Jun 282015
 

D3S_8944

A paradox of the mid range: a pot still rum that fails at very little…except perhaps excitement.

(#219. 81/100)

***

I’ve been writing and rewriting this review for almost three months: each time I came to grips with it, I thought of something else to add (or delete), or some new and interesting product eclipsed the Prichard’s and made me want to publish that first. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, maybe.

Prichard’s has been in business since 1996 when they became the first new distillery in Tennessee since the 1940s and have quite a stable of output, including some interesting rum products to their name – they produce three real rums, one spiced rum, three flavoured rums….plus six whiskies and five liqueurs.  So, as with many such outfits in the ‘States, I occasionally wonder if their love isn’t primarily given elsewhere and they make true rums only in order to branch out a little.  However, the website and interviews suggest the opposite, so maybe I’ve got it wrong. And I don’t mind that…I’m just curious about it.

Small companies making rum in the USA sometimes try to recreate the American rums of yore by varying their input or production methods.  In this case, Prichard’s use not blackstrap molasses (the black sticky residue after most of the sugar has been extracted), but sweet Louisiana Grade A molasses, of the sort that could be put on your pancakes the morning after.  The rum is then aged for four years in fifteen-gallon barrels of new oak (another point of departure from more traditional techniques) Whether that works or not is up to the individual.  I don’t think it’s all bad, just not something I’d remember enthusiastically a week from now either. It somehow results in a symphony of ho-hum in spite of some off-kilter moments.

Perhaps starting with the aromas might make the point clearer: initially the amber liquid as decanted from the squat long-necked bottle presented clearly, with chocolate and toffee leading the fray.  A little patience, a drop of water, and spices began to come forward – cardamon, fennel, apples, a cherry or two, and sly twitch of lemongrass for zest – before being blattened into the ground by a ridiculous amount of emerging iodine, leather, caramel, burnt brown sugar that dominated the nose from there on in.

The rum was medium bodied, neither fierce nor fawn.  It slid smoothly on the palate, just a little bit of burn from the standard proofage. I dunno, it seemed diffident, good ‘nuff, like a Three Bears of a rum, neither too much or too little.  Again mocha and dark chocolate, coffee, toffee.  And after it opened up, black grapes, overripe apples, more iodine, and a thin kind of vanilla thread through the whole business, with anise, molasses and caramel really taking ownership at this point and carrying the whole experience through to a lacklustre finish with just more of the same — unexceptionally so, in my opinion.

That grayness of my opinion has to do with the fact that while the Prichard’s Fine Rum  is a workmanlike product by any standard — competently made and reasonably executed — it doesn’t have that extra edge of oomph that excites.  It lacks any single shining point of distinction or originality upon which I can hang my hat and say “this part is freakin’ great,” hence my continual suspicion, however unjustified, that bourbon is what they really want to be making, and rum is an indifferent afterthought. Still…that it’s a drinkable, even sippable rum, with perhaps a shade too much Grade A hanging around in there, but worth the outlay — that’s all beyond dispute; it’s the question of whether it’s a must-have that’s is a bit more open to doubt.

See, some rums trumpet their badassery to the world, while others tick over quietly like swiss watches, the undercurrents of their quality self-evident to those who look and enjoy.  Here’s a rum that neither leaves you turning cartwheels in transports of drunken exuberance, nor shaking your head sadly as you mumble about a piece of junk you wasted time trying – but walking away from the experience, remarking to your friend, “That, mon ami, is a plain old rum.”

 

Jun 092015
 

D3S_9003

I just imbibed an angry blender set to “pulse”.

(#218. 79/100)

***

Even now, the words of the Roman poet Horace, resound: “Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans. It is lovely to be silly at the right moment.”  Every time I try one of the barking mad overproof 151 rums, these words come to me, because all I can think is that some mischievous guy in a lab somewhere is happily whipping up these rums like Professor Snape in his dungeon.  Surely there is little reason for rums this powerful to exist, but exist they do, and just like all those crazies who eat suicide wings by the cartload, I’m drawn to them like a rice-eating mongrel to the outhouse – gotta see what’s in there, why people constantly troop in and out, even if there’s a risk I might fall in.

Cavalier 151 is one of the select entries into the pantheon of 75.5% overproofs made by companies as diverse as J. Wray, Tilambic, Bermudez, Bacardi and Lemon Hart…and a few other rums even stronger than that*.  Honestly, there’s not really much point to reviewing one of these from the perspective of advising a drinker whether to have it neat or not, and what its mouthfeel compares to.  These porn-inspired liquid codpieces are made for local markets, or for cocktails which channel a Transformer on crack – not for more casual imbibers.

The Cavalier is from the same outfit that produced the English Harbour series of rums as well as the long-out-of-production Cavalier 1981 . It’s a straw coloured rum distilled from fermented molasses, and aged at least 2 years in used American bourbon barrels.

Some of that ageing shows in the initial profile (I let the glass sit down for about half an hour before approaching it). Yes it had some of the fierce, stabbing medicine-like reek of almost pure alcohol; it also had an appealing kind of creaminess to it, with a vague background of fruits and berries (blackberries, soft blackcurrants and the sharper spiciness of red ones), some faint vanilla…it was more than I was expecting, to be honest.  If tamed, I could almost sense the aged English Harbour expressions coiling behind.

