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 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 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)

 


Jan 242015
 

D3S_9097

Clean, clear, dry and old, with a lackluster finish that detracts from the excellent front end.

(#198. 86.5/100)

When I reviewed the Depaz Reserve Speciale a while back, I thought that the flavours seemed a shade sharp, too vague, and departed the scene with all the hurry of a street cur at which you threw a rock…or something to that effect.  Most of these issues were absent from the Cuvée Prestige, which was a better rhum in almost every way.  It is a blend of rhums aged between six and nine years, has a lovely outfit, and probably the top-of-the-line product from Depaz. I hesitate to recommend it at the higher price points I’ve seen, but must concede that I think it’s one of the better agricoles out there (bar the finish), and for those with deep pockets (or who can ferret out a more economical buy), it may be worth that kind of outlay…assuming their tastes bend in that direction.

Points should absolutely be given for the packaging (oh come on, lie to me and say you never bought a bottle of something purely on the way it looks).  The carafe-style bottle with gold etching (it shows the “castle” of Depaz and its date of founding, 1651) was surmounted with a gold-coloured cap and thick cork, and came in a wooden box with metal snaps, the design of which mirrored the bottle etching.  It all looked very impressive, which it was: it just exuded an air of expensive Savile Row suits. As I’ve remarked before, when you’re at this price range, you’re absolutely within your rights to ask for some spiff on the wrapping, otherwise what are you spoiling yourself for?  Who can you show off to? An unadorned barroom bottle can contain the elixir of the gods, sure, but who’d ever believe it does until they shell out the money, and who’d take the chance?

D3S_9099

Anyway, the Cuvée Prestige is an AOC agricole from Martinique, made from sugar cane juice rather than molasses, grown on the Depaz plantation at the base of Mount Pelee (which nearly ruined the joint back in 1902 when it last woke up and belched). As with other Martinique rhums, it is terroire specific, and since Depaz is located right close by La Montagne with both volcanic soil and varying weather, some of its distinctive profile can certainly be attributed to those factors.  The initial scents of this 45%, gold brown rhum certainly pointed in this direction. Initially very clean and dry, the vegetal green-grass aromas were to be expected, and did not disappoint – the rhum was extremely pungent, smooth and easy, even deep. It had some of the briny freshness of ocean spray. As it opened the scents moved to display more of that dry-ish, almost-salty profile – dates, figs, nuts and almonds, leather and toast, all nicely soft. No real fruity background to speak of here, just the shy promise of better to come

The taste on the palate did not take any sudden left turns or quick swerves.  It retained cleanliness and smoothness, which were endearing characteristics – I have to be honest, the medium bodied rhum had the smooth and relentless flow of a slow tidal wave of double cream.  And it also continued to display the warmth and aridity of the nose. It hinted at sea-salt and sawdust, still more nuts, nutmeg, hazelnut and almonds. Some caramel, cigar smoke, sandalwood.  It almost felt like one of Renegade’s rums, like, oh, the Guadeloupe 1998 11 year old; also the Cuba 11 Year Old, or even (shudder) the Coruba 12 year old. Letting it stand, and adding some water finally coaxed out the flavours I was hoping to have – figs, dates, some light vanilla and overripe black grapes, all bound together by the smell of crushed sugar cane stalks still weeping juice and drying in the hot sun.  The finish was a weak point for me – smoky and sharper than it should have been (it lasted a good while, I can’t deny that), with not much going on aside from some closing notes of vanilla, and salted peanut butter.

It had a good mouthfeel, nice body, good tastes around the edges, and the nose was heavenly, but I think that here, the slight dominance of the non-sweet brininess made the product falter as an overall experience for me (when related to the price – had it been cheaper, I dunno, I might have been more lenient).  It’s definitely better than the Reserve Speciale, and I could see its overall quality, feel its texture, and acknowledge that in my scoring. But I’m afraid it’s not my cup of tea, really, not entirely. Therefore, dear buyer, if money is an issue, it’s a rum that you might wish to taste first (if possible) and checking it fits in with your personal profile preferences, before shelling out.  It’s a very good rum in its own way, and just because that way meanders apart from my own path doesn’t invalidate the product on its own merits.

