Sep 282016
 

la-confrere-long-2014-2

#307

Inhaling the powerful scents of this rhum is to be reminded of all the reasons why white unaged agricoles should be taken seriously as drinks in their own right.  Not for Longueteau and La Confrérie the fierce, untamed — almost savage — attack of the clairins; and also not for them the snore-fests of the North American whites which is all that far too many have tried. When analyzing the aromas billowing out from my tasting glass, what I realized was that this thing steered a left-of-middle course between either of those extremes, while tilting more towards the backwoods moonshine style of the former. It certainly presented as a hot salt and wax bomb on initial inspection, one couldn’t get away from that, but it smoothened out and chilled out after a few minutes, and coughed up a few additional notes.  Was there some pot still action going on here? Not as far as I know, more a creole column still.  It was a briny, creamy, estery, aromatic nose, redolent of nail polish and acetone (which faded) watermelon, cucumbers, swank, a dash of lemon and camomile…and maybe a pimento or two for some kick (naah – just kidding about that last one).

The taste of this thing was excellent: spicy hot, fading to warm, and surprisingly smooth for a rhum where I had expected more intensity.  Like many well made full proofs, the integration of the various elements was well done, hardly something we always expect from an unaged white; and after the initial discomfort one hardly noticed that it was a 50% rhum at all. It was comparatively light too, another point of divergence from expectations.  It tasted of all the usual notes that characterize white agricoles – vegetals, lemongrass, cucumbers and watermelon, more sugar water (it hinted at sweetness without bludgeoning you into a diabetic coma with it) – and then added a few interesting points of its own, such as green thai curry in coconut milk, and (get this!) the musky sweetness of green peas. It all closed up shop with a nicely long-ish, dry-ish, intense and almost elegant finish, with an excellent balance of zest, creamy cheese and those peas, and some of the esters and acetones carrying over from where everything had started.  The balance could be better, but I had and have no complaints.

la-confrere-long-2014-1La Confrérie are not independent bottlers in the way Velier, Rum Nation or Compagnie des Indes are.  What they do is work in collaboration with a given distillery, and then act more as co-branders than issuers.  This provides the distillery with the imprimatur of a small organization well known – in Europe generally and France in particular – for championing and promoting rhum, who have selected the casks carefully; and gives La Confrérie visibility for being associated with the distillery.  Note that La Confrérie is also involved in deciding which shops get to sell the rhum, so certainly some economic incentives are at work here.  (There are some other background notes on La Confrérie in the HSE 2007 review, if you’re interested).  The two co-founders — Benoit Bail and Jerry Gitany – are currently touring Europe on an Agricole Tour to promote and extend the visibility of French island rhums, so their enthusiasm and affection for agricoles is not just a flash in the pan, but something to be taken seriously.

When I consider the pain Josh Miller went through to get the twelve blanc agricoles which he put through their paces the other day (spoiler alert – the Damoiseau 55% won), I consider the Europeans to be fortunate to have much greater resources at their disposal – especially in France, where I tried this yummy fifty percenter. And frankly, when North Americans tell me about their despite for white (so to speak), having had only Bacardis and other bland, filtered-to-within-a-whisker-of-falling-asleep mixing agents whose only claim to fame is their ubiquity, well, here’s one that might turn a few heads and change a few minds.  

(83/100)

Other notes

  • Outturn 1500 bottles
  • Source blue cane chopped, crushed, wrung out, soaked and hooched in May 2014, left in steel vats for around six months, and bottled in March 2015.
Aug 302016
 

La Confrerie HSE 1

A lovely, supple rhum from the French island.

(#299 / 87/100)

***

La Confrérie du Rhum’s Martinique Extra Vieux (as labelled), a 2007 millésime rhum bottled at a forceful 52.2% had darker notes reminding me of the Damoiseau 1989, until it went off on its own path and in its own way, which makes perfect sense since it’s actually from Habitation St Etienne. And while I have not had enough of those to make any kind of statement, after trying this one I bought a few more just to see whether the quality kept pace…because La Confrérie’s rhum was quite a lovely piece of work.

