Mar 242015
 

D3S_9061


Young, rambunctious, uncoordinated, somewhat raw, and a riot in a mix of any kind.  Even neat it has a funky, raw charm all its own. In that, it’s an agricole all the way through.

(#208. 83/100)

***

The J Bally Ambrè Agricole is a young rhum that is still finding its legs, and places its origins in an estate on Martinique that stretches back to 1670, when the Lajus sugar plantation was founded.  It was one of those rhums from a company that has long had its place in the roll call of honour of the French West Indies – HSE, Trois Rivieres, Damoiseau, La Favourite, Courcelles, JM, La Mauny, Neisson are some others. I wish it was easier to find outside of Europe – I sure never saw anything like it in Canada when I lived there.

The eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902 completely destroyed parts of the island, and decimated its economy for years.  By the time Jacques Bally (no relation, ha ha) started sniffing around for opportunities fifteen years later, Lajus was already bankrupt and in receivership, and he bought it for a fire sale price. He shifted the emphasis away from sugar and towards the production of rhums, and in a daring innovation (for that or any other time) introduced quirky bottle shapes like the triangular one of the 7 year old, or the square blocky shape of this subject.  Within a few years the rhums of Bally were known over the island and were receiving good reviews worldwide.

D3S_9061-001

The blocky square shape of the Ambre was retained through the years to this day.  I wish they had not surmounted it with a cheap-ass tin foil cap, though….consciously or unconsciously it says something about the overall value the makers place on the rhum within.  Still, it had a lovely colour when sunlight beamed through it, and slow thick legs draining down the glass edge, and that gave me hope.

Nor was I disappointed: the Ambrè had what I can only call an amazing nose.  Yes it was light, grassy, herbal and vegetal.  I expected that.  Yes, it was heated, even sharp – for a rhum aged three or four years and issued at 45% ABV, it was a given that a soft feather brush wasn’t on the cards.  What I really enjoyed was the depth and pungency of the aromas, and how, after a while, they gave up generous secondary scents of distinct plums, peaches and ripe yellow mangoes.  I don’t know if it’s something about agricoles specifically, but many that I’ve tried seem to have this really strong intro, sharp and pungent and assertive (for good or ill), often quite complex even in the young ‘uns.

Tastewise, I didn’t feel it brought quite as much to the table: the Ambrè was medium heavy, with a decent textural sensation on the tongue, and the 45% gave it some heft and spiciness.  Here some of the mouth puckering driness and aggro I’ve also noted in several agricoles was evident, as was a a funky sweet grassiness hearkening back to fresh cut cane in the field after the fires have come through.  Sweet fruits like pineapple and (again) overripe mangoes were evident, which with some concentration could be further deconstructed into vanilla, some faint leather (probably deriving from the oak in which it was aged), cloves and rosemary, tightly bound into a central grassy, sap-like core.  And it all faded into a peppery, dry and clear finish with those same herbal notes, that was a bit too harsh for my personal taste. I imagine that the older expressions would smoothen things out more.

D3S_9062

These days, J. 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 I gather that the original recipe for its rhums remains intact, and sugar production continues at Lejus, 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.  The Ambrè may not be at the top of the line, but as a representative of unique agricole style of rhums, and AOC controlled, it hews to all the old traditions that made it so well known in past decades.

The J. Bally is as original and peculiar an agricole as I’ve had; it’s certainly right there in the wheelhouse of other famed agricoles, and your affinity for it will depend on your willingness to surrender to its style and tone and appreciate a slightly raw smacked-on-peyote vibe.  You may describe it variously as “dry”, “vegetal”, “sprightly” if you enjoy it, and “dry,” “vegetal” and “sprightly” if you don’t — the adjectives you add will show your feelings.  It’s all about perception and patience, I think, and while not entirely falling under its spell, I didn’t begrudge the time it took sample the supple charms of this young, not-quite-tamed rum from Martinique.  It was quite an enjoyable experience and I look forward to climbing up the age-value chain to see how the older expressions develop.

***

Other notes:

Unfiltered, unadulterated.  Aged in oak for 3-4 years

Mar 182015
 
D3S_8975

Not my best rum photo ever: I had set the shutter speed too slow…

 

This is definitely a rum to chillax with. A solid, relaxed and very pleasant Salvadorean rum which should be given some attention…even if it’s actually from Panama.

(#207. 83/100)

***

Assume you were a new outfit in a country A and were making a new rum whose brand was once owned and which was once made, by your family; you sourced distillate from another country, B; used that country B’s facilities to make and age the finished product; and hired a Master Blender, also from that B country.  Now, the question is, whose rum is it? A or B? This is not nearly as academic an exercise as it seems, because Ron Maya purports to be a rum from El Salvador, yet the sugar cane and distillate hail from Panama, the rum is aged in Panama, and the ‘recipe’ for the final blend comes courtesy of Don Pancho Fernandez, also associated with the Panamanian industry.

When I ran across the rum at the Berlin 2014 Rum Festival (where it won a Bronze medal for 11-14 year old rums), the company representative was quite clear about the matter without any prompting. She told me frankly that the purpose of making both this product and its younger 8-year old sibling (also an award winner in Madrid in 2014), was to kickstart a long-dormant rum industry in El Salvador generally, and for the family that owned the brand specifically. The issue is not entirely without precedent – for example, Pyrat’s no longer has much, if anything, to do with Anguilla, St Nicholas Abbey sourced its original stocks  from FourSquare, and many Caribbean Islands’ companies buy molasses from Guyana…and you sure never see that anywhere on various labels. (My opinion is below).