D3S_9104

Other notes:

Online cost shows wild variation.  I’ve seen everything from €80 to €250, with one reviewer remarking that it can be had for substantially less on the island itself. While I’m not privy to the sometimes obscure pricing mechanisms of web stores, I don’t think I’d shell out more than €100 for this one, both for the cool looks and lovely taste, and also because of the failed backend.  It would have to be a hell of a lot rarer and more in line with the personal preferences I have, to convince me to part with that much of my hard earned balles.

Nowadays it’s owned by Bardinet (who also make the Negrita line of rums I’ve never tried), but who, interestingly, make no mention of Depaz at all on their (poorly designed) site.  There are days I wonder how advertising is really done for products this good: maybe that’s what we reviewers are here for.  After all, if we shell out some cash to buy the thing and like it (which is a chance the makers seem to think is worth taking), then they don’t have to.  I’ve made my peace with that situation a long time ago, but there’s no doubt I still feel a twinge of annoyance about it – we should not be seen as a free resource, to act as a substitute for their reluctance to advertise properly on their own account.

 

Jan 122015
 

D3S_9094

Complex, yes. Quality, not entirely.

(#197. 82.5/100)

***

Although the Depaz VSOP Reserve Speciale is noted as being a complex agricole, not much except perhaps the taste of the reddish brown rhum deriving from the Plantation de la Montagne Pelee really works for me as it should, which just goes to show that not every single spirit hailing from a part of the world supposedly making only top-end products can be as good as it is meant to be.  Part of the issue here (I hesitate to say “problem”) is that all sensations go by too fleetingly for any real impression to be left, and what was there just never came out the way it might have.  The Depaz agricole is a Tolkien elf running across the snow, and leaves few footprints worthy of remark.

Which is somewhat odd for a spirit that is bottled at 45%: that strength alone would lead you to assume some intensity and heft in the profile.  But nope, not really.  At least not in this one, and it starts right away in the nose.  Unlike some really stellar exemplars of the craft (think Damoiseau 1980 or even the Karukera Millesime 1997) which wafted a cloud of deep, luscious scents into the room as soon as the bottle was cracked, the Depaz seemed thin and reedy as a hungry rice-eating mongrel’s ribs, and like such a pooch’s snarling attack, it was sharp and fast and over way too quick.  There were underlying aromas of grass, crushed cane and rosemary, some subdued hints of apricots, fruits, flowers and sweet bubblegum, followed by faint leather, and the damp musky smell of cheap cigarettes smoked in the midst of a tropical rainforest with high humidity (having done so in the past, I know whereof I speak).  But it was all too little, too sharp, and too scrawny for the schnozz of this reviewer, who openly prefers more aggressive fare.

The taste in the mouth on the other hand elevated the drink quite a bit, and made me check my glass to see if I had confused my samples.  It was stronger and more assertive, very nicely warm without the spiciness of the nose…a bit more body you might say, entering quite cleanly and clearly. Sweet and solidly fruity, it opened with sugars and some oakiness, chopped light fruits (green grapes, white guavas), licorice (odd in a Martinique AOC agricole), bleeding sap from a fresh cut cane stand, green leaves and even a flirt of vanilla and caramel.  The complexity was hinted at but seemed scared to come out and strut its stuff and therefore, while it was discernible, it never quite took centre stage.

I should however remark on the mouthfeel and texture, which wasn’t bad at all, coating the tongue well and warmly, allowing some of those tastes to take on greater prominence after a few minutes.  Here adding some water had to be done with some delicacy, as too much would have shredded an already unaggressive drink, and too little wasn’t enough to release the additional flavours that lay hidden.  The finish was an overall disappointment, by the way – there was a backtaste of cane juice on a cutlass blade (I kid you not – it had both metallic and vegetal notes), some sugar water, vanilla, a little oakiness, too quick and too sharp to appeal to me.

D3S_9095

Depaz hails from the eponymous estate in St. Pierre in Martinique, and is located at the foot of  Mount Pelée  itself: it’s been in existence for over three hundred years, sicne 1651 in fact, when the first governor of Martinique, Jacques Duparquet, created the plantation, and these days bears the AOC mark of terroire-based authenticity. Although the famous eruption of the volcano in 1902 decimated the island, Victor Depaz, who survived, reopened for business in 1917 and it’s been operational ever since.

