Oct 122020
 

Every now and then you come across a rum in its nascent stages which you just itch to write about — even if it’s not (yet) for sale. The Mim from Ghana was one such, an aged St. Aubin was another, and last year, Reuben Virasami (currently tending bar in Toronto) passed on a new Vietnamese rhum that I felt really deserved rather more attention than it got (even from those who made it). 

In brief, two expat Frenchmen, Jérémy Marcillaud and Nicolas Plesse, seeing all that lovely cane growing in Vietnam, were looking around for something to do with it and decided – without a lick of experience or any concept of the difficulties – to start a small distillery and make some juice.  Perhaps they were inspired by the new Asians like Mia, Vientiane, Laodi, Issan, Chalong Bay or Sampan — who can tell? — and got their little outfit L’Arrangé off the ground; designed and had an inox stainless steel pot still built locally (they call it “The Beast”); contracted local farmers to supply cane, and proceeded through trial and error and many attempts over 6-8 months, to finally get some cane-juice agricole-style rhum that was actually worth bottling, and drinking (in December 2016). 

Their aim was always to make a white rhum but they found rather more immediate success using the spirit for fruit infusions and arrangés (hence the name), and, as Jeremy told me when I contacted him, to export a good white requires a rather more scaled-up enterprise (and better economies of scale) than they were capable of doing at that time.  As such, they sold their spiced rhums and arrangés to local bars and tried to raise visibility via the Saigon Rum Club and the city’s rum festival…but for my money, it’s that base white rhum they made that captures my interest and hopefully one day can be a commercially successful endeavour for these guys.

L’Arrange Company Logo

So, no fancy label or bottle pic to go with the article this time – as I said, it’s not for sale. That said, these are the basics: it’s a cane juice rhum, pot still, rested for four months (sorry, ye detail-mongers, I forgot to ask about the yeast, though it seems to be a combination of locally available and wild yeast), squeezed off the still at 70% ABV then diluted to 55%. After that it goes into whatever products they’re playing with that day. Me, I tried my sample neat.

The smell is definitely suggestive of pale pot still rumstink: salt, wax, glue, olives and a trace of peeling rubber on a hot day on the highway.  It turns sweet later, though it remains rough and sharp, and provides aromas of watermelons, papayas, ripe mangoes, and just a touch of passion fruit. While it’s not quite as civilized to sniff as some of the other Asian whites mentioned above, it isn’t far behind them either.

The same thing goes for the palate. It’s rough and jagged on the tongue, but has a delicious and oily thick sweet tang to it: papaya, pineapple, mangoes, sugar water, strawberries, more watermelons. There is a sort of crisp snap to it, combining sugar, flowers,citrus peel, brine — even some very faint hints of vegetable soup.  Finish was short, intense, sharp and redolent of flowers, citrusd, sugar water and thyme.

Overall, this rhum not one you would, on balance, rate as highly as others with more market presence.  You would likely try it blind, shrug and remark as you walked away “Meh – it’s just another white rhum. I’ve had better” And that makes sense, for its shortcomings haven’t all been ironed out yet – it’s rough and sharp, the balance is a bit off (tilts rather more to the sour and salt than co-existing harmoniously with the sweet and umami). But I feel that might simply be inexperience at making a pure single white rhum and their being okay with producing one made for adding fruit and spices to, not to drink by itself.

Myself I don’t drink spiced rums or arrangés. I don’t have to, with all the other juice out there. Under normal circumstances, I’d just walk away from this one.  But that white…it was pungently original, yes, rough and unpolished, sure…it lacks some of the polish and sure confidence that marked, say, Mhoba (after their years of tinkering), and yet it stayed with me. Underneath was a real potential for something even better, and that’s why I am drawing attention to this little company that few outside Asia have ever heard of.  Jérémy and Nicolas might one day be successful enough to market a white, maybe even export a bit around Asia, attend a rumfest to show it off. I can hope, I guess.  And all I’m saying is that if you ever see them demonstrating their work, and one of their bottles is an unaged 55% white, you could do a whole lot worse than giving it a try, because I honestly believe it’ll be one of the most interesting things in the neighborhood that day.