That out of the way, what are we to make of the twelve year old rum aged in ex-bourbon barrels, and issued at a soothing unaggressive 40%? It was housed in a squat green bottle, decent plastic tipped cork, and marked with a bare minimum of information on the label – including that “El Salvador” moniker – and poured out in a bright golden liquid. It smelled like what it was, a soft, easy-going, medium-bodied rum, with vanillas, some brown sugar and coconut politely jostling for my attention. There was no aggressiveness at all here, and my initial opinion was that it was a good all-rounder: it could just as easily be a mixer, had neat, or over ice for those who preferred it that way. Still, given its rather gentle aroma, I’m not sure how much any mix would add to its value…a cola or ginger beer might just shred the thing.

Things got rather more assertive as I tasted it (and I went back to it twice that day when no-one was looking just to confirm my initial impressions) – the lightness of the nose gave way to a taste that was more solid.  Soft fleshy fruits, vanilla, a flirt of citrus were in evidence, followed by peaches and ripe apples and smoke.  And again that hint of lemon zest and perhaps even a bit of ginger, for a fillip of complexity. It was very Panamanian, or Latin if you wish – there were aspects of it that reminded me of similarly serene Peruvian and Colombian rums I’ve had, and could be confused with an Abuelo 12 (which was heavier), Juan Santos 12 (a shade lighter), or even Rum Nation’s 18 year old (a bit more complex).  The finish was smooth, warm and quite docile, providing pleasant reminders of what had gone before it.

Maja is trying to jump start an indigenous rum industry, and have created a very good rum from stocks which have all been aged twelve years (it’s not a blend of various ages).  To do this properly, what they have to do is grab some market share from more established companies, and hew to the standard proof line. My own feelings on 40% are not new: still, putting aside such a personal predilection, I believe that the Ron Maja 12 year old is a solid mid-tier rum whose great strength will be its overall delectability and versatility, if not true passion (it’s really not the kind of rum that inspires solo trans-Atlantic voyages in a bathtub, for example, or grandly-declaimed love from the rooftops by misguided lovelorn swains).

It’s simply good, and what it brings to the table is accessibility (many will really enjoy its laid-back profile), overall quality, and lack of in-your-face bite.  It’s a well-made, smooth and warm drink, with enough going on within that you’ll never doubt that it still remembers it’s a rum. And at 40% and €45 per bottle, you really won’t have a problem drinking it neat, which for me is a pretty good recommendation.

Other notes:

  • The Rumporter online magazine has a small article on this rum here, in French.

http://www.rumporter.com/fr/magazines/numero-3

  • I have an outstanding email in play to Ron Maja, where they promised to get back on to me regarding more history and background; when received, I’ll update this post.

Opinion

While appreciating the logistics and other problems Maja no doubt has undergone in bringing its product to market, I am going on record as disapproving of the labeling exercise – it ignores the reality of what this rum really is, and touches on larger issues of truth in advertising and presentation. The founding family and originator of Ron Maja is from El Salvador – is this enough to make it a Salvadorean rum when everything that comprises it except the owners, is from somewhere else?

For this to be presented as being what it supposedly is, I believe that some part of the production process has to be in El Salvador (like the Islands mentioned above have ageing and blending facilities in their territories, or St Nick’s is aged and bottled at the Abbey).  The cane, the molasses, the distillation or the bottling…something.  This may just be a fig leaf to add that touch of respectability or verisimilitude, but it would give consumers a better idea of what it is they are getting for their money.

Mar 112015
 

D3S_9323-001

An assembly of two rums that are great on their own, made even better by being blended before ageing.

(#206. 91/100)

***

Permit me a brief box-ticking here: Velier issues cask strength monsters akin to top end whiskies (but which cost less); they hearken to individual distilleries, sometimes to individual stills within that distillery; and Luca Gargano, the maitre, has stocks of Guyanese rums and the Trini Caronis that beggar the imagination; and while occasionally there are rums that don’t quite ascend to the brilliance of others, the overall oevre is one of enormous collective quality. Here, Velier has taken something of a left turn – this rum is what Luca calls an “experimental”.  Which is to say, he’s playing around a bit.  The price of €150 is high enough to cause a defense contractor to smile, and reflects the rums rarity – only 848 bottles are in existence (as an aside, compare this price to the 7000 bottles or so of the thousand-dollar Black Tot).

Blending of rums to produce the final product which makes it to our shelves usually takes place after they have slept a while in their wooden beds.  Ever-willing to buck the trend and go its own way, Velier blended the core distillates (from the Port Mourant double-pot still, and the Enmore wooden Coffey still) right up front, and then aged the mix for sixteen years (it’s a 2014 release).  The theory was that the disparate components had a chance to meld from the beginning, and to harmonize and age as one, fully integrating their different profiles.  It’s a bit of a gamble, but then, so is marriage, and I can’t think of a more appropriate turn of phrase to describe what has been accomplished here

D3S_9329

Appearance wise, box is decent; bottle and label were utterly standard, as always seems to be the case with Velier – they have little time for fancy designs and graphics, and stick with stark minimalism.  Black bottle, white label, lots of info, plastic tipped cork, surrounding a dark amber rum inside. When that rum poured, I took a prudent yet hopeful step backwards: prudent because I didn’t feel like being coshed over the head with that massive proof, hopeful because in remembering the PM 1974 and the Skeldon 1973, I was hoping that the aromas would suffuse the atmosphere like the police were quelling a good riot nearby.

I wasn’t disappointed on either score. That nose spread out through the room so fast and so pungently that my mother and wife ran to me in panic from the kitchen, wondering if I had been indulging in some kind of childish chem experiment with my rums. It was not as heavy as the Damoiseau 1980 which I had had just a few hours before (I was using it and the Bristol Caroni 1974 as controls), but deep enough – hot, heavy to smell and joyously fresh and crisp.  Tar, licorice and dried fruits were the lead singers here, smoothly segueing into backup vocals of black bread and butter, green olives, and a riff of coffee and smoke in the background. It had an amazing kind of softness to it after ten minutes or so, and really, I just teased myself with it for an inordinately long time.

