Jan 072019
 

After the initial flurry of articles attendant on the forming of the first new distillery / rum brand in Martinique in, oh, I don’t know, forever, there’s been a surprising drop in attention for A1710. The big guns like Neisson, Bally, HSE, Trois-Rivieres, Depaz et al, with decades (or centuries) of brand awareness underlying their name and fame, continue to issue their excellent agricole rums, of course, but it’s almost like A1710 dropped by the wayside.  Yet this tiny outfit makes rums with a lot of zip, zap, zowee and swoosh, and should not be ignored just because it’s small.

A1710 is the first attempt in a long time to shake up Martinique’s well known rum industry, being created in 2016 as a micro-distillery for Habitation Le Simon (not to be confused with the distillery of Simon, though they’re close by), which rubs shoulders with Clement on the mid eastern side of the island.  The estate’s roots go back to 1710 when the founder, Jean Assier, arrived on the island (hence the “A” in the title) and founded the sugar plantation, which seems to have been family owned and operated as a sugar estate ever since. Yves Assier de Pompignan, the 50-year-old who created the brand and founded the distillery in 2016, first made a career in stationery and office supplies before accepting his True Calling, perhaps channelling the family heritage — a great-grandfather owned the current factory of Saint-James, a grandfather owned of rum brand, his father is a cane agronomist and he has connections with the Hayot family as well.

What distinguishes the small distillery is that it did not chase the AOC designation (they have creole column still, ferment juice for around five days and reap cane year round, to name some points of divergence), and its organic focus, which eschews the more mechanized bulk approach taken by bigger competitors.  I usually nod and smile at such statements, but when the results are as good as these, who am I to rain on their parade? Besides, it’s canny – there’s a market for such niche products made as free from technological interference as possible, and I’m sure A1710 knew and bet on that. 

And after all is said and done, the white rum they make is excellent.  Just nosing this 2017-issued 54.5% product makes that clear: it’s sparkly, sprightly sugar water with a light tinge of brine. Olives, nail polish remover, turpentine, floor wax, freshly sawn lumber and sawdust.  Cider gherkins and apple cider. Very impressive because it never loses sight of the creole still origins and even after half an hour it still coughs up some earthy notes, well polished leather and a lovely thread of green apples.

Moving on, the flavour profile on the palate is nothing short of impressive. It comes smooth and warm across the tongue, providing warm notes of sugar water, watermelon, papaya, licorice, sweet bonbons, grass, and pungent lime leaves in a thai curry.  The rhum displays real potency without overcrowding the taste buds with either too much power or excessive complexity, a perfect combo of sweet and salt and herbals in a complex interplay of citrus, grass, cilantro and 7-up. It’s almost cachaca-like, minus the bitterness of strange Brazilian woods. The finish was okay but things start to slow down here, and it (fortunately) stops just shy of being bland – the heat carries off some of the taste and closing aromas but there was lime leaves, gherkins and sugar water, getting sweeter and more delicate (but always crisp) over time. It reminded me a lot of the J. Bally Blanc agricole, but was a smidgen better, I’d say.

When Cyril of DuRhum rendered one the first online opinions of A1710 and both their 2016-edition whites and aged rum selection, he wrote honestly (and disparagingly) about the flowery marketing push and the price, especially the aged ones. Fast forward a year or two and the online-store costs for the 2017 white written about here are pretty much in line with others of their kind; and the marketing, well, every company under the sun trumpets its niche advantage and special something – I yawn through the usual adjectives and hyperboles anyway so it doesn’t trouble me unless it’s an out-and-out falsehood and has no real info behind it. Putting that aside, what I appreciated about A1710 was the courage it took to open the eighth distillery on the island at all, against some formidable competitors.  What emerged at the other end was a white rum of real quality which possessed a solid taste profile and whether known or not, can take its place without apology alongside all the other blancs that may be better known and sell more. That’s a real achievement, for a company this young.

(#586)(85/100)

Jan 022019
 

There must be something about the French that just leads them into starting little rum companies in other countries. There was Hembert Achard and Anne-Francois Houzel who formed Whisper Rums from Antigua; David Giallorenzo of Issan; and Marine Lucchini and Thibault Spithakis of Chalong Bay. And of course there’s Toucan, which, if you recall from my posts of a year ago, is a relatively new entrant to the field of rums, yet distinguished itself (in my eyes at least) by making the really nifty-but-underpowered Toucan No. 4, as well as being from French Guiana, a place we have not seen or heard of enough when it comes to rums.

All these companies are small, discreet and self-effacing…almost humble.  Oh sure, they use social media and have slick, marketing-heavy websites and show up on Facebook feeds off and on – who doesn’t, these days? – but what distinguishes them (to me) is both their relatively low-key digital footprint, and their equally unhyped but surprisingly good young rums.  Especially the white ones, which I simply can’t get enough of. In this case, the 50% blanc.

Toucan makes a vanilla (I think this is No. 1), the Boco spiced rum No. 2, the No. 4 slightly aged rum and but for my money this 50% white is the best of the lot. It’s made from cane juice processed at French Guiana’s St. Maurice distillery, and then shipped to Toulouse where it stays in neutral steel tanks until ready for bottling, after being reduced to 50%.

What’s nice about it is immediately summarized by a nose of uncommon delicacy and (oddly) also of heft.  It smelled of sweet light fruit – pears, watermelon, green grapes – but also of salty brine and olives, furniture polish, and something barely noticeable yet also…meatier.  In that it reminded me of the Novo Fogo, though with rather more emphasis and braggadocio, due in no small part to the 50% ABV it was bottled at.