The company also makes quite a few other rhums: the Rhum Depaz, a full proof 50% beefcake, a blanc variation, the Blue Cane Rhum Agricole (which are all a little down the evolutionary ladder), as well as an XO and the Cuvee Prestige (a little above quality-wise, a lot more price-wise). I’ve heard that the VSOP was made with a single column copper still (and was unfortunately unable to confirm it), aged for seven years in charred oak casks, from cane juice (of course) and without filtering or additives; it is presented in a bottle more reminiscent of wine or champagne, but you have to kind of admire such audacity – it sure sets it apart from the crowd.

Anyway, let’s pull it all together.  I tried this three times to see whether my opinion changed (and it didn’t), but my overall lack of passion should not entirely dissuade you: there were aspects of the rhum that worked well (the palate in particular).  My own predilection for more intricate, stronger and deeper flavours should not be seen as a blanket indictment of any rum that doesn’t conform, or which those persons with a liking for subtler, lighter rums would enjoy. This is where knowing your preferences comes in handy. Lovers of soleras, Bajan, Panamanian or Demerara rums are not likely to swoon here.  Trinis, maybe; Cubans and Jamaicans, quite likely. And people with a penchant for agricoles will probably like it – for the same reasons I couldn’t muster serious enthusiasm, in all likelihood.

Some might consider this to be like a black mongrel’s left leg – it ain’t right, and it ain’t fair – but that’s the way it is. And that’s also as it should be, because if we all agreed on everything, then all of you reading this would want to pilfer all my rums…and be in love with my wife.

Other notes:

In Europe this goes in the €60 range.  My own feeling is that if you can spare the change, go a step or three up the ladder for the Cuvee Prestige, which is a very good rhum indeed, and which I’ll look at in my next review.

 

 

Jan 082015
 

D3S_9369

A rich, argicole rum of a depth and flavour I savoured for literally hours – it almost qualifies as the perfect comfort drink, and for sure it’s the best sub-10 year old rum I’ve tried in ages.

(#196. 87.5/100)

***

Karukera in Guadeloupe is a distillery for whom I have grown to have a great deal of respect: I was not won over by their Vieux Reserve Speciale, but the 1997 Millesime was something else again, and I often drifted back to it when looking for an agricole baseline, or a control.  On the strength of that positive experience, I decided to step up and shell out for this one, partly because of the strength and partly due to the double maturation moniker, which piqued my interest.

Which is not to say that its presentation didn’t appeal to me also – I’m shallow that way, sometimes.  It may not be a top shelf super-premium rum, true, yet it did its best to raise the bar for any rum that purports to be a cut above the ordinary.  Just look at that wooden box printed with all sorts of interesting details, and the sleek bottle with its cork tip.  All very nice – it looked damned cool on my shelf. And so, my lizard brain having been catered to and placated, off I went into my tasting routine to see whether the implied quality inside the bottle was as interesting as what the outside promised.

D3S_9373D3S_9376

Which it was. Aged for six years in bourbon and then two more in french oak cognac casks, only 2000 or so bottles of honey/amber coloured rum came out at the other end, and mine presented a very interesting aspect, in spite of my having wrestled with mostly full proof pachyderms over the last few months (so 44.6% can almost be considered “standard strength” for me, these days).  Let’s just agree it was…gentler.

 Sleek salt butter, cream cheese and some brininess led right off. To say I was not expecting that would be understating the matter: the rum is made from blue cane grown on the plantation itself, and I was looking for a more standard nose of vegetal notes and some citrus.  But after letting the spirit rest in my glass for a bit, ah, there they were.  Apricots, black grapes, cloves and orange rind sidled shyly forward, to be replaced by hay and freshly mown grass.  There were some spicier oaken aromas at the back end, nothing unpleasant – in fact the whole experience was really quite excellent – a firm mix of salt, sweet, sharp, and pungent smells.