Subtlety is not this rum’s forte, of course – it arrived on the palate with all the charming nuance of a sledgehammer to the head, and at 62.2% ABV, I was not expecting anything else. So it wasn’t a drink for the timid by any stretch, more like a hyperactive and overly-muscular kid: you had to pay close attention to what it was doing at all times.  It was sharp and heavy with molasses and anise at the same time, displayed heat and firmness and distinct, separable elements, all at once: more molasses, licorice, chopped fruit, orange peel (just a bit), raisins, all the characteristic West Indian black cake ingredients.  Adding some water brought out cinnamon, black grapes, ginger, flowers, tannins and leather, with some aromatic smoke rounding out an amazingly rich profile.

D3S_9324-001

Man this thing was an immense drink. I said I expected three profiles, but it was practically impossible to separate them out, so well were they assembled. There was just no way I could say how much came from PM, and how much from Enmore (Velier provided no information on the ratios of one to the other, merely remarking that the Enmore is dominant). It was the sort of rum that when you fully drop the hammer on it — which is to say, drink a gorilla-sized two ounce shot, hold it down for a few seconds, before slugging it down and asking for a refill — its flavours bang away at your throat like the Almighty is at the door (and pissed at you). Even the finish displayed something of that brooding Brando-esque machismo – long lasting, heated, with closing notes of strong black slightly-bitter tea, raisins and anise. It is a brilliant bit of rum-making, and answers all questions people have when they wonder if 40% is the universe. When I see my friends and commentators and reviewers and ambassadors wax rhapsodic over spiced rums and the standard proof offerings from the great and old houses, all I want to do is smile, hand them one of these, and watch their reaction.

Sooner or later, no matter how many rums I try, I always circle back to Velier. I think of the company’s products almost like James Bond films, following familiar territory time after time, differing only in the details.  It’s always fun to try a new expression of an estate specific Guyanese rum, if only to see what madness La Casa Luca has come up with this time. And here, I think we may just have the brilliance of a film like Skyfall, with its originality and uniqueness intact, hearkening back to all that has come before, recalling not only all the old glories of times past, but the remarkable synthesis of those same elements, combined into something startlingly and wonderfully new.

That was a film to treasure…and for the same reasons, so is this rum.

***

Other notes

  • Velier has also issued a Diamond+PM 1995 blend in 2014, for which I have detailed notes but not yet written the review.
  • This was the third of four samples Luca Gargano sent to me personally in September of 2014 when he heard I would be in Europe in October of that year. He has agreed that I pay for them either in cash, or with a really good, high priced dinner in Paris.
Mar 032015
 

D3S_9074

A unique fifteen year old agricole that lacks something of the deep dark depth of the Damoiseau 1980 I so liked, but is a great and tasty example of the style nevertheless…as long as your tastes run that way.

(#205. 86/100)

***

As adolescents, among our most fervent wishes was to have coitus without interruptus the way a hobbit has breakfast: whenever possible, preferably all the time, twice daily if we could manage it (well, what teenager hasn’t?)  But as the years wound on, some reality entered that little fantasy: the truth is that unlimited anything gets boring after a while. One does not wish to eat manna from heaven every single day, do the same job day in and day out,  indulge in neverending bedroom calisthenics…or drink the same kind of rum all the time.

I relate this (possibly apocryphal) story to link to another conversation a fellow reviewer and I had not too long ago: that agricoles just weren’t his thing, and remain an acquired taste enveloped in a certain subtle snobbery for those who preferred them.  I understand this perspective, since agricoles as a whole are quite different from molasses based rums that reek of caramel, licorice, fruits, toffee and what have you.  And while I don’t care for the term “acquired taste” – this is where the imputed elitism has its source – the fact is that the gent was right: tastes do evolve: rums which are current favourites may lose their place in the sun, to be replaced by others you would have never dreamed of touching when you were just starting out.  Rhums are seen by their adherents to possess remarkable quality in their own right, no matter how much the taste profile bends away at right angles from what others have come to accept as more common (or better).

Anyway, remembering the  wonderful experience I had with the Damoiseau 1980, when I saw a bottle of the JM 1995 Rhum Tres Vieux 15 year old (which nowadays retails in the €200 range), I dived right in.  And believe me, when I say it’s different, those of you who prefer more traditional fare can take that as the absolute truth. It’s not for everyone necessarily, but for those whose palates bend in that direction, it’s quite a drink.

As is proper for a top-of-the-line aged product, the green bottle, sealed with wax and possessing a cool leather embossed label came in a fine wooden box that showcased its antecedents, its AOC designation – which means it adhered to stringent manufacturing guidelines such as how soon after reaping the source cane had to be distilled, additions, filtration, etc – and its age.  Now strictly speaking, this is a millésime, but it is noted as being a très vieux (very old)…it could just as easily be termed an XO, but I’m not a purist on the matter and will let it pass with just that comment.

The single column copper-still rhum was a honey gold colour with coppery hints, and gave promise of a medium-light body, which the nose certainly confirmed. It gave forth immediate scents of freshly mown grass and crushed sugar cane, slightly sweet…and quite dry, though not enough to wrinkle the nose.  There were notes of toffee, salty peanut brittle, bon-bons, even a slightly sweetish bubble-gum background which balanced off the brininess. The 44.8% strength was just about right, I think, otherwise we might have really been struck with a dry desert wind on this one.

Still, I liked it, and as the taste developed, saw no real reason to change my opinion.  The palate was smooth and warm, where all the harmonies of the nose developed to a fuller expression – flowers, rain-wet grass, sugar cane rind stripped with the teeth, a flirt of tangerine rind, and biscuits with dry cheese — a liquid warm croissant with a dab of rich, freshly churned butter — all underlain with a sweetish vanilla background, and almost no oak tannins at all.  None of the individual components predominated over any other – the balance was really quite something. What also surprised me was the faint anise taste that revealed itself after a few minutes and melded well into the overall whole.  The finish was short to medium and reminded me a lot of the Clemente XO: both had that closing aroma of smouldering cane fields and vanillas that to this day evoke so many memories.