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

The Brotherhood itself is an odd sort of organization, since it exists primarily on Facebook.  Running the show are Benoît Bail, a sort of cheerfully roving rum junkie without an actual title but with an awesome set of tats and love of rum who currently resides in Germany, and Jerry Gitany who moonlights at Christian de Montaguère’s shop in Paris; among various other rum promotional activities, they dabble in importation of spirits, and starting in 2015 they were first approached to be part of a co-branding exercise (they are not independent bottlers). What this means in practice is that they work with a distillery to chose the rum (a cask or two), put La Confrérie’s logo on the label, and designate which shops get to sell it to the final consumers, and work to promote it afterwards. So far they’ve co-branded four expressions: Les Ti’Arrangé de Céd (March 2015), Longueteau (June 2015), La Favorite (December 2015) and this one.

La Confrerie HSE 2The story of this particular rhum started during one of Jerry’s regular visits to HSE, when Cyrille Lawson, the commercial director, remarked, “Jerry, we want to do a cuvée with La Confrérie.” “Sure,” Jerry said “But you have to do something that you’ve never done before.”  And Cyrille, probably relieved not to be asked to go base-jumping in a pink suit, agreed to come up with something good. One year later, Benoît and Jerry were at HSE picking and chosing among six different samples, the final result being this first full proof 52.2% beefcake. It was distilled in a creole column still, then aged in an American oak barrel between July 2007 and February 2016, had no additives, fully AOC compliant, and turned out at a very nice 800 bottles. It turned up for sale just in time for three hundred to be snapped up at the 2016 Paris rumfest, and for me to walk into the establishment two months later, see it and want to check it out. 

The aromas of the gold-amber rhum were excellent: the initial attack was all about anise, fruits, raisins, coffee and some red wine (I’m not good enough to tell you which) – this was the part that reminded me of the Damoiseaus. But then it went its own way, adding orange zest, more coffee, and some molasses (what was that doing here?), with just the slightest bit of vegetals, lemongrass and sugar cane juice. They were crisp notes that scattered like bright jewels on a field of black velvet, somehow vanishing the moment I came to grips with them, like raindrops in moonlight.

The taste, on the other hand, did not begin auspiciously – I actually thought it somewhat uncouth and uncoordinated, being sharp and spicy and seemingly harsh, but then it laughed, apologized and developed into an amazingly beautiful profile: honey, dill, candied oranges and coffee, bound tightly together by the clear hot firmness of very strong black tea.  And that was just the beginning: as it relaxed and opened up (and with some water), sugar cane juice and herbals and grasses came up from behind to become more assertive (though not dominating).  Again there as that odd caramel and molasses backtaste, and then came one I’m at a loss to explain except to say trust me, it was there: the scent of salt beef in a tub, hold the beef (I am not making this up, honest). It all finishing up with a lovely fade, long and warm, dry, not overly tannic, with some smoke and light dusty haylofts mixed in with chocolate, juice, zest and grass. I mean, guys, I had this thing in my glass for almost two hours while I went back and forth in that shop, and what I’m describing was real – the rhum has a phenomenal palate…less sharp than might be expected for 52.2%, and yet quite distinct and strong, a veritable smorgasbord of cooperating tastes.La Confrerie HSE 3

Years ago when studying the games of go-masters, I remember reading that one of them lost not when he played the most promising or “proper” moves, but when following lines of play which resulted in an elegance and purity of his game which overwhelmed his desire to win.  It was all about the pleasing  arrangement of stones on the board, you see: the beauty. The ending was, in its own way, superfluous. Irrelevant.  The pattern was everything.