151 Label

As we might expect, on the palate, the thing turned feral.  I know the label says it’s a “refined and mellow rum” but if you believe that, then I have some low tide real estate you really should look at. It was deep and hot and spicy to a fault, and care had to be taken not to take too large a sip lest my my gums fell out.  The heat and power of this overproof were, as with most others, its undoing as a neat spirit.  First neat and then with water, I sensed muted flavours of vanilla, leather, some smoke, caramel, butter cookies, all wound around with coconut shavings, followed by more black-currants and blackberries – they were just all so faint, and the heat so intense, that it made picking things out something of a lost cause, as it more felt like I had just swallowed the freshly stropped shaving razors of the Almighty. No issues with the finish – long, long, long, hot and spicy, with a last sharp puff of coconut and biscuits left behind to mingle with some vanilla.

So, yeah, of course it’s a little unrefined.  With that much alcohol in the liquid, there ain’t a whole lot of space left over for the finer things.  Yet flavours were indeed there, however mild and overawed by the raw booze…and they were very nice when I spotted them.  It supports my contention that overproofs as a whole are meant for deep and massive mixed drinks, barflies and bartenders and lovers of the Tiki, and not so much for any kind of snooty tasting. They may be more throwaway efforts than serious exemplars of the blenders’ arcane arts, but in that very unsophistication lies their attraction (that, and some bitchin’ cocktails).

I would suggest that’s more than enough foolishness to get us all through a season of silliness or two. And it’ll put a ridiculous smile on our faces for sure. That alone might make such a bottle worth buying.

Other notes

As far as I know, rums stronger than the more common 151s are:

Jun 032015
 

D3S_9106

***

Sweet enough to appeal, smooth enough to enjoy, complex enough to admire. Solid, succulent Bajan rum from 2003, a cut above the ordinary, just like its 2001 brother.

(#217. 86/100)

***

Why Fabio Rossi, the gentleman behind Rum Nation, keeps referring to his Bajan offerings as “entry level” is beyond me.  ‘Cause like Mr. Gump, I may not be a smart man, but I know what entry level is. This is a few notches higher, and that it can do what it does with what for me is a relative anemic 40% strength, is no mean achievement in a pantheon dominated by R.L. Seale, Cockspur and St. Nicholas Abbey.

That said, it does lack some of that distinctive complexity of character that would make me rank it higher. Consider first the nose of the orange-brown rum: like many of Rum Nation’s products there is that olfactory sense of sinking into the soft ease of a plush chesterfield, with which which any consumer of Barbados rums would be quite happy. Bananas, brown sugar and taffy, some crushed hazelnuts, almonds, and an odd spray of cough drops stealing through the back end (cough drops?…I tried again, and yes, that’s what it nosed like).

To taste, that depth of lushness continued, though the rum presented as a somewhat lighter, even “Spanish” style of mouthfeel.  It moved away from the brown sugar and caramel, and provided initial flavours of smoke and vanillas that the oak had imparted; yet also more sweetness and smoothness here, like running our spoon through a ripe papaya.  Some kick of not-quite-ripe apricots, a bit of green grape, kiwi fruit, aromatic pipe tobacco, a bit of dry must…overall, a very unaggressive, quite friendly rum, extremely accessible.  The finish was not too shabby for a standard strength rum: shorter than I might have wished for, but still impressively redolent of caramel, burnt sugar and smoky notes.

You could mix the rum, I suppose, though with something this easy-going, I question why. It has few of the jagged edges that a cocktail might seek to smoothen out, or enhance. I think it’s fine to have neat – its strength (or lack thereof) makes that no chore at all. In any case, Rum Nation has never really hewed to the elemental brutality of full proof rums issued by the Scots, or Velier, or Samaroli.  They strike me as closer in philosophy to Plantation, with their finishing strategy and slightly more voluptuous profiles. In that sense, to me, it is better than the rum many use as their Bajan baseline, the Mount Gay XO, and for sure I enjoyed it more than the Cockspur 12. It actually has more in common with some of FourSquare’s rums, but that’s just me.

According to Mr. Rossi, the rum is derived from Barbados molasses distilled in a column still, aged in American oak barrels in the Caribbean — no mention where, I suppose we can assume also in Barbados — before being shipped off to be finished for 18-24 months in Italy, in ex-Spanish brandy casks before bottling.  As a point of interest, unlike the 2001 RN Barbados 10 year old, this rum did not come from the West Indies Refinery, though you’d be hard pressed to put the two side by side, taste them blind, and know which was which.

Like Plantation, Rum Nation has been catching some flak recently for adding sugar to their rums. I guess people are having some difficulty marrying the generally positive reviews out there (mine among them) with the mere suggestion of saccharine inclusion. Now I acknowledge the influence that sugar has in making this rum what it is (and that’s not a negative opinion), but am also aware this is a deliberate choice to create the final product, not to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, or deliberately tart up and obscure an inferior piece of crap – I’ve spent too much money on, and sampled too many of, RN’s rums, old and young, to believe that for a moment.

In any event, I can tell you that here Rum Nation has produced an affordable, pleasant and drinkable spirit, one I enjoyed thoroughly and would happily buy again.  I may ultimately prefer my high-end aged agricoles and full proof twenty-plus year old taste-bombs, but that is no reason not to give this softer, younger Bajan a whirl.  Even if you believe, as its maker does, that it’s “just an entry level rum.”

Because that it isn’t, not really.

 

***

Other notes

  • New bottle design introduced in the 2014 season
  • 8118 bottles outturn

 

May 272015
 
New Grove 8

Photo crop courtesy of the Ultimate Rum Guide, as mine turned out to be crap.

A little too thin and out of balance for my palate, though the tastes are intriguing.