Situated in the north of Martinique in Bellevue, J.M. began life with Pére Labat, who was credited with commercializing and proliferating the sugar industry in the French West Indies during the 18th century.   He operated a sugar refinery at his property on the Roche Rover, and sold the estate to Antoine Leroux-Préville in 1790 – it was then renamed Habitation Fonds-Préville.  In 1845, his daughters sold the property again, this time to a merchant from Saint-Pierre names Jean-Marie Martin.  With the decline in sugar production but with the concomitant rise in sales of distilled spirits, Jean-Marie recognized an opportunity, and built a small distillery on the estate, and switched the focus away from sugar and towards rum, which he aged in oak barrels branded with his initials “JM”.  In 1914 Gustave Crassous de Médeuil bought the plantation from his brother Ernest (I was unable to establish whether Ernest was a descendant or relative of Jean-Marie), and merged it with his already existing estate of Maison Bellevue.  The resulting company has been family owned, and making rhum, ever since and is among the last of the independent single domaine plantations on Martinique.

If I had fault to find at all in the rhum, it was its aridity, which subtly spoiled (for me) the smoothness of the overall experience, and is another reason I appreciated its relatively lower proof.  Though my sample set of agricoles is too small to make the claim with assurance, it may also speak to my palate being adulterated by rums that have added inclusions (like sugar) to smoothen out such a profile, a practice eschewed by AOC agricoles. Still, summing up, this is a rhum I’ll have to come back to, in the years to come, and will probably rise in my estimation much as the Clemente did. The J.M. 1995 is the kind of rum I’ve been pestered about for ages. People couldn’t quite describe it, but they said I had to sample it, and review it. I just had to.

Well, I did. They were right. It’s quite a lovely drinking experience

***

Other notes not strictly pertinent to this review

Many French West Indian distilleries adhere to a certain puritan strain of rhum production (whether or not they apply for AOC rating).  They use cane juice, don’t add anything to their rhums to either colour them or adulterate them, often issue them at cask strength, and sniffily refer to molasses based rums with the somewhat disdainful moniker of “industrials”.  They may have a point – if there had ever been a pure ethos of rum making, shorn of all the modern and technical innovations, surely it is the agricoles which represent its continuance in modern times. They are a miniscule part of the rum world by volume of sales, yet they hang in there, producing these uniquely tasting, offbeat rums, seen by their tasting champions as exemplars of the craft the way it is, and was, meant to be.

I don’t really agree with that concept 100%, since it is in the nature of mankind to move forward and evolve…and to stick with “the way things were” forever strikes me as unreasoning, almost fanatical, adherence to a single tradition or ideology.  But there’s no doubt that JM, with rhums like this one, are probably on to something, and to tamper with the philosophy of how it’s made would be to discard a link with rum’s past, lose the variety that makes rum great, and leave us poorer for it.

So while not all aspects of the JM 1995 find favour with me (all apologies to the cognoscenti who feel the opposite is true), I acknowledge its distinctiveness and remarkable profile — and if I don’t entirely fall under its beguiling spell, I don’t hate it either, and maybe it’s all just a case of me still acquiring the taste.

 

Feb 232015
 

D3S_8915

An entry level rum with some unusual and remarkably pleasant flavours that one has to work too hard to find in the raw scrape of underaged alcohol.

(#204. 81/100)

***

One of the things I noted when nosing this dark mahogany-red rum from the German outfit Alt-Enderle, was the baking spices that presented themselves almost immediately. At 43% strength there was no real savagery here, and I didn’t bother letting it rest before trying it (when you practice on cask-strength muscle-twitching bodybuilders, anything under 50% seems easy), and all I remarked on at the inception was how many different, mild, spiced up elements there were. Cinnamon, vanilla and smoke were in evidence from the get go, but also nutmeg, and some cloves. It was quite an interesting experience, to be honest.

I won’t pretend that all was sunshine and roses, of course.  The rum had been aged for only a year, and some of that youth was evident on the mouthfeel, where sharp and raw alcohol notes almost obliterated what could have been a much more interesting sipping experience.  It also dampened the flavours, though I detected vanilla, more cinnamon and nutmeg (as from the nose), followed by some cloves, orange peel, some raisins and a plummy note, wound about with a faint tannic taste, all blending reasonably into the whole. No joy on the finish, I’m afraid, and this was the weakest part of the entire drink – short and sharp, giving little back aside from some more vanilla and caramel hints.

D3S_8916

The molasses from this intriguing rum hailed from India, which may account for that oomphed-up mommy’s-kitchen profile, unusual in island specific rums.  I remember noting something similar in the profiles of Amrut Old Port and the Old Monk Very Old Vatted, though I never wrote about the latter, being a little too loaded at the time to recall my own name, let alone tasting specifics…it may be another example of something noticeably distinct, like Bundaberg is, or the other Indian rums.  To make sure, however, I emailed the company asking whether anything was added to the rum to enhance the flavour profile (still waiting…).

Like Old Man Spirits, Alt-Enderle is a German company which makes rums among other spirits.  Established in 1991, they are located about a hundred kilometers south-east of Frankfurt, and it seems to be a fairly small operation.  They do however make rums from molasses imported from other countries – Thailand and Paraguay are two current examples.  I’m not sure what their philosophy really is regarding rum – like most micro distilleries, they appear to toss them off almost as afterthoughts in their quest to make other liquors like (in this case), whiskies, absinthe, herbal liqueurs and brandies. They distill the molasses themselves — a photo on their website suggests they have a copper still — and set the resultant to age in barrels sourced from the Caribbean.