The palate continued that unhurried unfolding or flavour.  It was smooth and pleasant (with a little nip from the strength, no getting away from that), initially tasting of fanta and 7-up, light citrus peel, pears again, a few indeterminate ripe fruits, and (get this) those salt-and-vinegar pringles chips. It was aromatic and redolent of these, and the salt and the sweet and the fruity notes melded nicely in a minor key that didn’t overwhelm, just led slowly down to a gentle finish which gave last hints of marzipan, sugar water, toblerone and nougat.

I must admit that furiously raw clarity of flavour and a powerful terroire profile is not this rhum’s thing.  In fact, it’s rather restrained, almost demure, with each flavour shyly coiling out of the mix to tease and titillate before quietly subsiding, much like many of those Asian white rums I’ve been trying of late – Issan, Vientiane, Chalong Bay, Laodi. Like them, the Toucan white straddles the divide between too much and too little, between pillow and hammer, and finds the balancing point between them all.  It’s an unassuming but really good white rum, one of an increasing number of unsung heroes of the blancworld which one should try for no other reason than to be pleased by something that wants to do nothing else.

(#584)(83/100)

Dec 282018
 

Just as we don’t see Americans making too many full proof rums, it’s also hard to see them making true agricoles, especially since the term is so tightly bound up with the spirits of the French islands.

Agricole, let it be remembered, is the French term for agricultural rums made from pure sugar cane juice, and called such to distinguish them (not without a little Gallic disdain, to be sure) from traditionnels, or traditional rums, which are made from molasses, a by product of the sugar making process. For the most part, having much to do with the finances, molasses rums are much preferred by producers, because the issues of storage and spoilage which afflicts cane juice (it can go bad in just a few days) – that’s one reason why agricoles are closely associated with actual sugar estates with a distillery nearby – not always easy in a country the size of the USA where there is much greater separation between the two.

In the case of St. George’s, a 1982-established California distillery much better known for its gins, absinthes, vodkas and whiskies, they get their fresh cut cane from Imperial Valley just to the east of San Diego along the Mexican border, and when a load comes in, they crush it immediately, add the yeast and ferment (duration unknown) before running it through a pot still (Josh Miller spoke of a hybrid pot/column still when he visited them in 2013 but St. George’s wrote to me and said “pot” for sure).  The resultant spirit is rested for a short while in stainless steel tanks, with some being drawn off to age for a few years in oak, the rest being bottled at 43%. My version was based on the 2014 harvest according to the sample info, and was therefore issued in that year.

On the nose…oy!  What was this? Vegetable soup, or (take your pick) meatballs, dumplings, dim sum or spring rolls…that kind of thing.  Also vinegar, soy, pickles and fish sauce, a pot of brine and what felt like three bags of olives. Behind all that is a sharp edge, like a red wine gone off somehow, and whatever fruits there were took a reluctant step back – so much so that the first thoughts that ran through my mind as I smelled the rum was it was a low rent clairin that tried for the brass ring but ran out of steam.  Still – nice. Adventurous. Different. I like that in a white rum.

Alas, the palate, after that jarringly original overture that so piqued my interest, seemed to go to sleep, a function of the 43% ABV maybe, and a reminder that pungent rums like unaged whites don’t always succeed when dialled down to a somnolent standard strength.  Still, it did wake up after I ignored it for a bit, and gave a twitch of sugar water and watermelons, fresh-cut pears, vanilla and citrus, very light and very pleasant. Yes there was a sort of creaminess and black bread, behind which lurked the brine and olives (lots of both), but the rum seemed to have problems deciding whether it wanted to be a crowd pleaser or something truly original such as the nose had promised, and the finish – long, dry, salty, lightly fruity, sweetly watery – just followed the palate into a docile conclusion.

Truth is, the whole experience was schizophrenic – it started off with fire and smoke and major f**ken attitude, then just lost its mojo and sagged against the wall.  For all the unbalanced helping of crazy with which it opened, I liked that off-kilter nose a lot better than everything that followed because it showed all the potential that failed to be realized later on. An unaged pot-still white should be a little off-base – anything else and you have a mere cocktail ingredient and there are already enough of those around.

That said, it’s not that I actively disliked the rum…just that I felt there was nothing serious here: nothing badass that dared to offend…or inspire (say what you will about the TECC and TECA rums from NRJ and their barking-mad taste profiles, they had real balles).  So, at end, it’s a light alcohol with great promise (how it smelled) and too little follow-through (palate and finish). Cyril of DuRhum reviewed this same edition, scored it at 77 and provided some great details on the company, and it was tasty enough to make Josh Miller wax rhapsodic in 2013 when he visited the place, tried some and recommended it highly both by itself and in a Ti-punch (you need to read his 10/10 scored review as a serious counterpoint to mine and Cyril’s) – but here I have to be somewhat less enthusiastic based on my own tasting five years down the road.

(#583)(76/100)


Other notes

  • Neither this rum or its lightly aged brother is listed on the St. George’s website.  When I touched base with them, they sadly informed me that because of the difficulty of acquiring fresh cane, they have ceased rum production for “a number of years,” though they remain on the lookout for new and stable sources.  For the moment, they’re not making any.
  • An irrelevant aside to this review is that I inadvertently tried it twice: once in 2017 based on a sample sent to me (totally blind) by John Go; and the second time in 2018, this time one I bought on a whim.  In both cases my tasting notes were practically identical, and so was my score.  I think this is an innovative, intriguing rum from the US which can and should be tried if possible.

 

Dec 182018
 

White rhums – or blancs – were not products I paid much attention to back in the day, but over the last five years they have continually risen in my estimation, and now I consider them one of the key building blocks of the entire category.  Not the lightly-aged, blandly filtered and softly murmuring Spanish-style cocktail staples, you understand – those I regard with relative indifference. No, I mean stuff like the Mexican Paranubes, the Haitian Le Rocher, the Guyanese Superior High Wine, Japanese Nine Leaves Clear, Tahitian Mana’o White or the Surinamese Toucan White, to say nothing of the new crop out of Asia – Samai, Issan, Laodi.