Tasting it was a rewarding experience. It was a medium bodied rum, quite smooth and warm, opening up with white flowers, and soft tanned leather.  As the nose did, some patience rewarded me with mild caramel, smoke, more leather, which in turn morphed easily into mellow tastes of mango, pears, pineapple, cinnamon, cumin, even marzipan and flavoured port-wine cigarillos (used to love those as a young man). And I was also quite impressed with the finish, which lasted quite long, warmly dusting itself off with white guavas, caramel, and half ripe pears. The rum may have caused north of a hundred Euros, but man, it was a pretty awesome drink. My mother and I shared it in her dacha in north Germany on one of the last sunny days of autumn in 2014 as my son ran barefoot on the grass blowing soap bubbles, and it was the perfect accompaniment to a really great afternoon laze-in.

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Karukera continues to be made by the Espérance distillery (founded in 1895) a distillery down by the Marquisat de Saint Marie in Guadeloupe, doesn’t chill filter or add anything to its rums, and proudly wears the AOC designation. I’ve been fortunate to climb the value chain of its products and each one I try raises the bar for its rums. You can be sure I’ll buy others they make in the years to come.

Personally, I’m not sure a rum so warm and friendly, yet also firm and tasty, is suitable for mixing (it was all I could do to see what a few drops of water could do, just to be complete about it) – I know I wouldn’t, on balance.  There’s a remarkable softness and overall quality to the Karukera, which, while excelling at no one thing, came together so sweetly that I honestly can’t imagine what a mix could do to enhance it. The rum is excellent as it is, and whether you like molasses spirits or agricoles (or both), there’s no doubting that here is a rum that sneaks past your defenses, hits the sweet spot of your desire for a good rum, and gives you all the love and comfort you could ever ask for. That alone may be worth all the euros I paid.

 

 

Oct 122014
 

D3S_9334

 

***

A deeply rich and remarkable rum – 1980 was a damned good year for this company

(#183. 91.5/100)

***

When one buys a raft of intriguing aged rums and then samples several dozen more (especially after a protracted absence), the issue is which rum to start reviewing first. Since my intention on this go-around was to run through several Caroni rums from Trinidad, as well as to give more weight to agricoles from the French West Indies, I decided that one of the best of the latter deserved some consideration.  And that’s this sterling Damoiseau.

The Bellevue au Moule estate and distillery was established at the end of the 19th Century by a Mr Rimbaud from Martinique, and was acquired by Mr Roger Damoiseau in April 1942…since then it has remained within his family (the estate and distillery are currently run by Mr Hervé Damoiseau).  They claim to be the market leader in Guadeloupe — 50% market share, notes the estate web page — and their primary export market remains Europe, France in particular.

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Forget all that, though: this 1980 edition would be enough to assure their reputation as a premium rum maker by any standard. Damoiseau themselves obviously thought so too, because it’s not every day you see a polished wooden box enfolding a bottle, and costing as much as it did. And once open, bam, an immediate emanation of amazing aromas greeted me. Even with my experience of full proof rums clocking in at 60% and over, this one was something special: plums, dark ripe cherries and cinnamon blasted out right away.  The rum was impatient to be appreciated but then chilled out, and crisp, clean and direct notes of white flowers and the faintest bit of brown sugar and fresh grass came shyly out the door.  I’d recommend that any lucky sampler to get his beak in fast to get the initial scent bomb, and then wait around for the more relaxed aftersmells.

What also impressed me was how it arrived in the palate: you’d think that 60.3% strength would make for a snarling, savage electric impact, but no, it was relatively restrained: heated, yes, but also luscious and rich. (The closest equivalent I could come up with when looking for a comparative to this rum was the 58% Courcelles 1972 which also had some of the loveliness this one displayed). Fleshy, sweet, ripe fruit were in evidence here, pineapple, apricots, crushed grapes, apricots – it was so spectacular, so well put together, and there was so much going on there, that it rewarded multiple trips to the well.  It’s my standard practice to add some water when tasting to see how things moved on from the initial sensations: here I simply did not bother.  It was hard to believe this was an agricole, honestly – it was only at the back end that something of the light cleanliness and clarity of the agricoles emerged, and the fade was a pleasant (if a bit sharp), long-lasting melange of white fruit (guavas, I’m thinking), a twist of vanilla, and light flowers.

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Guadeloupe as a whole has never been overly concerned about the AOC designation, and creates both pure cane-juice and molasses-based rums, in light and dark iterations of vieux, très vieux, hors d’age and (not as common) the Millésimé – that’s where we head into rarefied territory, because it denotes a particular year, a good one. From the taste of this rum, the heft and the richness, 1980 outturn must have been phenomenal. For a very long time I’ve not been able to give enough attention to the products of the French West Indies (to my own detriment) – but even the few steps I’ve made have been worth it, if only to see diamonds like this one washed up on the strand at the high water mark.