D3S_8919

Putting all impressions together, I’m scoring this rum at 81, and naming it an entry level spirit. But be advised, it’s not entirely a bad product, and should not be casually written off like yesterday’s fish. The “India” had some real originality in the tastes and aromas– they were distinct, if faint, and points have to be given for that. I have a feeling that the barrels are part of the reason it was not better than it could have been. When told that the rum was aged in Caribbean barrels, some of which were thirty years old, this is not to be considered a point of pride, as I remarked to the booth agent, but of concern, as it suggested dead wood with not much more to impart than maybe some good advice.

Was it a cost cutting measure?  Hard to say.  My own advice here would be to age the rum a little more (and take the hit on maturation and warehousing costs), in barrels with a little more zest left in them.  This rum is a decent starter drink, good for a mix somewhere (especially since it’s not added-to with those spices) …but it could also have been better.

 

Other notes

  • €45 for a 500ml bottle.
  • Aside from the marketing blurb on the back label, there’s a quote: “It’s not enough to be different…one must also be better.”  I like that thought.

 

Feb 192015
 

Photo courtesy barfish.de

A relatively light and sweet potent white lightning that sits square between a white agricole and full-proofed island hooch, with a charm and power all its own.

(#203. 80.5/100)

***

The very first review ever written for Liquorature (and here) was the Antigua Distillers’ masterful English Harbour 25 year old 1981.  In later years, I had my suspicions about it – from the similarity of profiles, I thought it was a rebranded, perhaps re-blended version of the Cavalier 1981, which was an understated and excellent rum in its own right, and the sales of which must have caught everyone off guard. So when in 2014 I met a brand rep for Antigua Distillers, I asked him straight out whether one made up the bones of the other, and he answered in the affirmative.

I relate this trivia only to provide some background, because it was three years before I ran into any other rums made by that company, and was lucky enough to try two of them – the ferocious blow-your-hair-back 151, and the very interesting subject of this review, the white 65% Cavalier Puncheon.  You wouldn’t think it’s all that hot – I have this untested theory that in the main, white high-test like DDL Superior High Wine or J. Wray & Nephew white, tend to be for indigenous consumption, not really for the export market – but I’ll tell you, the Puncheon ain’t half bad.

It was a rum supposedly aged for a couple of years in bourbon barrels, before being charcoal filtered to colourlessness. This is one reason I tend to give white rums a miss when looking for something to buy – the filtration wipes out some of the flavours that (in my opinion) would enhance the drink, making most white rums somewhat bland and unadventurous, good mostly for mixing something else.

Here though, something surprising happened – there was still some torque left in the trousers as I smelled it, it wasn’t all boring dronish white vanilla cotton wool whatever-it-was milquetoast.  The rum was hot and spicy yes (by way of comparison, let me remark that it was not raw and sharp), and presented almost delicately, if this can believed in such a strong rum; with initial scents of sweet, light fruity aromas.  There were vanilla notes and white flowers as background, as well as a very faint grassy whiff, not at all unpleasant or jarring.

This unusual lightness, and sweetness, carried over to the palate as well.  Here, rather more was going on – honey, nuts – I kept thinking of cheerios, honestly – some cocoa, ripe yellow mangoes, vanilla and the barest hint of caramel.  The Puncheon was a young rum, of course, but that two years of ageing had its influence, for which I was grateful — it muted what would otherwise have been a furious amalgam of liquid electrical shocks to the tongue. Even the finish was pretty okay, being long and heated (no surprises there), closing off with fresh hay, vanilla, flowers again, and bark stripped fresh from an oak tree somewhere.

I won’t go so far as to say it’s a sipper’s rum – it’s a little too strong and uncultured for that – but it’s got more complexity than a white Bacardi, for example (and Bacardi seem determined to not piss anyone off, and so remove all traces of individuality from such white rums).  In fact, as I concentrated on it and took a few more sips, it occurred to me that maybe I could see the background to the English Harbour 10 year old take shape in the not-quite-docile taste profile. And maybe even some of the black-currant elements I remembered fondly from the 1981.

Recently, I’ve been on a bit of tear, trawling through an enormous volume of fairly expensive, top end rums.  Would it surprise you to know I don’t always want to?  Sometimes, all I want, all I need, is something straightforward to settle down with, a rum with some fierceness and heft, a solid exemplar of the distillers art and the maker’s machismo.  It doesn’t have to be a dark, funky rum oozing molasses and dunder from every pore, squirting its malevolent power in all directions. All it needs to be is a decent rum, a little strong, possessing a reasonably original flavour profile, that I can mix into a potent drink I can drown my sorrows in as I glumly watch my son the Caner Tot beating the crap out of me at StarCraft 2 or whatever other game he chooses to excel at this week.

It needs to be a rum, in fact, very much like this one.

 

 

Other notes

  • A puncheon was originally a high-proof, heavy-type rum first produced in Trinidad, at Caroni, in 1627
  • The Antigua Distillers web page makes no mention of this rum at all. It does not seem to have been updated since 2003.
  • I personally call this a full-proof, not an overproof.
  • Some notes on the history of the company are to be found in the Cavalier 1981 review

 

Feb 152015
 

Photo Courtesy DuRhum.com

 

This is a pricey and very good rum that should have had the guts to go higher than its issued strength; but you’ll still be extremely happy with what you get, because there’s a lot going on until it runs out of steam at the finish.