What elevates these blancs and all their cousins above the regular run of whites is the way they often maintain a solid connection to the distillate of origin and the land from which they came.  They are usually unaged and unfiltered, commonly around 50% or better. Sometimes they’re raw and pestilential and shockingly rude, at other times they’re almost placid, hiding their bright tastes and clear profiles behind a wall of easy and deceptive complexity that takes time to tease out properly (and for both reasons causes them to be occasionally under-appreciated, I think).

Which brings me to the 55% ABV Habitation Saint-Étienne (HSE) Rhum Blanc Agricole that was distilled in Martinique in 2016 and bottled in 2018 (it rested in steel tanks for the duration and can therefore be seen as unaged). We haven’t talked about HSE for a while, but that doesn’t mean that the Martinique brand has been resting on its laurels, because it continues to produce much good rhum – all AOC compliant – and even taken the whites in a new direction. In this case, perhaps channelling Velier’s Uitvlugt East Field 30 from all those years ago, they selected a special type of sugar cane (canne d’or says the bottle, or “gold cane”, varietal designation R570) not just from their sugar estate in the middle of Martinique, but from a specific part of it – the Verger and Coulon plots of land, issued as a rhum they call Parcellaire #1.  So it’s a sort of micro version of HSE as a whole, showcasing a very small part of its terroire.

Aside from HSE, Longueteau, or the new kid on the island block — A1710 and their white La Perle — such atomized drilldowns into smaller subunits of an estate are almost unknown…but they are intriguing to say the least (even though it may all just be cool marketing – I like to think otherwise). Fortunately the way it smelled and tasted skated over such concerns.  The nose, for example, was quite fragrant, starting off with slightly rotten fruits (bananas), rubber, sawdust, set to a background of soft wax candle, all very restrained. Overall it was a little sweet and relaxed, and as it opened, additional notes of nuts, cereals, almonds and nougat came forward. There was also a hint of olives, brine, pineapple, sweet green peas and ripe oranges in an excellent melange that combined themselves very well, without any single aspect being particularly dominant.

Blanc agricoles’ tastes are usually quite distinct, showing variation only in the details.  This one was slightly different — very smooth, very light, the usual herbs and light citrus and grasses starting things off, just less crisp than one might be expecting. This seemed to be kind of nothing-in particular, but hold on a bit — the other, more complex flavours started to creep out.  Dill, sugar water, olive oil, cucumbers, watermelon, light pimentos and gherkins, all sweet enough not to be off-putting, salty/sour enough for some character. I thought it was really quite tasty, giving aged offerings from the same house some serious competition, and finishing things off with a fade that provided last memories of sweet sugar water, light delicate notes of cumin and watermelon and papaya.

Does that all work? Are the specific plots of origin really that clear? I suggest that as a showcase for such a tiny bit of land, for the general rum drinker, not really.  The differences between the regular run of blancs from HSE and this one can be chalked up to miniscule divergences deriving from batch variation rather than anything so refined.  Admittedly though, I’m not a professional sommelier, and lack the experience such people bring to sensing gradations of wine hailing from neighboring vinyards in France – so someone with a more finely tuned snoot may take more away from this than I did.

But I liked it.  I liked it a lot. Above, I wrote that really good whites are either cheerfully rude or deceptively polite:  this one tilts slightly more towards the latter while still remembering its objurgatory antecedents. It’s a enormously drinkable dram, near perfect strength, with wonderfully delicate and strong tastes mixing up both sweet and salt in a terrific white rhum.  You could drink it alone or mix it as you please, and you’d enjoy it either way, with nothing but a nod of appreciation for what HSE have achieved here with such seeming effortlessness. And for its price? This thing may just be an undiscovered steal.

(#580)(86/100)


Other notes

The Habitation Saint-Étienne is located almost dead centre in the middle of Martinique.  Although in existence since the early 1800s, its modern history properly began when it was purchased in 1882 by Amédée Aubéry, an energetic man who combined the sugar factory with a small distillery, and set up a rail line to transport cane more efficiently (even though oxen and people that pulled the railcars, not locomotives). In 1909, the property came into the possession of the Simonnet family who kept it until its decline at the end of the 1980s. The estate was then taken over in 1994 by Yves and José Hayot — owners, it will be recalled, of the Simon distillery, as well as Clement —  who relaunched the Saint-Étienne brand using Simon’s creole stills.

Nov 192018
 

It was the words “Grand Arôme” that caught my eye: I knew that term.  “Galion”, which I seemed to remember but didn’t, quite. And “Martinique,” hardly seeming to go with either.  It had no brothers and sisters to its left and right on the shelf, which, in a shop stocking rows and rows of Plantations, Rum Nation, BBR, Saint James, Bally, HSE, Dillon, Neisson and all the others, struck me as strange (that and the rather “poor-relation-from-the-backcountry” cheap label and tinfoil cap).  What on earth was this thing?

I bought it on a whim and cracked it in the company of some other agricoles that night and did not one lick of research until after it was done: that was probably the right decision, going in blind like that, because here is a rum which lurks behind the Martinique canon the same way the bottle did on that shelf, and it’s rare enough these days to find a rum you didn’t know existed, especially from an island with so many different rhums of its own that are well known.