 

Other notes

Aged for 18 years in 180 liter ex-bourbon barrels.

 

 

Mar 302013
 

 

Like an elderly doddering relative, it requires a little coaxing and care to be appreciated fully

(#141. 86/100)

***

Quite aside from my laughter (and that of everyone else at the KWM tasting where it was trotted out) at the box in which the RN Martinique Anniversary Edition Rhum Agricole 12 year old reposed, the single emotion gripping me as I tasted it was respect. Respect for its bottle, the box, the rum and above all, it’s primal excellence. Here’s a rum that takes the run of the mill agricoles we are all so much more used to, and equals or tops them without tekkin’ any kinda strain or bustin’ a sweat.

The enclosure was really quite original: a hollowed out cardboard box shaped like a book in which to hide it, which tickled my son pink but was too cheaply made to do anything but annoy the wife, who, while grudgingly accepting my constant purchases of rum, would prefer that if I dropped just over a hundred bucks on one, that it at least looked like it cost it. Fortunately, as I drew the gold-tipped cork-hatted flagon out of the book, her annoyance disappeared and she was at least impressed with its elegant shape and deep red-brown colour. Well, it’s a small win, what can I say. I take what I can get.

Made from Martinique stock – the column-still product was aged and bottled to a run  of 5000 bottles there – this rum was issued in 2010 to mark the 10th anniversary of the company, which began issuing its series back in 2000. I’d have to say that while I enjoyed the less expensive Hors d’Age quite a bit, the Anniversary edition took matters up a level. The warm and heated nose was simply awesome: nutty, sweet, dark chocolate notes were balanced out by caramel, creamy vanilla, and tempered by white flowers, an earthy tone of slight smoke and leather…tawny is the best single word I can come up with to describe it. As it settled down and trusted me enough to open up, it mellowed into deep brown sugar, with toasted pecans, and some citrus hints. There was a cleanliness, a spareness to it, that took me back many years and recalled the piping-hot, fresh, teeth-blackening Red Rose tea sweetened with melting brown sugar, of the sort I used to drink at six in the morning in the misty Guyanese jungle with dim morning sunlight filtering through the forest.

Agricoles as a whole trend towards slightly sharper, lighter bodies with real complexity if one is prepared to be patient and not guzzle them down. Since I had the Guitar Yoda passing on Jedi secrets to my son the day I was trying it, I indulged myself in desultory conversation with his better half, of the sort one can only have with old friends, while sipping this lovely rum for over an hour. And it was easy, because the Anniversary really was a top-notch sipper. Smoothly spicy, medium-to-light bodied and surprisingly dark in temperament, tasting candy sweet and heated all at once, with musty tobacco and oatmeal freshly made. Tangerines, red wine, nuts and honey came to the fore and then gracefully retreated, to be replace with a sere and dry (but far from unpleasant) winey note. As for the finish, it was long and warm with a last sly spicy backhand, as if trying to remind me not to take it for granted. A really excellent all round product, believe me. Yeah it’s a bit pricey ($125 in my location)…I think it’s worth it if you’re in the market for a very good agricole and the Central Americans or Island nations don’t turn your crank, or you would like to try more than just another well-known commercial product.

After trying quite a few of the company’s rums (I still have another two or three to get through), I’ve come to the conclusion that the quality of what Fabio Rossi of Rum Nation achieves lies in his diamond-focussed professionalism, to the exclusion of all drama and flourish: the man has never made a rum that’s “merely average”. It’s as if he asked himself, with each rum that he has produced, ‘What is the essence of this product?’… and then, in answering that question, proceeded single mindedly to make a rum about absolutely nothing else.

***

Note: This spirit carries the AOC mark of authenticity. Martinique is the only rum region designated as an Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée. This entails, as it does in France’s Cognac-making region, rigorous guidelines for harvesting, fermenting, and distillation.

 

Mar 302013
 

 

All round excellent younger agricole from the House of Fabio.