(#769)(79/100)


Other notes

  • I drew on the very interesting 2018 Saigoneer interview (timestamp 00:25:14) for some of the supplementary details, and the company kindly filled in the remainder. 
  • It may be just my imagination, but the company logo reminds me of the jungle scenes of the French artist Henri Rousseau.  I quite like it.
Sep 142020
 

It’s perhaps unfair that only with the emergence of the 2016 HERR 10 YO and the LMDW 60th Anniversary white in the same year, that the distillery of Savanna on Reunion began to pick up some serious street cred. I think it’s one of those under-the-radar distilleries that produces some of the best rums in the world, but it always and only seems to be some special limited edition like the Cuvee Maison Blanche, or a “serious” third party bottling (e.g. from Habitation Velier, Rum Nation or Wild Parrot) that gets people’s ears to prick up.  And it’s then that you hear the stealthy movement of wallets in pockets as people slink into a shop, furtively fork over their cash, and never speak of their purchase for fear the prices might go ape before they get a chance to buy everything in sight.

Such focus on seemingly special bottlings ignores a lot of what Savanna actually produces. Starting around 2013 or so, in line with the emerging trend of own-distillery bottlings (as opposed to bulk sales abroad) done by well-known Caribbean island distilleries, they took the unheralded and almost unacknowledged lead in constantly producing all sorts of small not-quite-limited batches, for years and years (the 5 year old and 7 year old “Intense” rums were examples of that). And, as I’ve observed before, it’s good to remember that Savanna’s rums span an enormous stylistic range of both cane juice rhums and molasses based ones, single barrel and blends, standard strength and full proof, and underneath all of those are rums like the seemingly basic Lontan White 40% rum we’re looking at today.

The word “Lontan” is difficult to pin down – in Haitian Creole, it means “long” and “long ago” while in old French it was “lointain” and meant “distant” and “far off”, and neither explains why Savanna picked it (though many establishments around the island use it in their names as well, so perhaps it’s an analogue to the english “Ye Olde…”).  Anyway, aside from the traditional, creol, Intense and Metis ranges of rums (to which have now been added several others) there is this Lontan series – these are all variations of Grand Arôme rums, finished or not, aged or not, full-proof or not, which are distinguished by a longer fermentation period and a higher ester count than usual, making them enormously flavourful.

Does that work, here? Not as much as I’d like – the strength is partly responsible for that, making it seem somewhat one-dimensional.  The nose gentle and clean, some brine and olives, pineapple, watermelon, green apples and a touch of herbs, yet overall the smell of it lacks something of an agricole rhum’s crispness, or an unaged molasses rum’s complexity, and if there are more esters than normal here, they’re doing a good job of remaining undercover. It actually reminds me more of a slightly aged cachaca than anything else.

It’s an easy rum to drink neat, by the way, because the 40% does not savage your tonsils the way a full proof would.  On that level, it works quite nicely.  But that same weakness makes flavours faint and hard to come to grips with. So while there are some subtle notes of sugar water, anise, vanilla, mint, coffee (a dulce de leche, if you will) and cumin, they lack spark and verve, and you have to strain hard to pick them up….hardly the point of a drink like this. Since the finish just follows on from there – faint, breathy and <poof> it’s gone – about the best one can say is that at least it’s not a bland nothing.  You retain the soft memory of fruits, pineapple, cumin, vanilla, and then the whole thing is done.

Ultimately then, this is almost a starter or (at best) a mid-tier rum, clocking in at €35 or so in Europe. I have often bugled my liking for brutish whites that channel the primitive licks of full strength rums made in the old style for generations without caring about modern technology, but this isn’t one of them. That said, it has more in its jock than the bland anonymous filtered whites that are the staple of bars the world over, however…so if you eschew full-proof ester-squirting whites and prefer something a bit more toned down and easy on both the palate and the wallet, then this one is definitely one you could – and probably should – take a longer look at than I did.

(#760)(77/100)


Other Notes

  • Column still rum, deriving from molasses (hence the “Traditonnel” on the label)
  • For a more in depth discussion of “Grand Arôme” see the Wonk’s article.
  • As before, many thanks and a hat tip to Nico Rumlover for the sample
Jul 222020
 

By now most will be aware of my admiration for unshaven, uncouth and unbathed white rums that reek and stink up the joint and are about as unforgettable as Mike Tyson’s first fights.  They move well away from the elegant and carefully-nurtured long-aged offerings that command high prices and elicit reverent murmurs of genteel appreciation: that’s simply not on the program for these, which seek to hammer your taste buds into the ground without apology. I drink ‘em neat whenever possible, and while no great cocktail shaker myself, I know they make some mixed drinks that ludicrously tasty.

So let’s spare some time to look at this rather unique white rum released by Habitation Velier, one whose brown bottle is bolted to a near-dyslexia-inducing name only a rum geek or still-maker could possibly love. And let me tell you, unaged or not, it really is a monster truck of tastes and flavours and issued at precisely the right strength for what it attempts to do.