Rums and rhums titled “Grand Arôme” are high-ester products much associated with French island rhums in general (Reunion Island’s Savanna HERR in particular) and have a lot in common with the New Wave of Jamaican rums we’re currently seeing from Hampden, Worthy Park and others, with their own classification titles like Plummer, Wedderburn and Continental Flavoured.  They are all branches from the same tree – hooches with boosted ester counts to make for a enormously flavourful product.

And you could sense that on the nose, which was one to drive Cyrano de Bergerac into conniption fits.  It lacked the smooth warmth of an aged product, but whether it did or didn’t spend time sleeping in wood, it reeked like a white monster from Haiti, even at the low strength.  Olives, brine, licorice, black pepper, some vanilla, prunes and pencil shavings were immediately noticeable, in a sort of delirious free-for-all for dominance, followed by a lessening intensity over time as it opened up and provided some secondary aromas of vanilla, bags of fleshy fruits (peaches, apricots, prunes, plums, citrus), very light caramel and some aromatic tobacco. Not entirely original, but very very pungent, which for a rum issued at 43% was quite impressive – it was certainly more interesting than the light Cuban-style San Pablo or milquetoast Dictador Best of 1977 I happened to have on hand.  Actually, that smell it reminded me rather less of an agricole than of a Jamaican, with all the funk and rotten bananas and midden heaps (akin to the Long Pond TECC but nowhere near as intense).

The pattern repeated itself as I tasted it, starting off sharp, uncouth, jagged, raw…and underneath all that was some real quality. There were caramel, salty cashews, marshmallows, brown sugar (truly an agricole? I wrote in my notes), plasticine, wax crayons, brine, olives, sugar water, pineapple, raisins, a solid citrus heft to it, and again a lot of varied ripe fruits (and some not so ripe that were just beginning to go off).  It was kind of sweet and salt and sour all at once – practically a roadmap to the esters it squirted from every pore. But what was nice about it, was that if left to rest, it turned out to be smooth enough to sip while retaining that edge of raw quality that would make it a great mixer, and it’s got all the character of profile which the San Pablo (both the Gold and the White) so conspicuously lacked.  Even the finish demonstrated that – it was short, but quite intense, with lingering notes of citrus, light anise, molasses, fruits, raisins and a last hint of salt.

My initial scribbles, transcribed here verbatim, read “Can’t tell what this is, need more background work. Says from Martinique, but it backs away from the crisp/clean agricole party line; seems more like a Jamaica-Martinique stepchild?” (Yeah, I really do write like that).  Because to me, it presented as a hybrid at the very least, suggesting intriguing paths for rum makers – a combination of agricole and molasses rum, made perhaps en passant, but certainly not lacking in brio, aggro or tempo.

So what is it? A local rum made for the backcountry and not for export?  A trial balloon of sorts to suss out the market? A failed attempt at something different, an experiment that somehow got loose from the lab? A bottle of the chairman’s private stash that got smuggled out in someone’s trousers?

Not quite.  It’s Martinique’s answer to the Jamaican bad boys, made by the last remaining sugar factory on Martinique, Usine du Galion, which has the added distinction of also being the last distillery on the island to make rum from molasses (they source cane from around the island, from areas not AOC labelled). It’s mystifying why there’s such a lack of awareness of the Galion rum itself, but on reflection it’s perhaps not so surprising, because — according to the estimable Benoit Bail and Jerry Gitany who I contacted about this odd lack of profile — the commercial bottled rum is peanuts to them. Their real core business is sugar, and that part of the operation is huge, their primary focus. They installed a column still in the factory to make rum in bulk, which is then almost all exported to Europe, used primarily in the tobacco/candy/pastry industries and pharmaceuticals (probably perfumes).

Map of Martinique distilleries courtesy of Benoit Bail

There are only two Galion rums I’m aware of at this point: a white I’ve never seen at around 50-55%, and this one at 43%, which, according to Nico Rumlover’s enormously informative article here, is made from molasses, fermented with the addition of vinasse for anything between eight to sixteen days in wooden vats, using indigenous yeasts in a continuous cycle through the columnar still.  Apparently it is unaged, with a small amount of caramel added to give the brown colour and generally limited to the ester midrange of around 500 g/hlpa – squarely in the no-man’s land between Wedderburn (200-300 g/hlpa) and Continental Flavoured (700-1600 g/hlpa).

And it’s a hell of a rum, I’ll tell you that – Matt Pietrek in his article on “Beyond Jamaican Funk” mentioned Galion and what they were up to, but missed this under-the-radar rum and suggested that if you wanted French Island ester bombs, Reunion was the place to go.  You might still have to, since the Galion is either available only at the factory, as a blender’s sample from Scheer in Amsterdam (at a whopping 61% ABV), or in some small, dusty forgotten shelf somewhere in Europe. But if you can pick it up, think of it as a high ester funk bomb that could be seen as a cheerfully insouciant French bird flipped at Jamaica; it proves emphatically that you don’t need to go all the way to the Indian Ocean to get yourself some, and provides a really cool comparator to those flavourful rums from all the other places we are only now getting to know so well.

(#569)(85/100)

Sep 102018
 

How this blanc J. Bally succeeds as well as it does is a source of wonder.  I tried it and was left blinking in appreciation at its overall quality. Like all Bally rums made these days, it’s AOC certified, half pure alcohol (50% ABV), and unaged (rested for a few months in stainless steel tanks before bottling), and I honestly expected something a lot more aggressive than it actually was.  In that ability it had to walk the tightrope between ageing and no aging, between too strong or too weak, between jagged edges and smooth gentling lies a lot of its appeal.