(#140. 84/100)

***

Rum Nation’s agricole rum from Martinique, the Hors D’age, is not quite as sublime as the other products of the company about which I have so enthusiastically written, but this should not dissuade anyone who enjoys the French island rums from trying it, since the overall quality is quietly impressive. I tasted this in conjunction with the Karukera Millesime 15 year old which I knew was a damned good rum, and if the RN didn’t quite come up to snuff with respect to its more aged competitor, it careened across the finish line a very close second…quite something, for a rum that’s not half as old (hors d’age is an appellation which means ageing is between 3-6 years, and this rum adhered to all the AOC guidelines to be termed a rhum agricole from Martinique).

There is a presentational ethic which is almost spartan about the less expensive RN offerings; this one was a standard barroom bottle ensconced in a cheap windowed cardboard box that showed the label through the plastic. The cork was cork (plastic tipped), the label was simple and with minimal information, and overall, for its price of about $60, I wasn’t expecting more.  Essentially, this has the look of a rum you can lose in a bar, which is pretty good since ostentation at this level is looked down upon…bad form you know, old man.

As with all RN’s products I’ve had so far, it’s a cut above the merely pedestrian. It decanted into my glass in an amber gurgle of deep evening sunlight, and gave off intriguing wafts of solid fruity tones even before I started really assessing the nose: strawberries, orange marmalade, and a teasing hint of licorice. Was that coffee grounds in the background? Sure hoped it was. And there was a faint wine hint, as vaporous as the Cheshire Cat’s grin, lurking in the shade there someplace (and here I’d like to point out that this was worlds removed from the overwhelming wine hammer of Thor with which Downslope Distilling’s six month aged rum battered me).

The Hors D’Age is a welterweight among rums…medium to light but remarkably solid body, providing a hefty heated punch, as if to prove that the 43% ABV wasn’t ever really gonna love me. For a nose that had been softly redolent of my father-in-law’s orchard, I was quite surprised at the briny driness of this offering. Surprise over, after it condescended to open up, it mellowed into a deeper cane spirit, releasing a pretty intriguing melange of coffee, peaches…and the savage sweet taste of burnt sugar cane peeled with your teeth and then sucked dry (ask any Guyanese what that’s all about). The subtle wine taste persisted, just not enough to be annoying or intrusive, and at the last, I was pleased to note a sort of segue into buttery, non-sweet white chocolate. Like I said…intriguing rum. As for the finish, it was long, warm and sere, closing up shop with the sharper accents of a cafe latte, almonds, and a clear herbal spirit fade that was characteristic of almost every agricole I’ve ever tasted.

Let me confess that while I like agricoles and appreciate – nay, respect – well made ones, overall they will never be rums I love with great, overwhelming, operatic passion. However complex, the profile is usually a shade too thin, too hard, too clear for my personal tastes — like a snooty French waiter who truly despises my lack of couth. As it was, this Hors D’Age ran a very close second to the Karukera (while the 12 year old Rum Nation Martinique Anniversary and the Clemente XO were better than both). I ran back and forth among my agricoles, and finally came to the conclusion that it was the longer ageing of the Karukera (15 years), and a better, smoother, tastier finish  that spelled the difference.

But you know, that’s all semantics. If you receive the rum on its own frequency, it’s as good as a moveable feast, really; yes, of course it could have been older, smoother, better – though at that point it would not have been this rum, or even (perhaps) a better one.  For the money, it’s a good deal, a good rum, plain and simple. And I have to be honest too – if RN can produce an agricole this good in less than six years, it seems churlish of me to degrade a rum that many others couldn’t have made at all.

 

Mar 302013
 

 

I’m not an avowed fanboy of agricoles: yet this one may be the best I’ve ever tried, and certainly among the top tier of rums made anywhere, by any method. Rare, old, powerful, excellent, pricey and, well … yeah it’s worth it.

(#122. 90/100)

***

Holy sweet mother of God, where has this rum been sitting? A snarling, awesome 58% beefcake of an agricole (I have my suspicions about this, see below), aged 37 years and one of the best of its kind I’ve ever tasted. This is where I get up on my soapbox and demand that rum makers start going stronger, higher, more powerful, and move off from the self-imposed limit of 40% ABV. Just tasting this one would tell you how much more intense everything is when you dial it up a few notches.