The opening movements of the rum immediately reveal something of its originality – it smells intensely and simultaneously salty and sweet and estery, like a fresh fruit salad doused with sugar water and vinegar at the same time. It combines mangoes, guavas, watermelons, green apples, unripe apricots and papayas in equal measure, and reminds me somewhat of the Barik white rum from Haiti I tried some time before. There’s also a briny aroma to it, of olives, bell peppers, sour apple cider, sweet soya sauce, with additional crisp and sharp (and plentiful) fruity notes being added as it opens up.  And right there in the background is a sly tinge of rottenness, something meaty going off, a kind of rumstink action that fortunately never quite overwhelms of gains the upper hand.

When tasted it presents  a rather more traditional view of an unaged white agricole rhum, being sharp, sweet, light, crisp.  Herbs take over here – mint, dill, fresh-mown grass and cane peel for the most part.  There’s a lovely sweet and fruity tang to the rhum at this point, and you can easily taste sugar water, light white fruits (guavas, apples, cashews, pears, papayas), plus a delicate hint of flowers and citrus peel, all commingling nicely.  As you drink it more it gets warmer and easier and some of that crisp clarity is lost – but I think that overall that’s to its benefit, and the 59% ABV makes it even more palatable as a neat pour and sip.  Certainly it goes down without pain or spite, and while there is less here than on other parts of the drink, you can still get closing notes of watermelon, citrus, pears, sugar water, and a last lemony touch that’s just right.

Evaluating a rum like this requires some thinking, because there are both familiar and odd elements to the entire experience.  It reminds me of clairins, but also of the Paranubes, even a mezcal or two, all mixed up with a good cachaca and a nice layer of light sweet. The smells are good, if occasionally too energetic, and tumble over each other in their haste to get out, but the the tastes are spot on and there’s never too much of any one of them and I was reminded a little of the quality of that TCRL Fiji 2009 I could never quite put my finger on – this rhum was equally unforgettable.

The rum grew on me in a most peculiar way.  At first, not entirely sure what to make of it, and not satisfied with its overall balance, I felt it shouldn’t do better than 82.  A day later, I tried it again, unable to get it out of my mind, and rated it a more positive 84 because now I could see more clearly where it was going.  But in the end, a week later and with four more tries under my belt, I had to admit how well assembled the rum truly was, and settled on my final score.  Any rum which grows in the mind like that, getting better each time, is the sure mark of one that deserves a lot more attention.  In this case it remains one of my happy discoveries of the entire Habitation Velier line, and is a great advertisement for both agricoles and the more unappreciated and overlooked white rums of no particular age.

(#746)(85/100)


Other notes

  • The name refers to the German still used to make the rhum
  • This 1st edition of this rhum had a brown bottle.  The 2nd edition uses a clear one. Both editions derive from a 2015 harvest.
  • From Bielle distillery on Marie Galante
  • It’s a little early for the Rumaniacs series but two of the members have reviewed it, here, neither as positively as I have.  My sample came from the same source as theirs.
Mar 122020
 

The Cor Cor “Green”, cousin to the molasses-based “Red” (both are actually white – the colours refer to their labels’ hues) is an order of magnitude more expensive than its scarlet labelled relative, largely because it is made from cane juice, not molasses, and therefore rather more seasonal in production.  The question is, how does the cane juice white compare when run up against its intriguing (if off-beat) molasses-based white. Both are, after all, made by the same master blender who wanted to apply an awamori sensibility to making rum.

Tasting the Red and Green side by side, then, is an instructive experience, akin to doing a flight of white Habitation Veliers. Given that everything else is constant – sugar cane, the pot still distillation apparatus, the resting in steel tanks (neither is “aged” in the classical sense), the lack of any additives or filtration – then the only thing that should make a difference in the taste is the molasses versus cane juice, and the length and method of the fermentation cycle.

But even that is quite enough to make a clear difference, I assure you.  The Green is most definitely not the Red, and is discernibly an agricole style cane juice rum with all this implies, filtered through the mind of the Japanese culture and love for their own spirits.  However, let it also be noted that it is not a standard agricole by any means…and therein lies both its attraction to the curious, and potentially its downfall to the masses.

To illustrate the point, consider how it noses: it’s intriguing and pleasantly flinty, and has the initial tang of mineral water into which have been dunked some salt and olives, a sort of poor man’s martini.  There is a background of sweet and light florals and white fruit, and if you stick with it, also something more maritime – seaweed and iodine, I suggest. It’s mild, which is a function of the living room strength at which it’s issued (40% ABV), and the memory you’ll carry away from smelling it, is of the sea: brine and iodine and herbaceousness, only partially balanced off by sweeter and lighter components.