Some time ago when I wrote a small roundup of  21 Great Whites, I remarked on the fact that most of the best white rums out there are bottled without any ageing at all, right as they come dripping off the still.  Whatever filtration such rums are subjected to, is to remove sediment and detritus, not the sort of chill filtration, reverse osmosis or activated charcoal filters that leave an emasculated and flaccid excuse for a rum behind, which is then relegated to the poor-doofus-cousin shelf of a barman’s cabinet, used only for cheap mixes.  You certainly would not want to drink one of those indifferent, milquetoast whites neat to savour the nuances, which is why they have inexorably slipped to the bottom of the rankings of white rums in general, their place taken by purer, cleaner, stronger stuff — like this cool Martinique product.

Bally no longer exists as an independent, completely integrated entity in its own right. After being acquired by Remy Cointreau in the 1980s, the distillery operations were closed and shifted to the centralized Simon Distillery, though the original recipes for their rhums remains intact, and sugar production continues at Lajus, as does the bottling and ageing up the road at Le Carbet. As with many French island products, it retains a certain cult following, and a cachet all its own.  Suffice to say they have made some really good rums, and this one may either be the real deal poised for mass market export or some kind of off-the-wall local tipple trotted out for exposure at various Rumfests (which is where I tried it, mostly out of curiosity). It’s reasonably widely available, especially in Europe.

Well, that out of the way, let me walk you through the profile.  Nose first: what was immediately evident is that it adhered to all the markers of a crisp agricole. It gave off of light grassy notes, apples gone off the slightest bit, watermelon, very light citrus and flowers.  Then it sat back for some minutes, before surging forward with more: olives in brine, watermelon juice, sugar cane sap, peaches, tobacco and a sly hint of herbs like dill and cardamom.

The palate was more dialled down, less aggressive…tamer, perhaps; softer. And that’s saying something for a 50% rum.  It was sleek, supple, smooth and sweet, and went down easy. Tastes suggested fanta and 7-Up in an uneasy combination with rained-upon green grass.  A little menthol, thyme and sugar water. A sort of light fruitiness pervaded the drink – watermelon juice, white guavas, pears, combined with sugar water, underneath which lurked a cheeky element of brine that never entirely came out and took over, and was hinted at, never outright disclosed.  Finish was nothing special – a little salt, a little sugar, a little water, a little fruit, but not hot at all, mostly an easy going wave goodbye as it exited the premises.

There’s little to complain about here, and much to admire.  To me, what sets this rum apart is its how many things it accomplishes in the same bottle, the same shot.  Unlike many whites that are now making headlines, Bally’s blanc doesn’t want to rip your face off or try to show off its package in an effort to show it’s bigger, bolder and more badass than all the others.  It’s also an uncommonly restrained white rum, retaining both elements of its youth, as well as having its rough edges sanded down a shade. It’s a white rhum that is demonstrably an agricole, a vibrantly young sprout of some character and depth, and tailor-made for both those now dipping their toes into the white-rum sea (and don’t want anything too savage), and those who like white agricoles on general principles. That it does all these things at once and with such unassuming style, is nothing short of a tiny miracle.

(#548)(84/100)

May 192018
 

#513

The question of why Velier would want to issue a well-endowed, claw-equipped high-test like this, is, on the surface, somewhat unclear.  Because my own opinion is that this is not a product for the general marketplace. It’s not aimed at beginners, 40% strength lovers or those with a sweet tooth who have two of every edition of the Ron Zacapa ever made. It’s an utterly unaged cask strength white with serious strength one point short of 60%, to which is bolted a massive 537.59 g/laa of esters…that puts in the realm of the Rum Fire Jamaican white, and that one packed quite a bit of gelignite in its jock, remember? Aside from serious rum-junkies, ester-loving deep-dive geeks and Demerara-rum fanboys (I’m all of these in one), I wonder who would buy the thing when there are so many great independent offerings of an aged Demerara out there (many of which are Port Mourant still rums themselves).

Let’s see if the tasting notes can provide some insight. At 59% ABV, I was careful with it, letting it open for a while, and was rewarded with quite an impressive and complex series of aromas: rubber and plasticene, nail polish remover, followed by a combination of sugar water, brine, watermelon, pears, roasted nuts, plus a firm, crisp-yet-light fruitiness which the strength did not eviscerate.  That’s always something of a risk with high proof rums, whose intensity can obliterate subtler nuances of flavour on nose or palate.

Unaged rums take some getting used to because they are raw from the barrel and therefore the rounding out and mellowing of the profile which ageing imparts, is not a factor.  That means all the jagged edges, dirt, warts and everything, remain. Here that was evident after a single sip: it was sharp and fierce, with the licorice notes subsumed into dirtier flavours of salt beef, brine, olives and garlic pork (seriously!). It took some time for other aspects to come forward – gherkins, leather, flowers and varnish – and even then it was not until another half hour had elapsed that crisper acidic notes like unripe apples and thai lime leaves (I get those to buy in the local market), were noticeable. Plus some vanilla – where on earth did that come from?  It all led to a long, duty, dry finish that provided yet more: sweet, sugary, sweet-and-salt soy sauce in a clear soup. Damn but this was a heady, complex piece of work. I liked it a lot, really.

Reading those tasting note and looking at the stats of the rum, I think you’d agree this is not your standard table rum; maybe even one that only a madman or a visionary would try to make money from, when it’s so obviously stuffed with sleeping leopards. Who on earth would make this kind of thing; and then, having been made, who is addled enough to buy it? Drink it?  And why?

To answer those questions, it’s useful to look at the man behind the rum.  Luca Gargano, whose Five Principles are now the source of equal parts merriment and respect, doesn’t often say it in as many words, but obeys another: I call it the Sixth Rum Principle, and it suggests that Luca believes that rum should be made pure, fresh, organic, without additives of any kind from cane through to still.  If he had a choice, I’m sure he’s prefer to have wild yeast do the fermentation of a wash gathered in the bark of trees hollowed out by the latest hurricane.