(#216. 81/100)

***

A few words about Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar, which has been at varying times composed of more islands and fewer, and either Dutch, English or French…though Arabs and Portuguese both made landfall there before initial failed colonization (by the Dutch) in 1638. However, its strategic position in the Indian Ocean made both French and British fight for it during the Age of Empires, and both remain represented on the island to this day, melding with the Indian and Asian cultures that also form a sizeable bulk of the population. The volcanic nature of the soil and tropical climate made it well suited for sugar cane, and there were thirty seven distilleries operational by 1878, who sold mainly to Africa and Madagascar.

New Grove is a rum made on that island, and while the official marketing blurbs on the Grays website tout a Dr. Harel creating the rum industry back in 1852, the first sugar mill dates back to 1740 in Domain de la Veillebague, in the village of Pampelmousses, with the first distillery starting up two years later: New Grove is still made in that area, supposedly still using the original formula.  The Harel family have moved into other concerns (like the Harel-Mallac group, not at all into agriculture), but other descendants formed and work for Grays – one of them sent me the company bio, for example, and three more sit on the board of directors.

Grays itself was formed in 1935 (the holding company Terra Brands, was established in 1931 by the Harels and the first still brought into operation in 1932) and are a vertically integrated spirits producer and importer.  They own all stages of local production, from cane to cork, so to speak, and make cane spirit, white rum, a solera and aged rums, for the Old Mill and New Grove brands which were established in 2003 for the export market.

It was the eight year old New Grove which I was looking at this time around. The molasses is fermented for 36 hours and then distilled in a column still; the emergent 65-80% spirit is then packed away in oak for preliminary ageing (about eight months) and then transferred into Limousin oak – about 30% of these barrels are new – for the final slumber.

So all these are technical details, you say, historical stuff…what’s the rum like?

Well, not too shabby, actually.  Even at 40%, the copper-gold 8 year old was intriguing.  I mean…ripe mangoes right off the bat? Although the initial nose presented itself rather sharply – probably because I pushed my beak into the glass too quickly and hadn’t waited a little – it did mellow out a little.  Sharpish yellow fruits – peaches, unripe papaya, lemon peel, green grapes – predominated, and had a tang to it (that mango thing) which was quite unusual. The downside was that the balance of the vanillas an tannins and caramel – the molasses side of things, if you will – was edged out, and some of the balance was lost.

On the palate, the flavours continued their emergence without much more, but the whole mouthfeel was disconcertingly thin, and even a bit spiteful. This gradually retreated and the taste after a bit gave way to a much softer profile of red guavas, firm yellow Indian mangoes (they’re slightly different in taste to Caribbean ones I grew up with), ginger, papaya again…and a taste of white soursop as well.  So taste wise, I liked it – sort of – but the overall balance problem did persist, and the lack of heft and body kinda sank the experience for me.  Things were rescued somewhat by a relatively long fade, smooth and warm, nothing to be afraid of.  A whiff of tobacco, some brown sugar and vanilla at last, a tad of smokiness – it was odd how the fruity nature disappeared, leaving more traditional elements to finally take their moment on the stage only at the final bow.

So overall, not anything to I was going to get hugely enthusiastic about.  I should mention that this eight year old has in fact won silver and gold awards in 2013 and 2014 on the European festival circuit (Madrid, German ISW, Belgium, and UK IWCS) so certainly others take a less unforgiving approach to the spirit than I do. But what can I say – it’s a rum, it’s aged, it’s decently made, but it doesn’t really come together, sock me in the jaw and shiver me timbers.  I’d much rather take a look at New Grove’s 2013 limited single barrel expressions from the 2004 output, aged longer and with a higher proof point…I have a feeling I might appreciate these more.  That said, note that for a US$50 price point, the eight year old will likely be enjoyed by many and is reasonably affordable. Only time will tell how sales and the expression’s reputation develop.

May 212015
 

D3S_1673

When you drink full proof and overproof rums for a long time, many forty percenters can seem, well…a shade pusillanimous.  No such issue afflicts the 62.7% full proof of Albion 1989, ‘cause that thing looks and  feels and samples like it’s about to father a nation.

(#215 / 91/100)

***

 

The Albion 1994 was power and passion and style all wedded together in a remarkable fusion, and my only regret has always been that I couldn’t get more. It was preceded by a version from 1983, 1986, and this one from 1989. These days, the only place you’ll find either is from a collector or on the secondary market.  And that wasn’t helped by the paucity of output for the 1989 either.

I’m always whining about craft makers bottling too few rums in their single barrel or cask strength issues, yet this one is bordering on the ridiculous – Velier only issued 108 bottles of the Albion 1989. Still, points must go to Luca Gargano, who resisted the temptation to blend this miniscule output with something else, and simply took what he could from the single barrel in 2008, added nothing, took away nothing, diluted nothing, tampered with nothing.  And there you are.

When I poured the dark amber rum into my glass in Paris a while back (I was shamelessly pilfering tasting notes on anything in grabbing range, nearly knocking over poor Serge Valentin in my haste to get my grubby paws on this one), it was like coming home. Nosing it, I was struck anew how amazing it was that a rum can be made at that kind of strength and yet still maintain a smoothness of profile that doesn’t do a rabid dog imitation on your senses. The rum’s nose was immense – it smelled thick, creamy, like a melting licorice waterfall; black grapes, anise, caramel, burnt sugar billowed up, being chased by the sweet fresh honey from a cracked comb.  I thought I’d get some wax or rubber notes, but nope, none here.