The taste is where the resemblance to a French island agricole comes more clearly into focus. Sweet sugar water, fresh-cut grass, citrus peel, some eucalyptus and gherkins in pimento vinegar, and a very nicely balanced series of light fruit notes – papaya, guavas, pears, watermelon.  As I said above, it’s different from the Red (to be expected – the sources are Montague and Capulet, after all) yet some minor family resemblance is noticeable; and although the rum tastes a little watery, the finish lasts so long and it coats the mouth and tongue so well, it allows it to skate past such concerns, leaving behind the fond memories of miso soup, pimento, apple cider and some citrus…and, of course, an olive or two.

Even though the Green was offbeat in its own way, I liked it more than the Red. It’s not really a true agricole (comes off a pot still, for example, produced with a different distillation philosophy) and lacks something of that feral nature of those whites bottled in the Caribbean that have spoiled me.  Clairins and blancs are a take-no-prisoners bunch of badass 50% rowdies, and I like them precisely for that air of untamed wild joy with which they gallop and spur across the palate — and the Green is not at that level.

So, it’s unusual, and decent, and complies with some of the notes we want and look for in a cane juice rum.  It’ll excite some interest in the regular rum world for sure. But to my mind it’s not yet aggressive enough, strong enough, good enough, in a way that would make a bitchin’ daiquiri or a ti-punch, or cause a drinker to wake up, sit up, and say wtf in Japanese. Not yet. Though admittedly, if they stick with it and continue developing juice like this, then they’re getting close to making a rum that does precisely that.

(#710)(82/100)


Other Notes

The label is a stylized map of South Borodino island (the Russians named it so in the 19th century after the ship Borodino surveyed it – the Japanese name is Minamidaito) where the distillery is, overlaid with a poem I’ll quote here without comment:

Bats, dancing in the night sky
Suspended magic, falling in drops
These are the things
That make men and women covet love
This is the magic of rum,
a sugarcane love potion

Mar 052020
 

Given Japan has several rums which have made these pages (Ryoma, Ogasawara, Nine Leaves, Helios, Seven Seas), by now most should be aware that just about all of them source their molasses out of the southern islands of Okinawa, if not actually based there themselves. The Grace distillery, who make the Cor Cor line of rums, conforms to that informal rule, yet is unusual in two ways – first, it is still very much a manual operation, somewhat surprising for a nation with a massive technological infrastructure; and it produces rums from both molasses (the red labelled rum we’re looking at today) and cane juice (the green labelled one). 

Cor Cor as a title has no deep transliterative meaning — it is derived from English (the opposite is true for games maker Atari, as a counter-example) and uses the first letters of the words “coral” (the island where it’s made is formed from a coral reef) and “corona” (which the island resembles). Grace Distillery itself was formed in 2004 in a building that used to be a small airport terminal, on the tiny Okinawan island of Minamidaito, and use a steel pot still, and do not practice ageing – another point of departure. Instead, their rum is rested in inert tanks and after a suitable period determined by their master blender, it’s bottled at 40%, as-is, unfiltered, uncoloured, un-added-to.

Some of my research shed some interesting light on the profile of the rum, but I think I’ll leave that for the end: suffice it to say that this was both normal with respect to other Japanese rums, and abnormal with respect to what we in the west are used to. The nose was sweet, light and faintly briny, with a metallic medicinal hint to it.  I knew there was more to come, and so set it aside and came back to it over time, and picked out black pepper, vegetable soup, biryani spices, seaweed. And, later, also dry cereal, butter, olives and flowers. Frankly, I found it a little confusing – it was nice and a ways better than the rank meatiness of the Seven Seas which had shuddered and put away – but nosed at a tangent from the norm of “regular” rums I’ve had more often.  

Palate – oh, much nicer.  Dry dusty citrus-infused sugar water, peas, salty cashews. There was a dusting of salt and cooking spices and miso soup, with lemon grass and sour cream somewhere in there.  I liked the development better, because what had been confusing about the nose gelled into a better harmony. Still a little off-base, mind you…but in a nice way. I particularly enjoyed the herbal and iodine background (not overdone, more a hint than a bludgeon) which set off the light fruit and brine in a way that complemented, not distracted.  Finish was long and dry, sugary and watery, redolent of delicate flowers and fruit. It was surprisingly durable, for a rum at 40%.