But a codicil to the Principle is simply that a rum need not necessarily be aged to be good…even fabulous. Now for a man who selected and popularized the extraordinary Port Mourant series of aged rums, that seems like bizarre thing to say, but look no further than the clairins from Haiti which have made such a splash in the rumiverse over the last four years, or any of the unaged French Island whites, and you’ll see that may really be on to something.

And that leads to the intersection of the Port Mourants and the Principle. I’m sure Luca was perfectly aware of the quality and reputation of the PM 1972, PM 1974 and PM 1975….to say nothing of the later editions. “What I wanted to do,” he told me recently in that utterly sure, subtly evangelic voice he uses in rum festivals around the world, “Is demonstrate how the rum everyone likes and appreciates – the Port Mourants, Foursquares, Jamaicans – started life.  Okay, they’re not for everyone. But for those who really know the profiles of the islands’ rums blind, they can now see what such rums were before any ageing or any kind of cask influence.”

Drinking this rum shows what results from applying that principle. There’s a whole raft of these whites out in the market right now, distinguished by lovely drawings of the stills from which they originate. I’m not sure how they sell, or who’s buying them, or even if they are making a splash in the perceptions of the larger rum world.  All I know is it’s an amazing rum that one should try at least once, even if it’s just to appreciate for the one time how the raging cataracts of a Port Mourant distillate started out, before the torrent of taste calmed down, evened out…and flowed into the ocean of all the other great PMs we have learnt to know and appreciate over the years.

(88/100)

May 072018
 

#509

Plastic.  Lots and lots of plastic.  And rubber. The clairin “Le Rocher” is a hydrocarbon lover’s wet dream, and if you doubt that, just take a gentle sniff of this Haitian white.  It is one of the richest whites from Haiti I’ve managed to try, and the best part is, those opening notes of the nose don’t stop there – they develop into a well balanced combination of acetone, salt, soya, and a spicy vegetable soup, into which a cut of jerk chicken thrown in for good measure to add some depth (I swear, I’m not making this up).  And if that isn’t enough, half an hour later you’ll be appreciating the watermelons, sugar water and light cinnamon aromas as well.  This rum is certifiable, honestly – no unaged white should ever be able to present such a delightfully crazy-ass smorgasbord of rumstink, and yet, here it is and here it reeks.  It’s pretty close to awesome.

Sometimes a rum gives you a really great snooting experience, and then it falls on its behind when you taste it – the aromas are not translated well to the flavour on the palate.  Not here. In the tasting, much of the richness of the nose remains, but is transformed into something just as interesting, perhaps even more complex. It’s warm, not hot or bitchy (46.5% will do that for you), remarkably easy to sip, and yes, the plasticine, glue, salt, olives, mezcal, soup and soya are there.  If you wait a while, all this gives way to a lighter, finer, crisper series of flavours – unsweetened chocolate, swank, carrots(!!), pears, white guavas, light florals, and a light touch of herbs (lemon grass, dill, that kind of thing). It starts to falter after being left to stand by itself, the briny portion of the profile disappears and it gets a little bubble-gum sweet, and the finish is a little short – though still extraordinarily rich for that strength – but as it exits you’re getting a summary of all that went before…herbs, sugars, olives, veggies and a vague mineral tang.  Overall, it’s quite an experience, truly, and quite tamed – the lower strength works for it, I think.

Clairins no longer need much introduction.  Velier’s been promoting them up and around the world, people have been shuddering and cheering about their profiles in equal measure for years now.  We know what they are. What we don’t know is the producers and individual methods. Here’s what I know: Le Rocher (“The Rock”, named after Matthew’s injunction in 7: 24-27 not to build on sand) is the product of Bethel Romelus, whose little op is located in the village of Pignon, about an hour’s jouncing away from St Michel where Michel Sajous fires up the Sajous. Le Rocher is different from the other clairins I’ve looked at so far in that it is made from sugar cane juice from three different varieties of cane, which is boiled down to syrup.  It’s fermented naturally, with maybe a 1/3 of the syrup being made from previous vinasses, then run through a discontinuous pot still, before being bottled as is. No ageing, no dilution, no filtration, no additions. A pure, natural, organic rum for all those whole drool over such statistics.

Personally, I’m impressed with the rum as a whole, but if you disagree, I fully understand the source of your doubt – you gotta be into unaged, unhinged whites to be a fanboy of this stuff – for me, that’s catnip, for you, perhaps not so much. Still, If I had to rate the clairins which Velier is putting out the door, I’d say the Sajous remains the most certifiable, the Casimir the most elegant, the Vaval the easiest for its strength.  But the Le Rocher….it’s perhaps the most approachable for the average Joe who wants to know what the fuss is all about and is willing to try one, but is cautious about mucking around with the >50% sarissas of the first three. By going to a lower ABV, by taming a remarkable panoply of potent and pungent smells and tastes, by changing (slightly) the way it’s made, the Le Rocher is setting a standard as high as its creole-still cousins, and if your tastes bend in this direction, it’s definitely worth adding to your collection of whites, and clairins.