The taste of the 1989 was wired up, juiced up, and electrified like the Tokyo downtown, and you got into it immediately. I remember just shaking my head with admiration, even awe, after the first sip. The palate was full bodied, without equivocation.  Thick and creamy, surprisingly sweet, and not dry or briny – but there was tobacco and rubber floating around in the background, some furniture polish and tar (actually quite similar to a Caroni).  Dried fruits emerged, mango and papaya, some salt in the back taste.  I added some water and it continued providing new, strong notes of vanilla, nuts, aromatic pipe tobacco and smoke, leading to a long, long finish, with rubber, melting tar, more smoke, more caramel, more vanilla.  I kept a glass charged with this stuff for literally an hour, always coming back to it, always finding something else and still probably missed something.

Albion 1989

I’ve always enjoyed experiments in the craft like this, where the makers change just a single coordinate in the standard equation of the rum universe just to, I dunno, mess with it and see what’ll happen. Here, that’s a hell of a lot.  Even with the overall excellent stable of rums Velier makes (and that’s plenty), there are rums and then there are rums. This, in my opinion, is one of the latter.

See, a rum like, oh, a Bacardi for instance, sells so much that it creates its own weather system in the spirits world.  The Albion 1989 is nowhere near that league – at best it’s an intense, localized twister with a shard of lightning thrown in.  Can you see yourself rushing out to experience that?  Not likely.  But if you’re a person looking at the world through slightly askew lenses, the phenomenal power and quality of something this spectacular cannot be overstated and after you’ve experienced it, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever worry too much, in rum terms, about another cloudy day, threatening rain.

 

Other notes:

Like the 1994, it is remarked as being from a wooden continuous still, about which I have my doubts.

Distilled 1989, bottled 2008, 108 bottles.

May 132015
 

D3S_9068

 

(#214)

***

Although a huge market for cachaça exists in Brazil where it is the national tipple they sometimes call pinga, very little of it makes it to other countries in comparison to agricoles (let alone more popular molasses based rums). For rummies, it’s something like an undiscovered country. A cane-juice-based spirit, it has certain basic similarities to agricoles and has been referred to as a type of brandy, of the aguardente family.  Cachaças are often unaged and like clairins in Haiti, run the gamut from underproof to overproof drinks, and are often bottled clear. I should mention, however, that many aged varieties of cachaça do in fact exist – the three I look at below are examples – but it seems like they stay in-country for the most part. I should also point out that Brazilians don’t worry overmuch about sourcing oak barrels for their aged versions, and just as easily use local woods – and that gives them profiles that are unusual to say the least.

With the increasing interest in cane juice rhums, and a simultaneous uptick in all-natural spirits, cachaça may be due to have its exposure grow. Certainly Bert Ostermann, the man behind Delicana out of Germany, feels that way.  He has been producing cachaças for many years now, always with small sales primarily in Europe.  When I met him in 2014, he was exhibiting his 5 and 10-year old products, and I tried all three he had, which were so new that he didn’t even have labels for them yet (he got some by the time the Fest ended, and those are the ones in the pics below). Unfortunately, ebbing time and the many more rums to sample did not permit me to get into the history of his company, or his production techniques — so aside from noting their source in sugar cane juice distilled in a pot still and production in the state of Minais Gerais Brazil (just north of Rio), I can’t tell you much more until he responds to the email I sent a few weeks ago, or the message I left for him on FB.

With that paucity of information, I decided to just run them together as a single essay on the tasting notes, the results of which are below.

Delicana 10 Year Old Balsamo – 40% blonde spirit, aged in Balsamo wood.

  • Nose: Light and clear.  Vegetal. Fresh stripped cane stalks.  Peaches. Sugar water, cinnamon, faint whiff of white flowers and sap from a cut banana plant.
  • Palate: First guia was untamed and raw.  Anise, licorice, lemongrass and fresh lime zest. Opens up into some more unripe firm green fruit like mangos.  New-mown grass.  Very little sign of the ageing I’m used to…hard to believe this is a 10 year old.
  • Finish: Short. Grassy notes mixed up with banana peel
  • Thoughts: Not unbalanced, per se…just untamed. Ten years of ageing seem to have done little to smoothen this one out, and it could easily be mistaken for a much younger product. But not an entirely bad one.

(79/100)

Delicana 5 Year Old Jequitibá – 40% clear spirit, aged in Jequitibá.

  • Nose: Holy <bleep>. Enormous for a 40% rum. Salt and pepper…a lot. Unripe green apples. Spicy, coming in just short of sharp.  Like licking an iron bar.
  • Palate: Hot, yet once you get over that, it mellows well. Clear metallic tastes predominate at the inception; saltpetr, firecrackers and gunpowder explode in the mouth and then disappear; some salt butter, black olives, more pepper. I can honestly say I’ve never tried anything like this. Tried it three more times, with and without water, same result.
  • Finish: Medium long, more salt, and pimento-stuffed olives in brine
  • Thoughts: points for originality and texture, but that initial taste really threw me.  Maybe not a drink to have pura.

(74/100)

Delicana 5 Year Old Umburana (artesinal premium) – 40% blonde spirit, aged in Umburana (or Amburuna)

  • Nose: Nice, remarkably gentle after the first two. Vegetal, apples, some grass in there, all pungent and deep. Some musty cardboard (seriously!)
  • Palate: Soft, easy-going, warm to try. Cinnamon, marzipan, then emerging tastes of olives and green grass, lemon juice and some creamy salt butter; sugar water and a whiff of plasticine and rubber. Brine kept in check here.
  • Finish: long and sweet, a little bite at the back end from a vagrant citrus peel; better than the Balsamo.
  • Thoughts: Best of the three (for my palate, anyway).  Bert and I tried all three together a second time, and as far as he was concerned, I had it bass ackwards, and the Balsamo was definitely better.