I have a feeling HSE’s master blender might know this game. He started with nothing – an empty board, so to speak – and stone by stone, element by element, year by year, built a mosaic, a poem in liquid, that resulted in this fascinating rhum.  He has not won, no — there are indeed weak points in the final result.  But I contend that what has been made here is a thing of rare skill, of elegance, and yes, even of beauty. That alone, to me, makes it worth buying

***

Other notes

A sample straight from the bottle, one of several that Jerry Gitany let me try in Christian’s shop in Paris in early 2016. You could argue that I was positively influenced by it being a freebie, but since I picked it and he didn’t, and since a fair bit of my coin had just vanished into his till, I chose to believe otherwise.

The dates on the label make it clear this is an eight year old. Benoît confirms it is a true millésime.

As an aside, so Jerry informs me, HSE was so happy with this rhum that they asked La Confrérie to collaborate on a second batch, supposedly to be even better. It will be delivered by the end of 2016 (November or December).

Aug 172016
 

Liberation 2012

Maybe not quite a second banana to the Integrale from the same year, but not the whole one either.

(#295 / 86/100)

***

In theory, the only real difference between the Libération Integrale and the one I’m looking at here is the strength (and, if you’re picky about such things, the title).  The Integrale was a quiet stunner of a rhum, one of the best agricoles for its price and age, yet it seems odd to say that its lower strength sibling falls so much shorter of the mark.  Can that really be just about proof?  I tasted them side by side, as well as with the 2010), and to me it was clear that one was markedly better, tastier, yummier…and, in spite of the interesting profile, this one faded from nearly-exceptional into merely above-average.

The whole Rhum-Rhum series is a result of a collaboration between Gianni Capovilla who runs the eponymous outfit on Marie Galante (Guadeloupe), and Luca Gargano, who needs no introduction. They built a new distillery next to Bielle, which is the origin of the sugar cane that makes the rhum, . They ferment the undiluted juice longer than usual – ten days – and run it through small Muller-built copper pot stills, before letting the resultant distillate age.  It’s important to know that unlike many other makers, the year on the bottle is not the year it came out of the distillery and into the cask to begin ageing…but the year it was taken out (or liberated, get it?)…so if my dates are right, they started churning out the stuff around 2007.

Liberation 2012 - 1Other miscellaneous details: bottled at 45%; aged for five years in barrels that once held French wine (Sauternes Chateay d’Yquem); the age was not noted on the bottle, but it’s been confirmed as five years old as for the Integrale, and I idly wondered whether there wasn’t some NAS scheme at work here, a marketing effort meant to remove age as a determinant of price.  Probably not, neither man is the type to play such stupid marketing games. Still — the rationale for the lobster and other creepies which confused me a few months ago has now been cleared up, because although their relationship to rhum is tenuous at best, in this case it is supposed to represent proper food pairings to have with it.  So, okay then…let’s move along, stop waffling and start tasting.

Nose wise, this dark orange-gold rum presented well, with an admirable complexity hinting at greater qualities to come. Some rubber, citrus peel (nothing too excessive), and sweet lemon grass, freshly cut.  It was, like many agricoles, quite crisp, and while somewhat deeper than the 2010, presented many of the same notes.  It settled down after some time and smoothened out into a lovely rounded profile of coconut, caramel, brie…and a sly little hint of pencil erasers, followed some time later by the rest of the pencil.  I wonder if that was Signore Capovilla’s sense of humour at work.

As noted before, I have a certain liking for Guadeloupe rhums which aren’t as tightly wedded to – some say restricted by – the AOC designation. Unlike the Integrale, there was a faint-but-noticeable element of molasses here, combined with and melding into, something vegetal and flowery…deeper than your regulation agricole.  And with water a few other elements came to the fore – sugar water, flowers, more of that coconut and lemongrass. It was in its own somewhat thinner way, somewhat similar to the 2010 and Integrale, but drier than either, and not quite as sweet.  Overall,  I felt the lack of body (caused by the lower proof point) was an effort to make it appeal to a wider audience, rather than indulge the maker’s true ideas on where it should, or could, go.  So while the finish closed things off nicely – longish, heated, dry, sweet, some oak with some last grassy-molasses-caramel hybrid notes, mingling with brine – I didn’t think it succeeded as well as its stronger sibling.