(85/100)


Other notes

  • In doing my research I found references to other varieties of the Le Rocher tried at various rumfests last year: one at 51%, another at 43.5%. 
  • Back label translation: “It is at Pignon, at the entrance to the plateau of St. Michael de l’Attalaye, that the Le Rocher clairin is produced using cane syrup, produced from natural juice, adding during fermentation about 30% vinasses from the previous distillations: an archaeological example of the method of production of the French colonies, influence of 1785 by the technique developed by the English in Jamaica, the “dunder-style.”
May 012018
 

#507

Almost without warning and with little  fanfare, Oaxaca went from being a small geographical region in Mexico to the source of a fast moving blip in the rumiverse, the Paranubes white rum.  Although there have been occasional comments on the various Facebook rumclubs on the Oaxaca-region blancos before this, my feeling is that the June 2017 Imbibe Magazine article on Paranubes, followed up by the April 2018 Punch article “Hunting for Rum in Oaxaca’s Cloud Forest” was in a large measure responsible for the upsurge of interest in the region, this particular company, and this rum.  That, and the fact that like Rivers Royale, Haitian clairins or Cape Verde grogues, they represent a miniscule, almost vanished proponent of natural rum making, of a kind we don’t see much of nowadays…which is exciting much interest in the rum soaked hearts of the ur-geeks who are always on the lookout for something new, something potent and something pure.

Mostly unknown in the wider world, Mexican white rums like the Paranubes share DNA with agricoles and cachacas – the source of the spirit is fresh-pressed sugar cane juice – but in manufacture and distribution, if the terms could be used for something so relatively grass-roots, they are closer to the Haitian clairins. Locally made by unregistered, numberless small mom-and-pop roadside hoocheries and tiny distilleries (called trapiches), using local materials and old equipment, a different one around every corner and in every region, they are called aguardiente de caña there and are back country white lightning which (again like clairins) is consumed mainly in the neighborhood. There are several other small trapiches in the neighborhood: the story goes that the co-founder of Mezcal Vago, Mr. Judah Kuper was running around Oaxaca with a load of mezcal (and tasting roadside aguardientes as a sort of personal hobby) when he happened to try that of a local distiller and businessman called Jose Luis Carrera, was not just impressed but blown away, and approached him with the idea of exporting it.  This has led to the Paranubes brand being formed.

Mr. Carrera’s little distillery has been in existence for decades, using different varietals of sugar cane free of pesticides and fertilizers, lugging the cane to the trapiche by donkey power and after crushing, fermenting the juice with wild (naturally occurring, not added) yeast and a sort of boiled mesquite bark mix in a couple of 1100 liter pinewood vats (but occasionally a pineapple or two is used in the same fashion of bark is not available – these guys take the meaning of “batch production” seriously). Every day Mr. Carrera takes half of one of the vats and chucks it into the small copper column still (which holds 550 liters) – and then refills the vats in the afternoon. What this means is the vats are a mix of very old and very young fermenting liquids, and since they are only completely emptied three times a year, they end up producing an enormously flavoured spirit that conforms to few markers of the rums with which we are more familiar.

That part is key, because I said that in origin it’s like an agricole, in manufacture like a clairin, but let me tell you – in taste, it’s like those were spliced to an out of left field Jamaican with a steroid-addled attitude.  And even then it seems to exist in its own parallel universe, adding its own distinctive originality to the pantheon of the whites. It started off, for example, with one of the most distinctive series of smell notes I’ve ever experienced: wet ashes from a campfire, rain on hot baked earth, mixed with pickles and gherkins. The oily saltiness of a tequila but without the muskiness.  It’s also vinegary, citrus-y, sharp, acidic, and beneath all that is sugar caned sap, very light fruit, vegetable soup, olives and more brine. And plastic. I mean, wow. Newbies beware, experts be warned – this rum is not the kind that makes sugar cane turn up at your door demanding its juice back.

As if dissatisfied with its own aromas, the rum seemed to feel it had to add even more notes to the tasting when drunk. So, many the above smells made a re-appearance on the palate – ashes (I swear this is almost like licking a stone), olives and brine, lemon rind, gherkins in vinegar to start – before the brininess retreated and additional varnish and turpentine hints emerged, which went right up to the edge of being gasoline.  The sugar cane sap thankfully mitigated that, adding lighter swank, watermelon and lemon to the mix, miso soup, sweet soya and a ton of veggies. It was, really quite a collection of different tastes, and even the finish – long, lingering, with sweet and salt, acetones, cigarette tar and more herbals – completed what was a rum of startling, almost ferocious originality.

All these tastes aside, what did I actually think of it? Well, as noted, I think it may be one of the most unique whites I’ve tried in a long while. It’s different, it’s original, it hews defiantly to its own profile without genuflecting to anything else.  It’s not trying to be a clairin or a Jamaican or a grogue or a cachaca, and has at best a glancing familiarity with the ester bombs of Reunion and Hampden and Worthy Park. Fruits are a bit lacking, sweet and salt combination is fine, and earthy, musky notes are bang on. “Traditional” may be how it’s made, but surely not in its overall taste configuration.  It gets points for being one of a kind, yet be aware that it is not necessarily one you’d appreciate neat. This is a cocktail lover’s dream, one that would drive bartenders into ecstatic fits because it would wake up and make new any old faithful, or kickstart any creation they feel like coming up with.

Paranubes may be one of the first Mexican rums to make a dent in people’s perceptions that Mexican liquor is just mezcal or tequila (and rums like Bacardi, Los Valientes, Mocambo, Prohibido et al).  Locals will know of aguardiente, and Americans and tourists who visit the back country will likely be familiar with it — now it’s the turn of the wider world, not least because it’s available in the US, and may start appearing in Europe as well, with the added cachet of artisanal production, traditional methods, and a taste that is quite simply in its own universe.

Is such pure rum-making an oncoming wave of the future for the independents?  Ask Luca Gargano of Velier and you’d probably get a resounding yes, and if you look carefully at the rums with which he personally associates himself, you’ll see that old-school, artisinal, natural rums are his personal and pet passions – clairins, grogues, Rivers, Hampdens are just some of the varied rums he holds close to his heart. By that standard, he must be frothing at the mouth over the Paranubes. Me, I believe that this simply made, small-batch artisanal rum takes its place immediately in any list of tonsil-shredding whites as one of the most original, potent, pungent, and flavourful rums currently extant.  It’s that interesting right out of the gate, and is tailor-made for those who are looking to dispel boredom, and want to explore the bleeding edge of rums that conform to no rational standard.