(82/100)

***

As I also remarked in the Clairin Sajous write-up, these are rums not for everyone.  They are very different from most, partly because of the aforementioned ageing in Brazilian woods that imparted such distinct and unusual tastes to each one. That alone might make lovers of traditional rums (whether mixers or sippers) cast a dubious eye on these, or relegate them to cocktails like the famous caipirinha.

I liked them for their originality, but overall, as a person who generally drinks rums neat, I can’t pretend I cared for these to the point where they become must-haves on my shelf…Brazilians with differently adjusted palates would probably vocally and violently disagree.  So if you’re curious, you should try them yourself, especially since they are all quite affordable. Also, having tried many caipirinhas over the years, I can enthusiastically recommend them that way, at least. After all, Quanto pior a cachaça, melhor a caipirinha, right?

Sooner or later I’m going online and ordering a bunch of the Boys from Brazil, that’s a given; I’m on a bit of an agricole kick right now, though, so it’ll have to wait. For the moment, these three micro-reviews give some inkling of what’s in store for those of us who venture into Brazilian waters to see what white kill-divil lies in wait to ravish our palates and liquify our kidneys.

Other notes

I was about halfway into writing this essay when Josh Miller of Inuakena pipped me with his excellent little series where he briefly compared not three or five or even ten, but fourteen separate cachaças, all from different companies (from the perspective of whether they made good caipirinhas).  So hats off to the man, and if your interest in Brazilian cachaças has been piqued, go right over to his short and informative comparisons.

 

May 072015
 

D3S_9063

Cool bottle, great product.  Almost the perfect mid-range rhum, not too young to be raw, not too old to be over-pricey, or unavailable.

(#213. 86/100)

***

The zippy, funky young J. Bally Ambrè agricole was an interesting rhum from Martinique, and I enjoyed it, simply feeling it had some growing up to do – which is perhaps natural for a rhum aged less than five years. The Vieux 7 year old certainly addressed many of these concerns, and was a better rhum in almost every way.  Ageing may not always confer quality  (neither does price) I’ve heard it said, but I think the person who tries these two side by side would agree that the 7 is a step up the ladder of value.

The rhum came in an enclosure that had all the panache of Mocambo’s Pistola, Nepal’s Kukhri, R.L Seale’s 10 year old or Don Omario’s star-shape, and seemed to reiterate J. Bally’s desire to be different (the Ambrè did too, remember?) – and I must admit to doing a double take myself when I first saw the pyramid-shaped 700ml bottle, so the effect has certainly not waned with the decades since it was first introduced. There’s a whiff of the nautical to it – in rolling seas, the tall slim bottle of the Clairin Sajous would be over the side in no time, but drunk or sober, storm or calm, this one would remain rock steady, ready for you to reach out from your hammock belowdecks and get your tot.

Anyway, this was a rhum I savoured right alongside its younger brother, and appreciated even more. Goldish brown with reddish tints, it was aromatic right off the bat even from a few feet away on the initial pour.  I immediately sensed soft flowers and cut grass, that herbal sap-like fragrance so characteristic of agricoles, and given the rhum was bottled at 45%, quite warm and easy going…quiet, almost.  No aggro at all.  I swirled my glass a little wondering if it would grow fangs,  develop into something more intense, but no, it remained quite placid. Once I allowed it to sit around for a while, it opened up a shade, and the ageing became more evident, with background of oak and vanillas becoming more prominent, but never quite overtaking the herbaceous primary aromas.

D3S_9064

At 45%, it showed great technique – I’ve had forty percenters that were more raw and uncouth; it was an impressively smooth and warm drink, and could be had neat with no issues at all. It was heated and yet clear, even crisp.  Although initially my perceptions were of briny notes alongside cheddar cheese on rye bread, cinnamon, burnt sugar, caramel, white flowers (creamy would not be out of place to describe it), these tastes subsided after a while, giving way to tobacco and vanilla and a faint butterscotch without ever being overwhelmed by them.  Underneath it all was that breezy, grassy layer that melded well with what came before.  And I really enjoyed the fade, long and clean, with lovely closing notes of fresh cut green apples, lemongrass and crushed cane at the factory.  You might not think that works well with the vanilla background imparted by the ageing in oaken casks, but yeah, somehow it does.

So…it’s a quietly impressive rhum that would find favour just about anywhere. With some drinks I have to be careful and state that a person who is just looking to start his rum journey might not appreciate it, or one who prefers his molasses might not like it.  In other cases, the taste might be too raw, too funky, too out-of-left-field, too strong, even too original. Those who possess an A-type personality might prefer something else entirely.  But here, J. Bally have provided a synthesis of all the things that make rum such a wonderful drink, something to appeal to the many without catering to any of them.  There would be few, I believe — fan, starter, boozer, mixer, collector or connoisseur — who would not appreciate this very good all round seven year old rhum from Martinique.

Thank goodness, too, because as soon as you crack the bottle and take your first sip, it’s going to be hard to stop at just a single shot. I sure couldn’t.

***

Other notes

  • I’ve spoken to the history of J. Bally in the Ambre review, for those who like the background filled in.
  • Like the Ambrè, this rhum is AOC certified
  • Unfiltered, unadulterated.  Aged in oak for seven years
Apr 302015
 

D3S_1657-001

Drinking this rum is knowing what harpooning Moby Dick felt like. A wild-haired full-proof bodybuilder of a rhum, so absolutely unique in taste that it it defied easy description. I sampled it and knew I wanted to write about it immediately.  