On my last day in Berlin in August 2012, I popped over to the Rum Depot and asked for whatever they had that was old, unique and preferably rare (this was on top of the eight rums I had already bought that were exceptional in their own way and unavailable in Canada). The co-manager (whose name I have regrettably not written down and have now forgotten, my apologies to the gentleman) trotted out this 500ml bottle from Guadeloupe from his personal stash, and purely on the strength of the tasting, I immediately bought the 47% version, which is the same age, but packing a shade less oomph in its trousers.

The Rhum Vieux Domaine de Courcelles Grande Reserve was distilled in 1972 on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe (home of Karukera) and bottled in 2009, and let me tell you, it’s phenomenal. It did not have any AOC or terroire marked on the bottle – Guadeloupe has never been quite as intense as Martinique in getting the designation – but frankly, after a careful nosing and even more careful sip (or four), I didn’t give a damn. The amazingly strong (yet soft) nose billowed out at me without fuss or complaint, as assertive and friendly as an insistent St. Bernard coming to you over the snow to provide a well-needed dram. Scents of cinnamon, marzipan, breakfast spices and brown sugar melting in the tropical heat argued genteelly for attention, none dominant, none rough, none out of balance with any other. Indeed, I spent an inordinate amount of time simply nosing the thing, and even among all the other tastings I did that day, this was the one to which I continually returned.

All these scents and more carried over to the palate of the medium bodied, straw-coloured rum. The marzipan almost mischievously flirted with turning into a minty flavor (but not quite, otherwise I might have been sourly muttering about toothpaste the way my Dad, the Hippie or the Maltmonster would), the cinnamon added nutmeg, brown sugar, honey and floral notes and for a 58% strength rum, the Grande Reserve was unbelievably deep and even a bit smooth – not without a little sting, mind, yet not raw or uncouth, not the bitchy scratch of rum-claws that made you hunt for your tonsils in Albania, more like the dark heat of strong, well-brewed tea. To call it glorious is to undersell it. It barks. It gurgles. It snarls. It loves you. It makes you shake your head and smile and thank whoever it was for inventing rums because this, by God, is what a rum should taste like. And the finish was nothing short of exceptional – long, lasting and mellow, with closing notes of warm ground after a fresh rain, a shade dry and with a last exclamation point of leather and pipe tobacco.

The Courcelles distillery in Grande Terre (one of the two “wings” of Guadeloupe island) which was established in the 1930s when rum was in its heydey, closed way back in 1964 when the then owner, M. Despointes, transferred the inventory and equipment to another distillery, that of Ste Marthe. They continued using Courcelles’s pot still and distilled this rum in 1972 as noted above. What a shame there is so little of it to go around. Note my suspicion that this is not an agricole: even taking into account the pot still origin, it seems a little too heavy and flavourful to come from cane juice, and since Guadeloupe has a history of using rather more molasses than juice to make rum (unlike Martinique where the opposite is true), I feel my take is reasonable…feel free to point me right if you have evidence the the contrary, though.

Some closing notes. Premium or true vintage rums are a secondary enterprise. Rums live and die at the mid-range and low-end, places that have never been welcoming to either old-timers or eccentrics. The hoi-polloi scorn the past and ignore the future, ruthlessly pursuing pleasure in the present tense. Living legends in other genres have it easier (like whiskies do), and gradually some older rums are finally getting their due. But no matter how reviewers like me flog the alternative, aged, unusual stuff, we know in our hearts that they will always represent a niche market, and be unappreciated by most – and if you doubt me, look no further than dusty Renegade rums gathering spiders webs of neglect in the liquor stores of Alberta.

A rum like this shows up the weakness of that one-size fits all mentality, because if you think about it, rums made for “everybody” (and which sell by the truckload precisely because of that) are actually made for nobody in particular. On the other hand, rums about specific styles, with a complex palate done to exacting standards, with great blending, great artistry and (dare I say it?) great love … these are magical; they make no attempt to seduce us; they are serenely, happily themselves. When you try the Rhum Vieux Domaine de Courcelles Grande Reserve 58% with its amazing profile, you’ll understand why it’s important we should agitate for more of such exceptionalism, even if it is just for the few remaining barrels of some long-defunct distillery that none but us rum lovers now recall.

 

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