The Cor Cor Red was more generous on the palate than the nose, and as with many Japanese rums I’ve tried, it’s quite distinctive. The tastes were somewhat offbase when smelled, yet came together nicely when tasted.  Most of what we might deem “traditional notes” — like nougat, or toffee, caramel, molasses, wine, dark fruits, that kind of thing — were absent; and while their (now closed) website rather honestly remarked back in 2017 that it was not for everyone, I would merely suggest that this real enjoyment is probably more for someone (a) interested in Asian rums (b) looking for something new and (c) who is cognizant of local cuisine and spirits profiles, which infuse the makers’ designs here. One of the reasons the rum tastes as it does, is because the master blender used to work for one of the awamori makers on Okinawa (it is a spirit akin to Shochu), and wanted to apply the methods of make to rum as well.  No doubt some of the taste profile he preferred bled over into the final product as well.

The Cor Cor duo raised its head in the 2017 and 2018 rum festival circuit, and aside from a quick review by Wes in the UK – he commented that it was a pair of rums that engendered quite some discussion – it has since sunk almost completely from public consciousness.  I have to give it a cautious endorsement just because it’s so damned interesting, even if I couldn’t entirely find it in my heart to love it. Years from now Japan may colonize the rumisphere, the same way they have made themselves space in the whisky world. For now, this probably won’t get them there, however intriguing it might be to me personally.

(#708)(80/100)


Other Notes

  • I reached to to several friends in Japan for background: thanks in particular to Yoshi-san, who managed to get in touch with Grace directly on the question of the still and the master blender.
  • Grace also releases a Cor Cor Premium and Koruroru 25 rum variations, but I have never seen them for purchase.
  • Yuko Kinjo is the CEO and founder of Grace Rum. She was introduced to rum whilst sitting in a friend’s bar in the early 2000s, and asked herself “Why not make rum right here, a unique spirit made completely of local ingredients?” Cor Cor Rum is made only of sustainable local sugarcane and is a joint effort between Kinjo-san and the Minamidaito Island Chamber of Commerce. 
Jan 132020
 

Photo (c) ModernBarCart.com

“White cane spirits are having a moment,” wrote Josh Miller of Inu a Kena in naming the Saint Benevolence clairin one of his top rums of 2019.  He was spot on about that and I’ve felt the same way about white rums in general and clairins in particular ever since I had the good fortune to try the Sajous in Paris back in 2014 and had my hair blown back and into next week – so much so that I didn’t just make one list of 21 good white rums, but a second one for good measure (and am gathering material for a third).

Given that Velier’s involvement has raised the profile of clairins so much, it’s surprising that one with the avowed intention of ploughing back all its profits into the community where it is made (see “other notes”, below) does not have more of a mental footprint in people’s minds.  That might be because for the most part it seems to be marketed in the USA (home of far too few rum blogs), whence its founders Chase and Calvin Babcock hail – and indeed, the first online write ups (from Josh himself, and Paul Senft on Got Rum), also stemmed from there.  Still, it is moving across to Europe as well, and Indy and Jazz Singh of the UK-based Skylark Spirits, couldn’t contain their glee at providing something to a ‘Caner Party in 2019 which we had not seen before and threatening dire violence if it was not tried right then and there.

They could well smile, because the pale yellow 50% “white” rum was an aromatic beefcake that melded a barroom brawler with a civilized Martinique white in a way that we had not seen before. It started rough and ready, true, with fierce and pungent aromas of wax, brine, acetones, and olives biffing the schnozz, and it flexed its unaged nature quite clearly and unapologetically.  There was a sprightly line of citrus/white sugar running through it that was pleasing, and after a while I could sense the sharpness of green apples, wasabi, unripe bananas, soursop mixing it up with softer scents of guavas and vanilla. Every now and then the salty, earthy notes popped back up as if to say “I exist!” and overall, the nose was excellent.

Unlike the overpowering strut of the Velier clairins, the taste here was quite restrained and less elemental, even at 50% ABV.  In fact, it almost seemed light, initially presenting a nice crisp series of sugar-water and lemon notes, interspersed with salted cucumber slices in sweet apple vinegar (and a pimento or two thrown in for kick).  Mostly it was crisp fruits from there – green grapes, red currants, soursop, unripe pears, and it reminded me of nothing so much as the laid back easiness of the Cabo Verde grogues, yet without ever losing a bit of its bad boy character, the way you can always spot a thug even if he’s in a tux, know what I mean?  Finish handled itself well – salt and sweet, some tomatoes (!!), a little cigarette tar, but mostly it was sugar water and pears and light fruits, a soft and easy landing after some of the aggro it presented earlier.  