(#212. 82/100)

***

So there I was in Paris at La Maison du Whiskey in April 2015, with some fellow rummies. Hundreds of bottles of rhum and rum beckoned from groaning shelves. Samples from years past – decades past! – winked in their little bottles, inviting us to get started. Straight-out rumporn, honestly. Our hands were itching to start the pours, but we were having too much fun just talking with each other to get going.

We were discussing rum classifications – colour, country, age, style – and the organizer of our ramblings (who wanted to remain nameless so I shall simply refer to him as The Sage) suggested that origin was probably best as a primary separator – pot still, single column still, multiple column still, juice versus molasses, etc – before going into further possible gradations of colour and ageing and country and style.

“You simply cannot mistake a pot still product, fresh off the still,” he argued. “Like Pere Labatt white, or Neisson, HSE, any of the agricole makers who produce a white rum at full proof.”

“Don’t forget Haiti,” I suggested, thinking mostly, it must be said, of Barbancourt. But also of the new stuff Velier was developing, from that half-island.

“Yes, absolutely.  There are five hundred small producers in Haiti making clear rum the way they have for ages and ages.  Barbancourt is good but gone mass market.  If you want to see what a really original white pot still product is like, you have to try these small ones that only get sold locally, at any strength. Fully organic, old-school stuff.”

D3S_1657

“Never tried one,” I admitted. The Sage looked utterly scandalized at my ignorance: I had evidently dropped a few notches in his esteem. He darted behind the counter, rummaged around a bit and came back tenderly cradling a tasting glass brimming with a white liquid.

“Try this. Full proof Clairin Sajous, bottled straight from the still. 53.5%”

The term “clairin” is not a common one: references to it only exist online dating back to 2008. Clairin is, quite simply, clear white pot still rhum made in Haiti from cane juice, sometimes with wild yeast and a longer fermentation period, often without any ageing whatsoever.  They can range from a please-don’t-hurt-me 30% or so, to (in more extreme cases) a more feral gun-toting, bring-it-on 60%. It’s the drink of the country, the way cachaca is in Brazil.

The variants of the rhum span the whole gamut of quality as well: some are rough, bathtub-brewed popskull as likely to kill you as enthuse you, bottled in whatever containers are on hand for the benefit of local consumption; others are slightly more upscale and professionally made stuff, from small outfits like Sajous, Vaval and Casimir – these are occasionally sent abroad.  Velier has distributed these three in its latest offerings, for example, and it was the Sajous I was trying.

The rhum looked harmless, defenceless, innocuous…meek and demure.  I regarded it suspiciously as a result. I remembered traumatic incidents with cachaca, as well as unexpected clear taste bombs from Rum Nation and Nine Leaves. “Not aged at all?” I asked.

“No.”

I took a tentative pull with my nose. Even that tiny, delicate, sommelier-sniffing-the-wine sniff was too much. My eyes watered, my vision swam, my nose puckered, and my knees trembled. My God but this stuff was pungent.  Not so much the strength, which was a relatively strong-but-bearable 53.5%, but its sheer intense potency. If I was older, I might have asked for a defibrillator to be on standby.

There was this incredibly large bubble of salt and wax expanding through my head. Brine and gunpowder exploded on the nose, mixed in with kerosene and fuel oil, turpentine and lacquer. It was almost like sniffing a tub of salt beef, yet behind all that, there was the herbal clarity of water in which a whole lot of sugar was dissolved (“swank” we called it in my bush-working days), crushed green mint leaves and just-mown grass on which the sprinkler is irrigating in bright sunlight.

I withdrew my nose after a few tries of this, scribbled my notes down in a shaking hand, and moved on to taste.  I had learnt caution, as you can see. And if you’re trying a full-proof Clairin yourself for the first time after a lifetime of molasses-based rums, I’d recommend it.

D3S_1658

The feel of the Sajous in the palate was hot, thick and heavy, even though the thing was not raw or excruciatingly sharp by any means. It was as intense and flavourful as the nose, if not more so – sap, thick and sweet and oily started things out.  The rhum coated the tongue with the tenacity of a junkie clutching five dollar bill. I don’t often use the word “chewy” but it really works to describe how it felt.  Initially the Sajous presented itself as heated and spicy, and then it smoothened out well, giving over to a buttery, and more agricole-like profile – fresh cut sugar cane, wax, furniture polish, salt beef in malt vinegar (yeah, I know how that sounds), and all shot through with green, unripe fruit, some lemon peel, and that vegetal, green flavour that drives agricole lovers into transports. More kerosene and brine permeated the back end, and the fade, long and deep, lingered for a damned long time – enough to make me put down the glass after a bit, inhale deeply and just try to wait the thing out.  Before starting again.

I finally stopped my sampling, caught my breath, and looked over at Cyril from DuRhum, who was grinning at me with a glass of his own in his hand. “What did you think of it?” I asked him.  He and I both liked the Nine Leaves Clear and had good things to say about Rum Nation’s 57% White Pot Still.  Those were similar to this, but nowhere near as uncultured, as elemental.They had been babied a little, smoothened a mite in the cuts, while this hadn’t even progressed to training wheels. It reminded me of three explosive cachacas I had tried (twice) from a small booth at the 2014 Berlin RumFest – they exhibited that same off-the-scale craziness and untamed wild freedom.