(81/100)


Other notes

  • The Paranubes website is massively informative on the method of production – I have drawn upon it to summarize the process here.  It is well worth a read in its entirety.
  • Unaged, issued at 54%
  • Serge Valentin on WhiskyFun, as ever ahead of the curve, rated it 88 last year, very much because he loved its artisinal nature and originality.
Apr 252018
 

#505

On initial inspection, Rivers Royale Grenadian Rum – a white overproof – is not one of the first rums you’d immediately think of as a representation of its country, its style, or a particular type — perhaps Westerhall or Clarke’s Court are more in your thoughts.  It is made in small quantities at River Antoine on  the spice island of Grenada, is rarely found outside there, and even though it can be bought on the UK site Masters of Malt, it barely registers on the main bloggers’ review sites.

Yet anyone who tries it swears by it.  I’ve never seen a bad write-up, by anyone. And there are a several aspects of this rum which, upon closer inspection, reveal why it should be considered as part of the Grenadian pantheon and on any list of Key Rums, even if it is so relatively unknown.  

For one thing, there’s it’s artisinal production.  Almost alone in the English-speaking Caribbean, River Antoine adheres to very old, manual forms of rum making.  The sugar cane is free from fertilizers, grown right there (not imported stock), crushed with a water wheel – perhaps the oldest working one remaining in the world – and the source of the rum is juice, not molasses. Fermented for up to eight days without added yeast – natural fermentation via wild bacteria only – in huge open-air vats and transferred to an old John Dore copper pot still (a new one was added in the 1990s).  No additives of any kind, no filtration, no ageing. They are among the most natural rums in the world and the white, which is supposedly drawn off the still at a staggering 89% ABV and bottled at 69% to facilitate transport by air, is among the most flavourful whites I’ve ever tried, and thought so even back in 2010 when I first got knocked off my chair with one.

There’s also the whole business of heritage.  In the geek rumiverse, it’s common knowledge that Mount Gay’s paperwork shows it as dating back to 1703 – though it was almost certainly making rum for at least fifty years before that – and River Antoine is by contrast a relative johnny-come-lately, being founded in 1785. The key difference is that Rivers (as it is locally referred to) is made almost exactly the way it was at the beginning, never relocated, never really changed its production methodology and is even using some of the same facilities and equipment. So if your journey along the road of discovery is taking you into the past and you want to know more about “the old way” and don’t want to go to Haiti, then Grenada may just be the place to go.

These points segue neatly into an emerging (if still small) movement of fair trading, organic ingredients and eco-friendly production methodologies.  By those standards, and bearing in mind the points above, Rivers must be a poster child for the eco-movement, like Cape Verde, Haiti and other places where rumtime seems to have slowed down to a crawl and nobody ever saw any reason to go modern.

But is it any good?  I thought so eight years ago, and in a recent, almost accidental retasting, my initially high opinion has been reconfirmed.  At 69%, unaged, unfiltered, untamed, I knew that not by any stretch of the imagination was I getting a smooth and placid cocktail ingredient, and I didn’t – it was more like getting assaulted by a clairin.  It started out with all the hallmarks of a Jamaican or Haitian white popskull – glue, acetone, vinegar, olives and brine exploded across the nose, pungent, deep and very hot. And it didn’t stop there – as it rested and then opened up, crisper and clearer notes came out to party – watermelons, pickled gherkins and sugar cane sap, married to drier, mustier aromas of cereal, old books, fresh baked bread, light fruits and even some yeast.  Weird, no?

As for the taste, well…whew! The palate did not slow down the slightest bit from the jagged assault of the nose but went right in. Although the initial entry was just short of crazy – “like drinking ashes and water and licking an UHU glue stick” my notes go – this offbeat profile actually developed quite well. It turned dry, minerally, the fruitiness and citrus zest took something a back seat, and it took some time to recalibrate to this. Once that settled down the fruits emerged from hiding — cherries, some guavas and yellow mangoes, orange peel, light florals…but the crazy never entirely went away, because there were also hints of gasoline and a salt lick, and the sort of binding adhesive you can occasionally smell in brand new glossy magazines (I know of no other way to describe this, honestly).  And of course the exit is quite epic – a long, searing acid fart that blows fumes of acetone, citrus, brine and deeper fruits down your throat.

This rum is like a lot of very good whites on the market right now: Rum Fire, the Sajous, Toucan, J.B White, to name just a few. Quite aside from the heritage, the history, the production and eco-friendly nature of it, the rum is simply and powerfully an amazing original even when rated against those on the list of 21 Great Whites.  It’s not a rum that apologizes for its sense of excitement, or attempts to buffer itself with a standard profile in an effort to win brownie points with the larger audience.  It is maddeningly, surely, simply itself — and while I admit that strong whites are something of a thing for me personally (and not for people who like quieter, simpler or sweeter rums), I can’t help but suggest there’s so much going on with this one that it has to be tried by rum lovers at least once.

Luca and others have told me that River Antoine are having some issues maintaining the old water wheel and the open-air vats, and repairs are continuously being made. There are rumours of upgrading the equipment, perhaps even modernizing here or there.  I’m selfish, and I hope they manage to keep the old system going – because yes, they can make their rums faster, more easily, and issue more of them. But given the old-school quality of what I tried, the sheer force and fury and potency of what they’re already doing, I somehow wonder if anything modern they do will necessarily be better…or be regarded as a Key Rum. The way I regard this one.

(85/100)