All in all, really interesting, though perhaps not to everyone’s taste – it is, admittedly, something of a challenge to sample if one is not prepared for its rough and ready charms. It may best be used as a mixer, and indeed, Josh did remark it would work best in a ‘Ti Punch or Daiquiri.  He said it would make “for a fresh take on an old favorite”, and I can’t think of a better phrase to describe not just the cocktails one could make with it, but the rum as a whole. It lends richness and variety to the scope of what Haitian clairins can be.

(#692)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The source of the clairin is the area around Saint Michel de l’Attalaye, which is the second largest city in Haiti, and located in the central north of the country. There, sugar cane fields surround and supply the Dorcinvil Distillery, a third-generation family operation employing organic agricultural practices free from herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals. The cane itself is a blend of several different varieties: Cristalline, Madame Meuze, Farine France and 24/14. After harvesting and crushing, the juice is fermented with wild yeasts for five to seven days, then run through a handmade Creole copper pot still, and bottled as is (I suspect there may be minor filtration to remove sediments or occlusions). It is unclear whether it is left to stand and rest for a bit, but my bottle wasn’t pure white but a very faint yellow, so the supposition is not an entirely idle one.
  • The company also produces a blended pot-column still Caribbean five year old rum I have not tried, made from from Barbados molasses and cane juice syrup from the Dominican republic
  • Charity Work: [adapted from Inu A Kena and the company website] Saint Benevolence rum is made by Calvin Babcock, who co-founded Living Hope Haiti, a charity providing educational, medical, and economic services in St Michel de Attalaye in Northern Haiti.  He works with his son Chase, the other half of the team. Along with their partners on the ground in St Michel de Attalaye, Living Hope Haiti (LHH) has built five elementary schools, four churches, an orphanage, a medical clinic, and funded other critically necessary infrastructure including bridges and water wells. They also provide three million meals per year to those in need. The work of LHH is almost entirely funded by the Babcock family, but with the introduction of Saint Benevolence, a new funding stream has come online. Besides LHH, Saint Benevolence funds two additional charities: Innovating Health International (IHI) and Ti Kay. IHI is focused on treating chronic diseases and addressing women’s health issues in Haiti and other developing countries, while Ti Kay is focused on providing ongoing TB and HIV care.  Since 100% of the profits of the rum go straight back to the community of origin, this is certainly a rum worth buying to support such efforts, though of course you’re also getting quite a good and unique white rum for the price.
Nov 282019
 

It must be something about the French – they’re opening micro distilleries all over the place (Chalong Bay, Sampan, Whisper, Issan and Toucan are examples) and almost all of them are channelling the agricole ethos of the French West Indies, working with pure cane juice and bringing some seriously interesting unaged blancs to the attention of the world. Any time I get bored with the regular parade of rums from the lands of the pantheon, all I have to do is reach for one of them to get jazzed up about rum, all over again. í

The latest of these little companies is from Vietnam, which is rife with sugar cane juice (“Nuoc Mia”) as well as locally made bottom-house rice- or molasses-originating artisanal spirits called “rượu” (ruou); these operate in the shadows of any Government regulation, registration or oversight — many are simple moonshineries.  But Saigon Liquorists is not one of these, being the formally incorporated enterprise of two expatriate Frenchmen Clément Jarlier and Clément Daigre, who saw the cane juice liquor being sold on the streets in Ho Chi Minh City and smelled a business opportunity. The fact that one was involved in spirits distribution in Vietnam while the other had both broker experience and knew about the distillation of cognac didn’t hurt wither – already they had a background in the industry.

Photo (c) Saigon Liquorists, from FB

Sourcing a 200-liter single column still in 2017 from China, they obtained fresh cane, then the juice, experimented for three months with fermentation, distillation, cutting, finally got the profile they were after, and rolled out the first Rhum Mia in October that year at a local charity gala. In their current production system, the sugarcane comes from Tien Giang in the Mekong Delta, just south of Ho Chi Minh City, via a supplier who collects it from farmers in the area and does the initial processing. The sugarcane is peeled, and pressed once to get the first juice. That is then vacuum-packed in 5L bags and loaded into refrigerated trucks (this slows down fermentation), which transport the bags the 70km to the distillery.  There fermentation is begun and lasts about five days, before being run through the still – what comes out the other end is around 77% ABV. The rum is rested in inert, locally-made traditional clay vessels called chums (used in rice liquor fermentation in Vietnam) for eight months and then slowly diluted with water over the final two months to 45% – a strength chosen to appeal to the local market where Mia’s initial sales were made. 