Cyril’s understatement was massively un-Gallic: “It’s different, isn’t it?” He, Daniele and The Sage were vastly amused at my reaction.  I guess that was understandable – I don’t have a poker face worth a damn, and had never tried a white rhum with quite this level of profile intensity before. Just the aroma was enough to make you rethink any preconceptions of what a rum or rhum could be.

“All right then,” I said to The Sage, stealing another sip and shuddering a little less. “What can you tell me about the Sajous?”

He told me what he knew (much of which was on the label): it was made from pure sugar harvested from Java cane originating from India, grown in a small 30-hectare estate owned by Michel Sajous, in Saint Michel de l’Attalaye just north of Port-au-Prince. It was all organic and un-messed with from start to finish.  Fermentation was done over seven to ten days using wild yeast, double distilled at the Chelo distillery on the property – and then run straight into the bottles after coming off the still.  No ageing, no additives, no dilution, no nothing.  (Now that I think of it, it also reminded me a little of the SMWS Longpond 9 81.3%).

“Real traditional agricole rhum before it gets tampered with, purest example of the type,” he said, and it was clear he wasn’t kidding. If there was ever an “original” rhum, the Sajous wasn’t far away from it – the only issue I had with it was perhaps a bit too much.  I liked it…more or less.  And the more intoxicated I got, the better it was, which may have been the point.

Cyril, Serge, Daniele, The Sage and I moved on to other things, sampled a load of old rums, went to dinner, talked about rum, drank some more, talked about rum, and had a wonderful time. They were all courteous enough to speak English to me, as my French is execrable – I got my own back by carrying on in Russian with The Sage’s beautiful better half.  You’d think we would run out of things to say about rum after a while, but no – the subject was as inexhaustible as the varieties. Alas, I had to excuse myself after several hours of it, since my wife was waiting for me and probably getting grumpy.

As I walked back to my hotel, I tried to summarize my feelings about the Clairin Sajous rhum. Without dissing the thing, I can say that this is not everyone’s rum, or a must-have unicorn you share like pictures of your first-born. In fact, Spanish and English style molasses-based rum lovers would likely never approach it again after trying it once.  Even agricole enthusiasts might back off a bit.  I’m scoring it reasonably high because of good production value, great heft, an enormously intriguing profile, and an original character that stands supremely alone on the prow of its self-proclaimed awesomeness, saying “Call me Sajous”. It would make a tiki drink or a complex cocktail that would blow your hair back, no problem, yet it is probably too different from the mainstream to appeal to most – in that lies both its attraction and its downfall.

Because, you see, some taming of this beast is likely to be required, before it finds real favour and acceptance in the bars of the broader rum world. I liked it for that precise reason, and will get it (and its brothers) again but must be honest enough to say I’d only buy one at a time, far apart…and always have a defibrillator handy.

Other notes

Made by Sajous at Chelo, but distributed and promoted by Velier.

For the guys I met and who took the time to talk rum, a big Merci.

Apr 172015
 
rum-caroni-1994-18-anni

Photo courtesy of Velier

 

This Caroni isn’t the strongest one in the rumosphere but it conforms to most of the expectations taste-wise – a shade more dark and it could probably be used to surface a road somewhere. A good to great exemplar from the closed distillery.

(#211. 87/100)

***

This is one of five or six rums I bought in an effort to raise the profile of the now-defunct Caroni Distillery from Trinidad. That it was made by Velier didn’t hurt either, of course, because almost alone among the rums makers out there, Luca Gargano has the distinction of making just about all of his rums at cask strength, and everything he’s made thus far I’ve liked.  And at 55% ABV, it may just be accessible to a wider audience, assuming it can ever be found in the jungle of Caronis Velier makes (I bought mine from Italy for a lire or two under €80).

Because Caroni has now been closed for over a decade, its products are getting harder to find as stocks run down — when we start seeing expressions dated from the year 2000 and greater, the end is near, and purely on that basis they may be good investment choices for those inclined that way.  Bristol Spirits and Rum Nation and some other craft makers have issued rums from here before, but Velier probably has the largest selection of this type in existence (sometimes varying strengths from the same year), and I know I’ll never get them all…so let’s stick with this one, and waste no further time.

D3S_8897

Presentation is slightly different than the stark zen minimalism of the Guyanese rums; here it came with a black and white box, nice graphics, and all the usual useful information: distilled in 1994, aged 18 years (fourteen in Trinidad, thereafter in Guyana), bottled 2012, 6943 bottles from 23 barrels.  Plastic tipped cork (these are coming into their own these days, and are hardly worthy of comment any longer except by their absence), black bottle, decent label, and, I have to mention, when I poured it out, it was quite the darkest Caroni I’d tried thus far, which had me rubbing my hands together in glee.

I appreciate higher proofed spirits topping 60%, yet I couldn’t fault what had been accomplished in this instance with something a few points lower: the rich aromas of this dark blonde rum led off immediately with licorice and candied apples, strong and full fruity scents mixing with sharper tannins of oak; there was some burnt rubber and plastic hiding in there someplace, like a well insulated rubber truncheon to the face.  It was pleasant and full and rich, pervaded by a both deep and heated lusciousness.  The longer I let it stand, the more I got out of it, and recall with pleasure additional notes of burnt sugar, rosy, floral scents, cedar and pine…and, as if to tip me a roué’s leering wink, a last laugh of mint flavoured bubble gum (no, really – I went back to the glass four times over two days to make sure I wasn’t being messed with).