What we have here, at the end, is a variation on a theme.  The relationship of this rhum to the Integrale – and, less so, to the Libération 2010 – is there, and no-one could doubt their ancestry. People who prefer standard proof drinks would likely like this rhum quite a bit, and I recommend it.  We are, after all, discussing relatively minor differences between one rhum and another, which most won’t care about.  Still, those variations, to true aficionados who dissect a single year’s production from a single distillery with the care and artistry only the obsessed can muster, are enough to make me think this is a lesser product, good as it is.  It’s not a failure – it’s too well made for that – just not something I’d buy if I knew the Integrale was next to it on the shelf (this is my personal thing which you can ignore, because they’re both very good).

Everyone is always so chuffed about Luca’s Demeraras and Caronis.  So much so, that his quieter, less histrionically admired efforts sometimes go overlooked (except, perhaps, by the French). Yet Velier has done something quite remarkable here, perhaps even more important than those other two famous bodies of work: in this association with Capovilla, he didn’t select a bunch of barrels, didn’t pick and chose from stuff already made.  They literally built a distillery around the idea of making a top end agricole which showcased Gianni Capovilla’s talent and Luca Gargano’s dream.  And brought out a bunch of rhums that showed the potential of agricoles to a wider audience. That’s quite an achievement, by any standard.

Liberation 2012 - 2

Aug 132016
 

JM 1845 Cuvee - 1

After a tough day at work, the Cuvée 1845 is a balm to the exhausted mind.

(#294 / 88/100)

***

Even at 42% ABV, The Rhum J.M. Cuvée makes a statement for agricoles that is worth listening to.  It finds a balance between body, mouthfeel, taste, spiciness and warmth in a way that reminds us that agricoles should not be taken as merely a small subset of the greater rumworld, but should hold a place in the pantheon second to none. While these days my preferences run mostly towards stronger, full proof rums, I must say that there’s nothing about this lovely product that makes me want to ask for it to be dialled up.  It’s excellent as it is.

Issued as an anniversary edition for the 170th year of production on the plantation in 2015 (which was when I tried it), the Cuvée is a rhum aged at least ten years in oak barrels, gold in colour, and housed in a handsome gold etched flagon of admirable simplicity.  J.M. is, of course, the old house on Martinique which issued the haunting 1995 15 year old, as well as the equally memorable 2002 Millesime 10 year old, but I think this one is just a shade better. J.M. as a plantation has been in existence for longer than 170 years – Pere Labat founded the sugar refinery as far back as the 1700s, and it is clear that the current owners have forgotten nothing about what it means to make a top notch rhum.

JM 1845 Cuvee - 2There was a certain tartness in the nose that started things off, something like ginnip and soursop, the crisp and firm ripeness of a green apple. It was not sharp or spicy, just heated and well controlled in a way that made smelling it a joy rather than an exercise in pain management – I didn’t have to set it aside to chill out and breathe, but could dive right in.  Once it opened a bit, it softened up, providing additional easy-going scents of vanilla, gingerbread cookies, unsweetened yoghurt and just a dash of pepper and cumin (which is not as odd as it may sound).

It was the taste that elevated the rhum above its 1995 and 2002 compatriots. What sinks an agricole in the minds of many molasses rum lovers is both the clarity and sharpness, whatever the tastes might be.  Nothing of the kind happened here.  In fact, it displayed the sort of originality and balance of crispness and softness which many rums these days seem to shy away from in an effort not to piss anyone off. The feel body was medium, soft, and had the instantly recognizable herbaceous background which marked it as a cane juice product.  Over a period of time, spices, black pepper, vanilla, light citrus and flowers emerged, surrounded by woody notes from the oak barrels where it has rested.  These oaky notes were held in check, providing a background of tannins that did not overwhelm, but enhanced further notes of ginger snaps, orange zest, ripe apples, and created a lovely mix of clear, light softness redolent of these many flavours all at once.  And the finish was equally high-grade – sweet, smooth, warm, tasty (nothing new added here, alas); perhaps a bit too short…more a summing up of the whole experience than any effort to go off the reservation by presenting anything new.

