Nov 092016


A less than impressive Jamaican wannabe rum that’s actually from Africa


In one of those coincidences that occasionally crop up, one of my Gallic colleagues texted me as I was putting together the write up for the Matugga, and asked me what I thought of it. “Mediocre,” was the terse response, given the comparators I had on hand that day against which I was rating it, and the almost finished review – but in retrospect that was perhaps too dismissive, since it’s not entirely a bad rum, and both the good and the bad should be acknowledged, in spite of the hyped marketing message.

In this case the selling and marketing point is the rum’s origin – East Africa, Uganda to be exact, and that sure works, because it’s entirely on that basis that I bought it (Zulu Impi is another).  This is a rum like, oh, Lost Spirits or Seven Fathoms – made by a small outfit led by one person with some drive and gumption. Considered objectively and dispassionately it’s a company that, like those other two, takes an unusual, original detail about the rum’s production, and tries to develop that into an entire marketing plan, without really finishing the job of making it a really good one, even a really good young one.

Anyway, the molasses is sourced from a small town in Uganda called Matugga – forget the blurb on the company website about the quality of cane or soil – and fermented in the UK for seven days (rather a long time) before being distilled in a copper pot still and then aged in English oak, though nowhere is it stated exactly how long.  For the record I suspect around 2-3 years max.

matugga-2That age is probably about right.  The nose of the 42% Matugga certainly gave no indication that decades of careful maturation were behind it.  In fact, my first reaction was a grimace and a “yeccch”.  Rank notes of rubber, cardboard, rotting vegetable were first, followed by others of musky and damp old houses with too many cats in it.  But fortunately these sensations were fleeting, and nose changed after opening up, moving to more dominant smells honey and acetone, richer fruits, banana and treacle, maybe half a crème brûlée.  Quite an about face, and after walking around with it, I thought it was like a young, untamed and rather rambunctious Jamaican rum, more than anything else — not nearly as well made, but not to be dismissed out of hand either.  

On the palate, the orange-gold  was not that stellar, though certainly interesting: thick and oily, almost cloying…and then a sharp skewer of black pepper and pimentos without the heat kicked in.  Again, just as with the nose, it did a ninety degree turn and became another rum altogether, more traditional.  The main players emerged on stage – caramel, vanilla, some sugar water (this and the vanilla became particularly pronounced after a while), papayas, pears and white guavas.  Underneath it all was a weird kind of bitterness of raw cocoa beans that accentuated what was already a rather jagged and inconsistent profile, one moment sweet, fruity and almost cloying, the next sharp, bitchy, peppery and out to get me.  And it finished quickly and without fanfare, giving up final hints of nuts, molasses, caramel and vanilla, standard stuff, no points here.

So no, some interesting notes and originality acknowledged, the rum doesn’t really gel.  It has potential, sure, but so far as the profile is concerned, it’s somewhat incoherent, more than a little unbalanced, not well integrated and perhaps not even sure what it wants to be — a Jamaican funk bomb, or an easier, soothing  rum made for mass consumption and to bolster sales before the really good aged stuff comes out the door. Plus those additives, whatever they are, are an annoying and pointless distraction. Why didn’t they just have the guts to take the subtle notes of an East African terroire, run with it and make a case for its uniqueness, for a rum having a profile of neither arrack or molasses or agricole but a new and untried melange of them all?  Their lack of courage in standing by the inherent qualities of their own product is a depressing commentary on both what the rum is, and what it might have been.


Other notes

When I started doing my research, I was unsurprised to discover 37g/L sugar on the hydrometer tests. In this case, I believe that less sugar and more ageing would do wonders for the rum. Evidently, the makers thought the opposite.