The strength might prove key to broader acceptance in foreign markets where 50-55% ABV is more common for juice-based unaged rhums (Toucan had a similar issue with the No.4, as you may recall). When I nosed this 45% rhum, its initial smells took me aback – there was a deep grassy kind of aroma, mixed in with a whole lot of glue, book bindings, wax, old papers, varnish and furniture polish, that kind of thing. It reminded me of my high school studies done in GT’s National Library, complete with the mustiness and dry dust of an old chesterfield gone to mothballs, under which are stacked long unopened suitcases from Edwardian times. And after all that, there came the real rum stuff – grass, dill, sweet gherkins, sugar water, white guavas and watermelon, plus a nice clear citrus hint. Quite a combo.

The rhum distanced itself from the luggage, furniture and old tomes when I tasted it.  The attack was crisp and clean on the tongue, sharp and spicy, an uambiguous blade of pure herbal and grassy flavours – sweet sugar cane sap, dill, crushed lime leaves, brine, olives, with just a touch of fingernail polish and turpentine at the back end, as fleeting as a roué’s sly wink.  After about half an hour – longer than most will ever have this thing gestating in their glasses – faint musty dry earth smells returned, but were mixed in with sugar water, cucumbers and pimentos, cumin, and lemongrass, so that was all good. The finish was weak and somewhat quick, quite aromatic and dry, with nice hints of flowers, lemongrass, and tart fruits.

Ultimately, it’s a reasonably tasty tropical drink that would do fine in (and may even have been expressly designed for) a ti-punch, but as a rhum to have on its own, it needs some torqueing up, since the flavours are there, but too difficult to tease out and come to grips with. Based on the experience I’ve had with other micro-distilleries’ blancs (all of which are stronger), the Mia is damned intriguing though. It’s different and unusual, and in my correspondence with him, Clement suggested that this difference comes from the fact that the sugar cane peel is discarded before pressing which makes for a more grassy taste, and he takes more ‘heads’ away than most, which reduces flavour somewhat…but also the hangover, which, he remarked, is a selling point in Vietnam.

These days I don’t drink enough to get seriously wasted any more (it interferes with my ability to taste more rums), but if this easy-on-the-head agricole-style rhum really does combine both taste and a hangover-free morning after, and if the current fascination with grass-to-glass rums continues in the exclusive bars of the world – well, I’m not sure how you could stop the sales from exploding. Next time I’m in the Real World, I’ll keep an eye out for it myself.

(#680)(76/100)


Other Notes

  • All bottles, labels and corks are sourced in Vietnam and efforts are underway to begin exporting to Asia and Europe.
  • Production was around 9000 bottles a year back in 2018, so it might have increased since then.
  • Plans are in play to distill both gins and vodkas in the future.
  • Hat tip to Reuben Virasami, who spotted me the sample and alerted me to the company.  Also to Tom Walton, who explained what “chums” were. And many thanks to Clément Daigre of SL, who patiently ran me through the history of the company, and its production methods.
Nov 252019
 

So here we have a white rum distilled in 2017 in Fiji’s South Pacific Distillery (home of the Bounty brand) and boy, is it some kind of amazing. It comes as a pair with the 85% Diamond I looked at before, and like its sibling is also from a pot still, and also spent a year resting in a stainless steel vat before Tristan Prodhomme of the French indie L’Esprit bottled the twins in 2018 (this one gave 258 bottles).

Still-strength, he calls them, in an effort to distinguish the massive oomph of the two blancs from those wussy cask-strength sixty percenters coming out of babied barrels periodically hugged and stroked by a master blender.  I mean, it’s obvious that he took one look at the various aged expressions he was putting out at 70% or so, shook his head and said “Non, c’est encore trop faible.” And he picked two rums, didn’t bother to age them, stuffed them into extra-thick bottles (for safety, you understand) and released them as was. Although you could equally say the Diamond at 85% terrified him so much that he allowed a drop of water to make it into the Fijian white, which took it down a more “reasonable” 83%.

Whatever the case, the rum was as fierce as the Diamond, and even at a microscopically lower proof, it took no prisoners. It exploded right out of the glass with sharp, hot, violent aromas of tequila, rubber, salt, herbs and really good olive oil. If you blinked you could see it boiling. It swayed between sweet and salt, between soya, sugar water, squash, watermelon, papaya and the tartness of hard yellow mangoes, and to be honest, it felt like I was sniffing a bottle shaped mass of whup-ass (the sort of thing Guyanese call “regular”).

