum in action: and for all these reasons, it remains, even after all the years it’s been available, one of the most popular — even one of the best — rums of its kind ever made, in Jamaica, in the West Indies, or, for that matter, anywhere else.

(#665)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Unaged pot and column still blend
  • The colours on the label channel the colours of the Jamaican flag
Sep 232019
 

If you doubt the interconnectedness of the modern world, let me relate this circular story. About three or four years ago Gregers Nielsen (now of the Danish company 1423 and someone I enjoy heckling in every rumfest I see him at) introduced me to Richland Rum from Georgia, which I thought was nice, if perhaps not a world beating standout. Fast forward a couple of years and I’m doing research on rums of Africa and in looking at Liberia I come across Sangar rums, made by an expatriate American who was consulting with – Richland Rum. Another year passes, and at the 2019 Berlin rumfest the very first stand I’m told to go to is a new rum from Liberia – Sangar.  And who told me this and pointed in their direction? Gregers…who then ended up working two booths over. I rest my case.

That amusing if irrelevant tale aside, here is some of the background of Sangar. My initial research a year or so back created some confusion – the application for equity  investment called it Sehzue Distillers; the contact email at the time said Nimba Valley Rum and the official site referred to Miseh Distilling even though the website is for Sangar rum – but in all cases the principal force behind it is Mike Sehzue, an American West Point graduate with an MBA whose father was born in Liberia.

Mr. Sehzue had no idea how to make rum, but on a visit to Liberia in 2010, he became more aware of the local cane juice alcohol with its long grass-roots history and, realizing that expertise and raw materials were on hand, he decided to open a medium sized distillery both to encourage industry in a country now recovering from a protracted and bitter civil war, and to showcase the potential of locally made rum.  A chance meeting led to an introduction (in 2014) to Erik and Karin Vonk of Richland Rum distinction and they provided him with the encouragement and technical advice which permitted him to open his distillery for business a few years later. The result is the only rum they make at the moment, the 40% Sangar White, sold primarily in Liberia, with the festival circuit raising awareness for export plans to the USA, EU and UK in later 2019 and 2020.

The rum is pot-still produced and derives from cane juice, not molasses. Sangar has no cane fields of its own, and contracts with seventeen or so local farmers in the surrounding area to source its cane, which is brought to the distillery and crushed within eight hours of cutting, with the juice put to ferment for five days.  Then it’s run through their copper pot still, and bar filtration for sediment, is bottled pretty much as it is, unaged, clear, at a relatively demure 40% (which I suspect is so that it can more easily be appreciated by the target audience in the USA).

For the hardcore rum junkie, 40% would not normally excite serious interest (although the prospect of trying a new and relatively unknown African rum absolutely should), but trust me, the combination of a rum incorporating magic words like “pot still” and “unaged” and “clear” was and is well worth seeking out when it comes to the festival near you because the aromas and tastes are barely held in check even by those softer standards. The nose, for example announced its potential badassery with an initial tantara of salt, wax, gherkins in vinegar and just enough bite to make one wonder if a red chili wasn’t hiding in there someplace. Brine and olives were at the fore, followed by crisp green apples, lemon zest, cinnamon, and cumin.

Tastewise, I would have preferred something released at a higher proof, because the profile was mild instead of forceful, slightly muddled instead of really crisp — and while that will allow anyone to drink it neat without an issue, it also muted the flavours, almost losing some, that could have used a little beefing up.  Clearly discernible were citrus, light fruit (papaya, white guavas, pears), sugar water, watermelons, sweet green peas (!!), and the rum retained just enough of the attitude to permit a good interaction with the brine and olives with the lighter components. Unsurprisingly the finish was short and wispy, mostly a mix of sweet and salt, soya, light fruits and a dash of cumin to close up the show.

So let’s sum up, then. The balance was excellent, the interplay of flavours spot on, and I was quietly impressed that so much could be packed into a package with so little aggro. Choosing my words carefully, I can say that this is a near perfect 40% white homunculus of a rumlet, and there will be an audience for it, no question – but it won’t be those who cut their teeth on agricole blancs north of 50%, for whom this will be an interesting diversion without replacing their pet loves.  That said, there’s nothing at all wrong with it – it delivers at its proof point for those who appreciate that, and for those looking for an interestingly taste-filled mild white sipper, it delivers there as well.

Sangar points to several developing themes in today’s rumworld, which I‘ve almost  inadvertently been following through my reviews and only become clearer in hindsight. First there’s the gradually increasing amount of micro-distilleries who aren’t seeking to make whisky or gin or vodka (or everything at once, as much as they can), but rum, full stop.  Bar the United States, these micros are in remote areas of the world far from the Caribbean, like Africa and the Far East. And they seem to have a near-unnatural love for issuing unaged white rums at higher proofs, which is a subset of rums drawing more attention in recent years, especially in the cocktail circuit

With respect to that last remark, Sangar is something of an outlier, since the white reviewed here is bottled at standard. And the agricole blancs from the old and proud houses of the French West Indies are not in danger of losing their pride of place any time soon, not to the Far Eastern micros, or to Sangar. But as I noted above, with the interconnectedness of the world and transmigration of skills to any place with enough desire and smarts to make a good rum, it’s possibly just a matter of time before Sangar becomes a rum producer who really does earn the use of both the words “artisanal” and “craft” … without turning the words into the meaningless marketing twaddle that afflicts so many others.

(#659)(82/100)


Other notes

Sangar has small quantities of rum ageing away in port casks in Liberia: it’s unknown when these will be released as aged rums to the market, but it does point to their long term development strategy.