Nov 262014


A remarkably well balanced and tasty rum from the Indian Ocean

(#189. 84/100)


In spite of the prevailing belief that rums are Caribbean almost by definition, it’s axiomatic that many other nations and regions produce them.  Over the years I’ve found that the most readily identifiable and distinctive (I don’t say “best”) products, products that have a flavour profile all their own, usually hail from some distant part of the world where climatic and soil conditions are far removed from the norm: consider, for example the Bundaberg, the Old Port, or even the Tanduay.  Now sure, flavourings are sometimes added to the mix with the heedlessness of Emeril chucking spices…but not always.  Sometimes it’s just the terroire.

Such a one is the Rhum Vieux Millésimé 1998 ten year old, made and bottled in Madagascar from locally grown cane and molasses, offered at 45% in a bottle that is rather amusingly wrapped in a banana leaf (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).  This is a rhum that won a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in 2012, and is one lovely piece of work.

Take for starters, the initial nose: brown sugar, coffee and mocha, straight off, very smooth and inviting – 45% was a good strength for this rum.  I looked at the labelling again with some surprise – was this a spiced rum and they forgot to mention it?  Nope.  What you got was it. It was followed by vanilla, cloves, nutmeg and a soft background of bananas, all quite unaggressive and easygoing.  There was even some vague vegetal note there after a bit, almost imperceptible.

The palate broke little new ground, simply built on that excellent lead-in: more vanilla (not enough to make me suspicious about flavouring, yet I couldn’t dismiss the thought entirely), coffee, burnt sugar, nougat.  Fried sweet bananas (I loved those as a kid), nuts, peaches.  This rum was lovely, just lovely – soft and warm and exactly strong enough for what it was – a higher proof might have made it too spicy.  There was even, after a few minutes and a drop of water, leather and the sweet perfume of aromatic cigarillos.  Some ground walnuts rounded out the profile.  The finish was surprisingly short, yet still that warmth persisted, and closing notes of white pepper, smoke and those walnuts again.

These tasting notes sound utterly conventional, don’t they? Yet they’re not, not really – the balance of the vegetal notes and vanilla and nuts and sweetness of bananas popping in oil is not at all like the Caribbean rums with which many of us are familiar; I imagine some of this taste profile comes from the Pernod Ricard barrels shipped to Madagascar to age this rum the requisite ten years; but perhaps equal credit comes from the cane itself and the environment in which it is made.

Dzama rum is made by Vidzar, one of those local companies like Banks DIH in Guyana, or Clarke’s Court in Grenada, which have a rather larger visibility in their home country than they do abroad (this may change as they expand their markets). The company was formed in 1982 due to the efforts of Mr. Lucien Fohine, who noted that the small sugar factory on the tiny island of Nosy Be produced a distillate that had distinctive flavours which persisted into the final distilled products…mostly low level rum for local consumption, to that point. After some investigation, he concluded it came from the ylang-ylang plant (also known as the macassar oil plant, or the perfume tree) whose roots intermingled with that of the cane. (If this rum is an example of the flavour holdover, he may be on to something, though I’m ambivalent about the science behind that).

In an attempt to distill a decent rum to elevate the craft of his island, he formed a company Vidzar (a contraction of Vieux Rhum de Dzamandzar), located close to the sugar cane fields of Nosy Be, by a village called Dzamadzar. The company makes a range of rums for sale, including the Dzama Club, 3 YO and 6 YO, the Dzama XV 15 year old and Cuvée Noire (untried by me) and is starting to sell in the European market. This particular ten year old was aged in the aforementioned Pernod Ricard barrels and was distilled in 1998 but the date itself is just a marker, not a commemoration of anything special (the current ten year old on the company site is the 2000 Millésimé) – I’ll hazard a guess that it was a series of barrels set aside by the master blender as simply being of higher quality.

I’ve remarked before that one rum does not sink a brand, or define it – yet I have to be honest and say that a bad one tends to make me leery about approaching others in the range, while conversely, a good one makes me enthusiastic to do so – that’s human nature.  With this excellent rum hailing from a region I’ve not tried before, whose profile is remarkably distinctive and far from unpleasant, I’m pretty stoked to see what else Dzama has in the larder the next time I get a chance to buy one.  You could do worse than trying some yourself…and this one would be an excellent place to start.