(#202. 87/100)

***

Indulge my love of history for a while: La Favorite is a small family owned distillery in Martinique which has an annual rum production of around 600,000 litres (as comparative examples, Bacardi sells in the tens of millions and the craft maker Rum Nation somewhere less than 200,000).  The original sugar plantation was initially called “La Jambette” for a small adjacent river, and was renamed in the mid-19th century with the establishment of the distillery that exists to this day (anecdotes refer to the islanders calling it their favourite rhum, or Napoleon himself remarking it was his, but who knows). The company ran into financial difficulties in 1875 (maybe this was due to the establishment of the French 3rd Republic, and the defeat of the monarchists whom the planters supported, but I’m reaching here).  Somehow the plantation limped along until 1891 when a hurricane did so much damage that the whole operation was shut down for nearly twenty years. Production recommenced in the early 20th century when Henri Dormoy bought the company and added a railway line through the plantation.  The boost given by the first world war allowed La Favorite to become truly commercially viable and it has been chugging along ever since, still using steam powered distillery apparatus, hand-gluing the labels to the bottles, and manually applying the wax over the top.  But a Bacardi it will never be, and it doesn’t want to be – indeed, La Favorite’s unstated mission is to perfect natural rhum (i.e. agricoles), adhere fiercely to the AOC rating, and sniff disapprovingly at mass produced industrial rums.

Having tried the ~€200 40% Cuvée Privilège – that sterling gentleman from DuRhum, Cyril, sent me a generous sample – I can only say that they’re on to something, because while it sure looked like a molasses based rum, dark mahogany shot through with tints of red, it was nothing of the kind – I’m still scratching my head wondering how they accomplished that three-card trick.  Consider too the aroma: licorice, anise and dark ripe plums led off right away, rich and dark…it’s like they were channeling a Mudland rum, and to say this was unusual for an AOC agricole would be understating the matter. Even waiting a while and going back to it, didn’t change my mind much: there were few vegetal notes or the grassiness of a real agricole; further scents of peaches, overripe pineapple, raisins and a bit of vanilla came through, and some serious grape background. Yet this feintiness was well balanced and the overall scent was warm and enticing as a feather bed in winter (with RuPaul inside). I remember thinking that if Downslope had had some patience (like about a generation, so perhaps not) they might have come up with something like this, because what they abysmally failed to do with their six months of ageing, or what the Legendario had handled so excessively, La Favorite succeeded in making here.

So the nose was excellent, rich and romantic.  With the palate I had more concerns, because here is where I detected more potential than achievement – which was still a cut or two above the ordinary, let me hasten to add. It’s just that with a rhum this rich and toasty, I have to question the decision to tone it down as much as they had.  Still, this is not to dismiss the Cuvée Privilège out of hand…far from it, because the almost-full-bodied heaviness of the profile gave back what the pusillanimity of the strength took away. Thick mouthfeel, again redolent of sweet ripe plums. Raisins and licorice abounded, wound about with black grapes and kiwi fruit, all quite sweet – I honestly cannot recall such depth since trying my last Port Mourant vintage.  So while 40% was, to my mind, too weak, and would have imparted some real intensity and impact to the experience, I had to acknowledge that as a sipping rum requiring no padding or push-ups, the Cuvée Privilège did not disappoint.  For all its foregoing quality, it’s real weak point may be in the finish, because here the rounded softness of the palate and nose gave way to timid and vacillating notes of nothing-in-particular, which repeated what had gone before without breaking any new ground: medium length, gone all to soon, with just more of the black grapes, anise and a faint vanilla dusting.

The question arises, why the price tag? Usually at this level of cost, we expect a rhum that is tottering along on its last legs, within a whisker of dropping down dead of old age; or a phenomenal year’s output (a millesime), or simply a rare rhum, long since out of production, now existing only in a collector’s memories (and maybe his safe). Well, here it really is the age: the Cuvée Privilège is a Très Vieux (“very old”) which usually is a term for something in the ten year old range…but not with this rhum. The Cellar Master of La Favorite created a blend of rums aged in oak barrels for thirty and thirty-six years (some reportedly in cognac barrels – I was unable to establish whether this was a finish, all barrels, or just some) and the issue is limited to 2000 bottles per year, with the ratios of each age carefully controlled to not let either one predominate. I’ve had quite a few aged rums roughly thirty years old – most of which were stronger – but it’s hard to argue with what La Favorite have achieved here.

I thought the rhum was damned impressive, no matter how discombobulated my impression of its profile was with the reality of its make, or my whinging about its strength. Cuvée Privilège is a well-rounded, remarkably aged rum, with solidly diversified taste, and perhaps power reined in a shade too much.  It’s easy to confuse with other rums that are not agricoles. At the end, it showcases something of La Favorite’s own romantic philosophy, I think, and by doing so almost proves that no industrial conglomerate could make something like it. The philosophy which we might deny in the flat, bland daylight of our lives, but admit, childlike, to ourselves at night – that magic exists, that it can be made, that it occasionally rises to the surface like the creature in Bradbury’s “Foghorn”.  And if it doesn’t, well, it should, and we should always act as if it can appear, like our dearest dreams and fondest hopes. Like this rum has, from the depths of a cellar master’s imagination, missing only a few steps to be even better than it is.

Other notes

  • I score this rum at 87, mostly for failing on the fade, and its lack of strength. Were this to be jacked up a few notches, it would rate at least four or five points higher.
  • The rhum is a blend of a 30 and a 36 year old.  I name it a thirty year old based on the youngest part of the blend, even if La Favorite choses not to.
  • I have an outstanding email to La Favorite asking them to clarify the barrels used, and any additions to the blend that might have imparted the unusually dark colour, and the profile
  • Photo shamelessly cribbed from DuRhum.com (thanks Cyril)

 


Feb 122015
 

D3S_9555

A Spartan rum, sporting a massive codpiece, ripped eight-pack, and real attitude.  Not for the lovers of softer or sweeter fare.

(#201. 85/100)

***

You just gotta shake your head with appreciation when you regard Cadenhead and their commitment to muscle-bound zen machismo in rums.  They’ve always had a certain retro charm and a daring to go off the reservation that I grudgingly admired, and they have continued along that path here with this monster full proof.