As if to make up for its mischievousness, the Caroni 1994, aged for eighteen years in oak barrels in Trinidad and Guyana, turned serious with a hint of mean on the palate.  Sharp, salty, briny tastes led right off. It was a spirituous assault on the tongue, so bright and fierce that initially it made me feel like I’d just swallowed an angry blender.  Fortunately, that smoothened out over time, and became gentler (if a term like that could be applied to such a concussive drink) – a buttery, creamy profile emerged from the maelstrom, merging seamlessly with oaken tannins, licorice, vanillas, aromatic pipe tobacco, some fresh tar; and more caramel and burnt sugar  tastes, that were stopped just shy of bitterness by some magic of the maker’s art.  And the long and lasting finish was similarly bold and complex, bringing last memories of nuts, tannins and hot black tea to leaven the caramel and anise I detected.

D3S_8896

As we drink this powerful shot, we come to grips with a certain essential toughness of the maker, an unsubtle reminder of a man who makes no small rums, but feral, mean, blasting caps that glance with indifference at the more soothing exemplars which pepper all the festivals and tasting events. It’s big, blunt, intimidating and seemingly impervious to dilution (I can only imagine what the stronger version is like). This Caroni is not subtle but then, Velier doesn’t really do milquetoast, preferring bold in-your-face statements to understated points of please-don’t-hurt-me diffidence.  So I’d suggest that it’s not a rum for everyone…but in its elemental power of proof lies its appeal: to those who are willing to brave it, and to those who enjoy an occasional walk on the wild side with a rum as fascinating and excellent as this one.

Other notes

Look again at the outturn for that year and that strength: just shy of 7,000 bottles from 23 casks.  And that’s only 1994. When you consider the sheer range of the Caronis Velier has already put out the door, and the sadly slim pickings (thus far) from other craft makers, you begin to get an inkling of exactly how much stock Velier has managed to pick up.

D3S_8898

Apr 082015
 

D3S_8890

Another, slightly lesser brother from the same mother. It stands in the shadow of the company’s magnificent 34 Year Old.

(#210 / 85/100)

***

It’s possible that Bristol Spirits decided to play it safe (again) with the 43% expression from the closed Caroni Distillery of Trinidad…y’know, give it a wider audience than the drop-down-dead-of-old-age 34 year old 1974 variation which would dig a deep hole in both your wallet and your marriage. Or maybe that’s how the barrel played out when it came time to bottle the liquor (notice that 2008 was the same year they produced the 1974, so both were issued simultaneously). It’s good, but in my own opinion, could have been a shade better — their contention that they’re happy with the strength at which they issue their rums always struck me as taking the road more commonly travelled instead of breaking out to chart their own path.

Which is not to say that anyone buying the 19 year old will be disappointed. Even the appearance is quietly dramatic and eye catching, and adheres to Bristol’s standards: a psychedelic orange label on a barroom bottle with a plastic tipped cork, all housed in a cool black torpedo tube lettered in silver. I love Velier’s minimalism, but must concede I have a soft spot for Bristol as well.

Anyway, the rum itself: column-still produced, it was a dark golden brown liquid in the glass, displaying slow, chubby legs draining away down the sides. At 43% it was mellow to smell, dense and almost heavy with dark cherries, hibiscus blooms, licorice and a touch of brown sugar and molasses.  Yet at the same time it was also quite clean on the nose, warm, without any overweening alcohol sharpness that would have debased the rather luscious aroma.

To taste, the Caroni 1989 would not be described as “heavy,” as opposed to a full-proofed Demerara hailing from a wooden still, or a massively aged Jamaica rum flinging dunder and funk in all directions, both of which really could be. It was, in point of fact, a curious and delicious melange of textures that accurately navigated to being a medium bodied rum without actually being a pussyfooted one-hit-wonder. A column still distillate produced this?  Wow. Rich — but not overwhelming — notes of anise, fleshy fruit on the edge of ripeness, brown sugar, licorice, some molasses started things going, and after opening up you could tell the shared DNA of the 1974 (which I was tasting side by side): it was a less aggressive, easier version of that growling geriatric Trini. There were faint tastes of black olives, smoke, tannins and smoke, mixed in with road tar (this actually sounds worse than it is, trust me). I could not detect any of that salt and nuttiness that I remarked on the 1974 and it was a very pleasant drinking experience all ‘round…until the end.

D3S_8894

I’m going to spare a word about what to me was a disappointing finish for something so aged.  It was lacklustre in a way that was surprising after the quality of what had come before, and which diminished the positive impact of the preceding nose and palate.  This is where the 43% works against the rum and lessens the overall experience I’m afraid (some may disagree).  Sure it was clean and warm, even a shade dry, on the exit, with caramel and vanilla and smoky notes to finish things off…but it displayed a too-short attitude of good-enough “git-’er-dun” that offended me in a vague way. So yeah, the 43% does make a difference (just as 35% or 55% would).

I’m sort of conflicted on this Caroni.  I certainly liked it enough: it’s a rambunctious, delicious rum with a great profile and sleek, supple tastes to it — but which chokes a little on the back end.  The question is – as it must be – whether it’s as good as the 34 year old expression, or just different.  It’s probably leaning more to the latter. At the end, while it’s not quite as remarkable as its sibling, if you’re on a budget and want a Caroni, this one is an absolutely decent buy (I paid €130 for it), and you won’t feel short-changed if you spring for the thing, my whinging on the finish aside. Because it’s a Caroni and because I wanted to give the distillery some exposure, I bought it (and four or five others from various makers)…yet personally, I’d prefer to wait and save for something a bit more mature, something…well, beefier.  Like the 1974. Even at 46%, that one at least had some of the courage of its convictions.

 

error: Content is copyrighted. Please email thelonecaner@gmail.com for permission .