There’s was something almost sensuous about the whole experience.  The 1845, and indeed the rest of the rhums from this company, lacked that peculiar sense of individualism that marked out the Neisson line, yet in their own way are as distinct as any other, and with a quality not to be sneezed at. This is a rhum so well made that sipping it neat is almost mandatory – mixing it might be a punishable offense in some places, and I certainly wouldn’t.  Admittedly, the only J.M. rhums I’ve tried have been fairly high end ones – when you can carry only one and buy only one, you tend to chose from the better end of the spectrum – but even among those I’ve sampled, this one stands out.  It’s a remarkable, tasty, solid accomplishment from one of the last single-domaine, family-owned houses still in existence on Martinique.  And a feather in its cap by any definition.

Other notes

  • Blend of rhums aged a minimum of ten years in 200-liter oak barrels
  • A brief bio of J.M is provided in the 1995 review
Jul 282016
 

La Favorite Cuvee 1995 - 2

A delectable rhum, of an age we don’t see very often these days.

(#291 / 89/100)

***

Anyone who thinks agricoles are an afterthought in the rum world and should only be taken when one runs out of the more common brown-based stuff, would do well to sample what La Confrérie Du Rhum and La Favorite issued last year.

La Confrérie is actually not a company — translating into “The Brotherhood of Rum”, it is the largest Facebook rum group currently in existence —  its French language antecedents don’t stop it numbering nearly sixteen thousand members when last I looked (for comparison, Ed Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum FB page has around seven thousand, and the Global Rum Club is right behind it at six thousand or so). A few years back, one of its founders, Benoît Bail, decided to make some bottlings of well known companies and issue them to the market, some solo, some in collaboration.  The WIRD and Damoiseau editions were bought via the broker EH Sheer, while Les Ti’Arrangés de Céd, Longueteau and La Favorite were taken from the source plantations themselves; five more are in the pipeline over the next two years. This one came out in November 2015, and for my money, it was worth the wait.

Some brief facts – it is a column still product made on Martinique by La Favorite (who also made the very excellent Cuvée Privilège 30 Year Old), aged in white oak and issued at 45.3%. I was informed that just about the entire process is manual, down to the little old lady at La Favorite who glued the labels to the bottles one by one (I begged for her name and some background, but Jerry didn’t know, alas). Four casks were selected — numbers 25, 26, 27 and 42 — and exactly one thousand bottles were issued.

La Favorite Cuvee 1995 - 1Was it any good?  Oh yes. I mean, I could almost smell the age on the dark orange-amber rhum.  Well, maybe not, but the scents of dusty, rich berries and dark plums reminded me somewhat of the Cuvée Privilège, whose haunting quality has resonated in my tasting memory to this day. Blackberries and blackcurrants, very ripe cherries, juicy and thick, billowed out of the glass, followed, after many minutes, by cedar woodchips, aromatic tobacco, before morphing sweetly into a creamy smell of Danish cookies and maybe a butter-daubed croissant or three. It was soft, easy going, distinct, with each olfactory note clear as a bell yet harmonizing like a well-oiled choir.