Leaving aside the squat, glowering psycho-orange-and-yellow bottle with its cork stopper which is almost a Cadenhead signature, it should simply be noted that Cadenhead hewed to their minimalist ethos and added nothing in, and filtered nothing out.  In some previous iterations they tremulously diluted to drinking strength (whatever that might mean), but not here – perhaps they wanted the TMAH to take Velier out back and beat the snot out of it. It’s bottled at 66.9% – a hilariously strong drink, a growlingly full-proofed rum that wants to land on your glottis like a blacksmith’s solid iron anvil.

D3S_9555-001

I had been softened by several forty percenters, sampled prior to cracking this one, and was consequently somewhat unprepared for the force with which the TMAH assaulted my beak (it was sharp and deep, and should absolutely be left to stand for a while before nosing). I could barely discern any molasses background at all, in between furiously swirling notes of rye bread, salt biscuits and salt butter.  Not much caramel here.  But patience, patience – it did get better.  After opening up, it smoothened out a good bit and simply became an intense drink rather than a skewering one – and one could gradually tease out thin threads of honey and nougat, and sweeter notes of vanilla, cherries…and a little spicy note of marzipan.

That didn’t soften the arrival, of course. It was a little less than medium bodied, this rum – even thin, which I didn’t care for – and it detonated with a hurricane force level of taste, scattering shrapnel of sweet and salt in all directions. Dates and figs came to mind, more crackers, a sharp aged cheddar (but not as creamy).  Adding water helped here: almonds, nutmeg and slivers of dried fruit emerged, but slowly, thinly, as if terrified of being bludgeoned to death by the alcohol.  “Chewy” would not describe the experience exactly, but it comes close. Appropriately enough for such a full proof glass of high-test, the finish was enormously long, a sarissa of lingering flavours of nutmeg and vanilla and light sharp red fruit (pomegranates?). Cask strength, overproof, full proof or whatever – it was certainly a rum that demanded attention.

D3S_9556

Trinidad Distillers was established by Angostura back in the 1940s – even then Angostura had been into rum production for decades, though more famous for their eponymous bitters – and began producing alsohol in bulk.  At first this was primarily for rum production: as time went on, bulk exports formed a large part of its portfolio. Note however that most of the molasses they work with originates outside of Trinidad – in Guyana, Panama and the Dominican Republic.  In any event, Angostura as a company has little to do with it.  Cadenhead out of Campbelltown in Scotland have simply followed the craft-bottler route, bought a few barrels distilled in 1991, and then issued the rum at cask strength after it came of age in 2013, without any further mucking about

A rum like Cadenhead’s 21 year old is a curious beast.  Dissecting its profile and coming up with tasting notes is not like having the elements line up and present themselves one after another, like some kind of surreal audition or a debutante’s ball. They arrive when and as they will, and as we sip and try and think, we understand it’s not important to catch every nuance, every last flavour; sometimes all that matters is the overall tone, the commingled experience.  I may not be able to give you a complete set of tasting notes here: but the encounter as a whole is quite something.

And, it must be conceded, occasionally painful

***

Other notes:

  • Aged in ex-bourbon casks. No information on where, but I think it was in Scotland. If you compare similar full-proofed, similarly aged rums from Velier to the TMAH, you’ll see the difference tropical aging makes.
  • Bottled April 2013.
  • I really have no clue what TMAH stands for: Angostura never responded to me, and Cadenhead’s reps said they didn’t know. An anonymous online wit on FB –thanks, Cecil — said it stood for “Too Much Alcohol Here.” May his glass never be empty.

 

 

Feb 042015
 

D3S_8939

The XO is more expensive, and slightly older, yet I feel this one is better in every way that counts: I’m going to take a deep breath, go out on a limb…and say I think this is among the best rums Rivière du Mât have yet created.

(#200. 89/100)

***

Full of beans and enthusiasm after the frothing delight that was the Rivière du Mât XO, I decided to dump the previous subject of my 200th review, and go immediately to the Millésime 2004, which is close to the top of their range, and one of the better rums I had in 2014. For a rum that is less than ten years old, that says a lot for its quality and the ability of the dude who put it together.

It’s a queer thing that there is not really much to distinguish this rum were you to see it on a shelf next to its siblings, the Grand Reserve, or the XO.  Indeed, with its maroon-brown box and similar bottle shape, it almost fades into obscurity next to the fire-engine red of the XO and the black of the Reserve (which may be good for the patient hunter of high-end rums, not so good for those who just pick a rum ‘cause, y’know, it looks real cool).

The XO had an average age of just over eight years, and this was eight years flat.  Both rums were aged in limousin oak, but with two crucial differences: all of the Millésime stock came from 2004 distillate selected as exceptional by the master blender, and 30% of it was aged in casks that previously held port before being married at the back end.

Perhaps this was where the extra fillip of quality derived, because I’ll tell you, it started right from the nose, which was remarkably smooth and quite soft, easygoing without displaying that delicacy which so often makes a mockery of any attempts to dissect the profile. I remarked on precisely such a fragile profile in the Reserve yet in both these rums (both of which derive from molasses, not cane juice so they’re not agricoles), there was a clean and clear set of tastes: they stated with a melange of crackers and cream cheese, whipped cream, strawberries, cherries and slightly overripe apricots; this then developed on opening into notes of vanilla, ginger and nutmeg with a little coffee, rich and sensuous to smell.  It suggested good future experiences to the drinker, like a girl in the red dress at the bar who’s tipping you a wink and a smile (well, we can all hope, can’t we?).

I find in quite a few rums, that while the nose promises, the taste doesn’t always deliver.  Not here. It was, quite frankly, remarkably sumptuous. The Millesime 2004 was medium bodied and toffee brown, and had an immediate taste of honey and dried flowers to get things rolling, and then more fruits came crowding onto the palate, tobacco and a little aromatic smoke, coffee, ginger, breakfast spices, some of the buttery smoothness of over-soaked french bread.  I loved it. It was smooth and warm and yet distinct and luxurious, like a Louis Vuitton handbag my wife keeps bugging me to buy.  And it faded well, again with warmth and friendliness, no spite, leaving behind the faint backend notes of  caramel and coffee and toffee, and a hint of dried flower petals.