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:

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)

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 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 262019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#627)(84/100)


Other Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#625)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Laodi comes from the two words — “Lao” for the country and “Di” meaning “good”
  • The company also makes a lightly-aged brown-coloured rum (with an interesting variation on the ageing process), as well as a set of “married” rums which are infused or spiced and released at lower proof.
  • Rumporter magazine has an excellent 2017 article by Damien Sagnier on the company and its production techniques, which I drew on for the more technical aspects – the assumption is that these have not changed since then, of course.
  • The label is a masterpiece of minimalism, but the counterpoint to that is that it doesn’t actually provide much in the way of information – most of what I’m telling you comes from brochures, webpages and a meandering conversation at the booth at the 2019 Paris Rhumfest where I filched a hefty sample.  
Apr 242019
 

Although the grogues of Cabo Verde have been seeping through our rumconsciousness for years now, it’s a curious thing that there are almost no reviews to be found online at all. All we have is rumours and quiet whispers in the dark corners of smoke-filled tiki-bars, random small comments on FB, and stories that Luca Gargano of Velier has been sniffing about the islands for years, perhaps putting together another series of organic, pure single rums designed to wow our socks off.

2019 might at last, then, be the year to change that, as grogues were quite visible in the Paris rhumfest in April, and one of them was the Barbosa grogue, which I just so happened to try at the Habitation Velier booth, where, after exchanging pleasantries with Daniel Biondi, I rather cheekily helped myself to a hefty shot of this thing and sat back to await results. Not without a little trepidation, mind you.

Because, you see, the lost world mystique hanging around them creates an aura about these almost unknown rums made in remote lands in traditional ways, in a way that make them rums of real interest. They’re supposedly throwbacks to the way “rums ought to be,” the way “they were once made” and all sorts of stuff like that. Artisanal, untamed, simple rums, brewed the same way for generations, even centuries, akin to Haiti’s clairins or the original cachacas. Which may be why Luca keeps going back to the place.

Such preconceptions made the tasting of the Barbosa grogue (or, as it is noted on the label “Amado & Vicente Barbosa Grogue Pure Single Rum”) an odd experience – because in reality, it conformed to few of the profile markers and tasting notions I was expecting, based on the remarks above. The nose of the 45% white was decidedly not a sledgehammer to the face, and not an over-amped nostril-shredder ready to give week-long nosebleeds. Instead it was actually quite gentle, almost relaxed, with light aromas of olives in brine, green grapes, pineapples, apricots (minus the sweet syrup), grass, cooking herbs like dill, and quite a lot of sugar water, more than in most blancs I’ve tried. It wasn’t hot, it wasn’t fierce and it wasn’t feral, just a real easy rum to appreciate for smell alone.

This was also the case when tasted. The bright and clean fruity-ester notes were more in evidence here than on the nose — green apples, sultanas, hard yellow mangoes, thyme, more pineapples, a bag of white guavas and watery pears. There was a hint of danger in the hint of cucumbers in white vinegar with a pimento or two floating around, but this never seriously came forward, a hint was all you got; and at best, with some concentration, there were some additional herbs (dill, cilantro), grass, sugar water and maybe a few more olives. I particularly liked the mild finish, by the way – clear and fruity and minty, with thyme, wet grass, and some almonds and white chocolate, sweet and unassuming, just right for what had come before.

The Barbosa grogue is produced by Montenegro distillery in Santiago, the main Cabo Verde island, and derive from organically grown sugar cane grown very close to the sea, in Praia Mangue. The cane is harvested manually, crushed right away and naturally fermented for six to ten days before being run through small wood-fired 350-liter copper pot stills (see picture here) – this version is the first 2019 batch, unaged. The manager and co-owner of the distillery, Manuel Barbosa Amado, is a 47 year old agronomist and his family has been in the sugar cane and grogue business for the last fifty years or so – in what might be seen as a peculiar honour, it is the only grogue in Velier’s 2019 catalogue. I was told they might have called their product Montenegro after their own distillery, but ran into trademark issues with an Italian amaro maker of the same title and so named it for illustrious family members Vicente and Amado Barbosa, about whom I know unfortunately nothing

All that out of the way, what to make of this interesting variation of rum, then? Well, for one thing, I felt that 45% strength was perhaps too light to showcase its unique nature…jacking it up a few extra points might be worth it. It started off gentle, and underneath the sleek and supple silkiness of that initial taste you could sense some serious animal lurking, waiting for its own moment to come out and claw your face off. But this never happened. It stayed low-key and seemed surprisingly reluctant to come out and play with any sort of violence. So, a tasty and a fun drink, the purity evident, the unmessed-with nature of it a blessing…yet not different enough from better-known and better-regarded French island blancs to carve out its own niche in a market with ever increasing amounts of artisanal white rums competing for eyeballs and shelf space.

I’m not saying it must have madness and fury to succeed; nor does it need to rack up street cred by being like the Mexican Paranubes or the Sajous, the other poster children for cheerfully nutso white rums. We must accept that the Barbosa grogue lacks that distinctive spark of crazy which would immediately set it apart from any other rums on the planet, something specifically and seriously its own. But I also believe you can buy it and love it exactly as it is and you won’t be disappointed – because it is a more civilized and elegant rum than you might expect. And it’s worth a more serious look and maybe a buy, just to sample the sippable, approachable and enjoyable charms it presents, and get a whiff of something interesting, even new.

(#618)(81/100)


Other notes

  • Grogue is the local creole version of the word grog, and it hails from the same source.
  • Cabo Verde (or Cape Verde) is a group of ten Atlantic islands off the west coast of Africa due west of Senegal.  They are part of the same geographical eco-region as the Canaries and Azores and Madeira. Unlike them, Cabo Verde is independent and not an autonomous part of any European nation.
  • Three kinds of cane are harvested: Nossa Terra Pieta, Nossa Terra Branca, and Bourbon varietals.