With some rhums, like the Boys from Brazil I looked at recently, there was a radical difference between nose and palate.  Not here.  The Cuvée Spéciale 1995 segued smoothly and easily from one to the other without a pause, enhancing what had come before.  It was soft, earthy, even slightly salty, just avoiding maggi-cube brininess by a whisker.  It presented separate hints of caramel and vanilla, very faint molasses, a good brie, black olives, with just enough sweet to make it ravishing.  Once a little water was added, things proceeded in stately order, with yet additional flavours of raspberries, sawdust and freshly brewed coffee emerging.  Nothing particularly distinctive or new came out of the finish, which was thick and breathy and longish, but it seemed churlish of me to mark it down severely for something that had done such a great job at all the preceding elements.  

The craftsmanship of the the Cuvée Spéciale was not in how much was going on under the hood of its taste profile, but how what did purr away there, came together so well.  There was not a single element of the taste that didn’t deserve to be there, nothing rubbed wrong against anything else, and nothing seemed added to simply grab our attention, or to shock us.  Every component was refined to a sort of zen minimalism, and was there for a reason, lasting just long enough to notice it, enjoy it, and then smoothly move to the next one.

As is more common among independent bottlers, La Confrérie and La Favorite have little interest in pulling our chain, yanking our shorts or introducing anything radically new, and simply wish to inspire our appreciation with a product properly executed and exactingly chosen.  They have succeeded. This is a lovely rum, and my appreciation is inspired.

Other notes

Full disclosure: Jerry Gitany, a co-founder of La Confrerie, asked me to try this one when I was in Paris earlier in 2016, so it was a free sample.  I had already bought seventeen rums from him by that time, and much as I liked it, didn’t want to add to what was already a hefty bill. Maybe I should reconsider.

La Favorite 1995

Jul 132016
 

 

Richland 1*

By itself with nothing else around, it’ll do just fine as a light and casual sipper. It chips along easy, dances pretty around your palate, and has delicate notes that are quite enjoyable. In conjunction with others, it kinda chokes.

(#282 / 75/100)

***

This review has been sitting, waiting, gathering dust, for many months now, and the bullet, so to speak, had to be bitten. If I had never tasted a raft of rums from around the world the day the Richland crossed my path, I might have liked it a lot more. But what did happen is that my friends and I did a deep field sample of maybe fifteen rums in a six hour session, and this one suffered in comparison. Not so much because it failed in and of itself, but because during that extended sampling exercise, it was compared and contrasted to many other rums…and that really allowed us to get into it in a way that more casual imbibers probably wouldn’t. And sank it to the bottom of my pile.

Richland 2It’s a US entry into the agricole world, distilled from locally grown sugar cane rendered down into “honey” in a copper pot still, aged around four years or so in charred American oak barrels, bottled at 43%, and on that basis it certainly has all the proper boxes ticked. Fascinatingly enough, future plans are to have each bottle  numbered so the exact barrel from which it came is traceable.  I refer you to Dave Russell’s in-depth essay on the rum (which he liked much more than I did), which saves me the trouble of regurgitating it all here. One surprise – are there really no other rum producers in the USA who use a pot still and sugar cane honey in a single pass?  Surprising, but interesting all the same.  Kudos.

Now, nose and taste wise, the rum, a gold one, was pretty good: easy-going, delicate, light and very sweet. Behind a rather surprising rubber opening smell, lurked the florals, a lot of them. It was like being in an airconditioned flower shop just after a delivery came in, redolent of lavender and perfumed soap and shampoo (I guarantee, no other reviewer will mention that), 7-up and bubble gum.  It tiptoed around the nose, and other, equally light notes of sugar water and lemon grass and a little vanilla, coconut, came through.

Sipping it resolved some issues, created others and circled back to the original. The nose did provide the promise of some complexity but the palate didn’t deliver quite as much: it was warm and more basic, and the hint of agricole-profile that might have been expected was not distinctively there.  What indeed it tasted like was an uneasy mixture of bananas, sugar water and air-freshener, mixed with potpourri and cooking herbs (dill and rosemary) and even a stick of licorice. After some time the sweet took a back seat, some tartness of apples and oak took over, caramel and vanilla and smoke became more readily discernible, to dominate the rest of the extended tasting.  And underlying it all, throughout the session from start to finish, that travelling-bag scent refused to go away — although honesty compels me to admit I was the only one who seemed to notice it. Thank God it was faint.  Finish was perfectly serviceable, warm and not too spicy, more rubber, more air freshner, more flowers, more vanilla, more oak…and if that doesn’t sound pleasing, well, it was, quite light and airy and melded reasonably well.