D3S_8940

(see translation below)

 

This is a rum I have no problems recommending. It demonstrates why a lower-costing, lesser-aged rum always wins over a five hundred dollar thirty-year-old. That pricey, geriatric gentleman on your sideboard can never truly go beyond  what you thought it would be (though of course it can fall short)…so it’ll not exceed your sense of, well, entitlement. It’s supposed to be phenomenal – that’s why you grandly forked over the cash your wife was hoarding for that handbag: you’ve coughed up for quality, so that thing had better put out. With a rum like the 2004 Millésime — which, for around €60 can be considered relatively affordable in comparison — you won’t go in expecting a whole lot, it being an 8-year-old and all…and when it over-delivers like it does, it feels like God loves you. And that you’ve made a discovery you can’t help but share.

***

 

Other notes

  • Background to the company is given in the Grande Reserve review.
  • As noted before, the Reserve, the XO and the 2004 Millésime are not agricoles
  • Translation of French label above: “Made from a single distillation, the 2004 vintage has developed its intense character through ageing in carefully selected oak casks. The aromatic originality of this exceptional traditional old rum is enhanced by a certain portion of the rum undergoing a second maturation of one year, in Porto barrels. Gourmand, fruity, with subtle spicy touches, Riviere du Mat Millesime 2004 provides peppery hints and notes of cherry in an elegant fondu (mix). The powerful, charming finish offers a delicious sensation of harmony which will enchant lovers of great rums.”

 

Feb 012015
 

D3S_8937

Soft, firm, tasty and an all ‘round excellent rum. It could have been stronger, but that doesn’t invalidate the quality of what you do get.

(#199. 87.5/100)

***

Sometimes a positive review leaves me glumpish.  This is a great rum, older cousin to the also interesting Grande Réserve, well put together, subtle, classy, soft, and possessing a real good taste…yet I guarantee that my inbox will be filled with grumbling queries as to why I bother writing about rums many can’t get. In fact, the majority of people reading this will ask variations of “So?”, “From where wuz dat again?” and the final resigned snort of annoyance, “Well, if me kian gettit, me nah want it.” And believe me, I feel for you guys.

Rum like the Rivière du Mât XO, made on the Réunion island in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, gets shipped and sold primarily in Europe, and a few places further afield. Therein lies part of the problem, I think. Not many in North America (or Asia for that matter, because that place has a massive tippling class) will have ever heard of this rum, or seen it, or had a chance to taste it.  It’s not on their shelves, and doesn’t get reviewed often enough, and therefore you can just see some poor rum-loving guy in Kansas, in Manitoba, or Bumpole City in Noplace county, shrugging his shoulders and turning to the Lamb’s or Sailor Jerry. Because what choice does he have? There aren’t enough people trumpeting the “other stuff” and (worse yet) nobody imports it.

And that’s a real shame, because when I uncorked the XO, well, lemme tell you straight out, for a rum bottled at a relatively fluffy 42%, the nose on this thing was good.  Raisins and dates, nicely dried, real solid richness wafted gently into my schnozz, morphing into new chopped fresh and fleshy fruits: peaches in cream.  Vanilla and caramel and white flowers entered stage right and took their bow in the spotlight, and through it all was a really odd steely hint of tonic water…you know, the type you add to your gin.  Sultanas and lemon peel finished things off.  To say I was pleased would be understating the matter: I loved the thing. In fact, I nearly brained my wife with my glass as I swung around in overeager enthusiasm to get her to take a sniff.

D3S_8936

Oh and did I mention the taste?  The palate is damned fine as well. Here the ageing became more apparent because mingling in the marketplace of more dried fruit, dates, figs, and mango — or guava — jam, was cigars, leather, some smoke, well integrated with the whole.  The rum was medium bodied rather than heavy, yet displayed a lovely fullness to the tongue, akin to drinkable honey, that encouraged, nay, demanded, a second, third and fourth taste, and one that even a heavier molasses-drenched beefcake wouldn’t be ashamed to display.  On a 42% rum of such soft pulchritude, I didn’t expect a long and lasting goodbye kiss, and therefore didn’t fault the easy finish too much – it was warm, breathy, didn’t outstay its welcome, and waved some unaggressive flavours of caramel, tobacco and raisins and caramel at me before fading away.

It’s a curious fact that while the company’s younger products are clearly noted by them as being agricultural rums, no such information is given for the older ones.  And as I write this, an email from RdM comes in telling me that no, the older rhums are not agricoles, so consider the matter settled.  The XO is a blend of five rums aged in Limousin oak – cognac – barrels (a lot of them are new), for between six to nine years, the average age being just over eight, and in this they may have done a segue from Plantation who have a similar ageing philosophy, albeit the more traditional ‘finishing’ approach of oak first and longest, and a quick sheep dip into the cognac..

Anyway, without undue effort, I’d have to say that I liked the XO more than the Grande Reserve however indifferent I might have been to the package, which seemed to be somewhat a step down…maybe it’s that glaring fire-engine red box, dunno – the bottle is fine.  Still, I should really stop whinging, because for around fifty euros, this rum gives value for money, even if it can’t be found in many of the watering holes where dedicated rummies go to type annoyed emails to me. So maybe the best I can do is take another sniff and taste (maybe another two, or five) of this excellent rum from Reunion, drown my grumpiness, answer emails…and look forward to the Millesime 2004.

Other notes:

I’ve covered the history and background of Rivière du Mât in the Grande Reserve review, so won’t repeat it here.

The little hedgehog like device within the circular seal is referred to as a “tanglier”: the company notes that it is a legendary beast, inspired from the Tangue (hedgehog) and the Sanglier (boar). The tanglier symbolizes the alliance between strength and tradition; so a marketing thing, then, like Bundie’s polar bear.

***

 

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