As for the taste, well, what do you expect, right? Short version – it was distilled awesomeness sporting an attitude and a six-demon bag. Sweet, light but seriously powerful, falling on the tongue with the weight of a falling anvil.  Sugar water and sweet papaya, cucumbers in apple vinegar. There was brine, of course, bags of olives and a nice line of crisp citrus peel. The thin sharpness of the initial attack gave way to an amazing solidity of taste and texture – it was almost thick, and easy to become ensorcelled with it. Pungent, fierce, deep and complex, a really fantastic white overproof, and even the finish didn’t fail: a fruity french horn tooting away, lasting near forever, combining with a lighter string section of cucumbers and peas and white guavas, all tied up with ginger, herbs and a sly medicinal note.

Longtime readers of these meandering reviews know of my love for Port Mourant distillate, and indeed, the MPM White L’Esprit put out excited my admiration to the tune of a solid 85 points.  But I gotta say, this rum is slightly, infinitesimally better. It’s a subtle kind of thing – I know, hard to wrap one’s head around that statement, with a rum this strong and unaged – and in its impeccable construction, in its combination of sweet and salt and tart in proper proportions, it becomes a colourless flavour bomb of epic proportions…and a masterclass in how an underground cult classic rum is made.

(#679)(86/100)

Nov 112019
 

In case you’re wondering, in the parlance of the Francophone West Indies, the term “cabresse” (or “chabine”) refers to a light skinned mulatto, what Guyanese would call a dougla gyal – not altogether politically correct these days, but French Caribbean folks have always been somewhat more casual about such terms (witness the “Negrita” series of rums, for example) so perhaps for them it’s less of a big deal. The rum in question comes from French Guiana in this case, made there by the same distillery of St. Maurice which also provides the stock for the rhums of that little indie out of Toulouse, Toucan. It is now the only distillery in the country, though back in the 1930s there were about twenty others.

The blanc is the standard white rum of the company and the brand name of La Cabresse – other brands they make are La Cayennaise and La Coeur de Chauffe, none of which I’ve tried thus far. Like all their rums, its a column still product based on a 48-hour fermentation cycle of the fresh cane juice harvested from their own fields, and it’s bottled at what could almost be seen as a standard for whites, 50% ABV.  And that’s sufficient to give it some heft while not being too milquetoast for a hard charging bar cocktail.

Certainly it gives the flavours ample room to emerge. It’s self-evidently a cane juice rhum, redolent of fresh wet grass, sugar cane sap, swank, and white fruits like ripe pears and guavas, and without any tart tang or bite. There’s a touch of avocados, brine and olives mixed up with lime leaves, and a clear hint of anise in the background. 

The rhum presents as warm rather than hot or sharp, so relatively tame to sniff, and this continues on to the palate. There a certain sweetness, light and clear, that is more pronounced in the initial sips, and the citrus notes are more noticeable, as are the brine and slight rottenness.  What’s most distinct is the emergent strain of ouzo, of licorice (mostly absent from the nose until after it opens up a bit) … but fortunately this doesn’t take over, integrating reasonably well with tastes of clear bubble gum and strawberry soda pop that round out the crisp profile. Finish is medium long, dry, sweet, warm  Guavas and white fruits and watery pears mingle with oranges and citrus peel and a slight dusting of salt, and that’s just about the whole story.

When it comes to French island rums, agricoles or otherwise, my attention tends to be attracted more by the whites than the majority of the aged rhums.  It’s not that the older rhums are bad by any stretch – quite the reverse, in fact – just that I find the whites fascinating and original and occasionally just plain weird. There’s usually something interesting about them, even when they are perfectly normal products.  Perhaps it’s because I was raised on whites that were too often bland, lightly-flavoured and inoffensive and just served their purpose of providing a jolt of alcohol to a mix, that I appreciate rums willing to take a chance here and there.

Not all whites conform to that, of course, and this one isn’t going to break the mould, or the bank, or your tonsils. It’s a perfectly serviceable mid-level white rum, nothing extra special, nothing extra bad. It’s not a crazy screaming face-melter, nor a boring, take-one-sip-and-fall-asleep yawn-through. I’d suggest it’s a little too rough to take neat, while also lacking that element of crazy that makes you want to try it that way just to prove you could; and at the same time it is sprightly enough to boost a cocktail like a Ti’Punch real well. At the end, then, you could with justification state that La Belle Cabresse remains one of those all-round rhums which doesn’t excel at anything in particular, but provides solid support for just about everything you want it for. 

(#674)(82/100)

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
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