Cutting to the chase, my opinion is that it’s decent, without being particularly spectacular.  The taste is an uneasy marriage of competing individual notes that hearken back to almost different profiles altogether, like a sharp agricole trying to be a Bajan.  Doesn’t really work.  Plus, over a long time, going back to it every half hour or so, the metamorphosis from light and tasty sipping rum into some weird sweet air-freshener-like liquid also sank it for me.  It may be a batch thing, since this is a pot still, small batch artisinal rum, and some variations of quality are to be expected.

Comparison might be the key here. Taste it alone, you’re fine.  You’ll like it, as long as light-bodied, unaggressive tamped-down 40% agricoles are your thing. Try it as part of an extended range of good rums, let the thing stand and aerate for a while, put aside any preconceived notions and you’d be surprised how much changes in both the rum, and your estimation of it.  In my case, that wasn’t for the better. 

 

Jul 072016
 

Neisson XO 1

Trying the last of the four Neisson I bought in 2014-2015 made me happy I saved it for last, because it was, I felt, the best of them all.

(#284 / 87.5/100)

***

“The race does not always go the swift, nor the battle to the strong,” goes that old aphorism; to which some wag added “…but that’s the way to bet.” I feel the same way about older rhums versus younger ones – the best score doesn’t always go to the oldest (the Trois Rivieres 1975 and 1986 are proof of that), it’s just that more often than not that actually is the case.  As it is, here, with Neisson’s excellent XO, one of the really delicious sipping rhums from the domaine Thieubert on Martinique.

The Neisson XO 3me Millesime was begun in 1999 to mark the entry into the third Millenium, and is pretty much Neisson’s top of the line rhum, limited to two thousand bottles a year.  It is a blend of Neisson’s ten best barrels of any given year which already underwent a minimum of six years’ ageing prior to assembly, and one blended, aged for at least another six years (I have seen posts dating back from 2007 suggesting fifteen years total). And unlike the rectangular round-edged standards of editions further down the price ladder, here the company provided an etched decanter with a glass stopper, gold leaf printing, all looking very spiffy.

Neisson XO 2I’ve remarked before on that odd oily tequila-like note I sensed on all the Neissons (e.g  the 2005, Tatanka and Extra Vieux).  In this instance it had been dialled way down from even the 2005 edition, and began with rubber and overripe fruit mixed up with acetone and brine (the last gasp of a tamed post still, maybe?).  It was smooth, heavy, easy, just a little spicy (45%, very well handled).  As I went between it and all its siblings I got back to it ten minutes later to find it had developed really well – pears, red roses (not too overpowering or over-dominant), a few apples just beginning to go, and orange juice, all leavened by a shy shade of coconut. It was a really very nicely assembled nosing rhum…I could have gotten lost in it.

It was on the palate that the gold-brown AOC rhum really shone, though.  The texture and mouthfeel were extraordinarily well-balanced, neither too hot nor too reticent, smooth and just heavy enough, as rounded as John Cena’s biceps.  None of that overripe fruit or rubber/acetone flavours carried over from the nose – instead, what I got was a kind of perfumed teriyaki, salt and sweet, backed up with florals and a cornucopia of light fruits – Indian mangoes, kiwi fruit, white guavas, a little Lebanese grapes, bananas, coconut, cocoa, brown sugar and vanilla, all tied up in a bow with a flirt of light acidity carrying over from some orange or ripe lemon peel.  If the finish was not as complex as the taste (the palate really was the best part about the whole experience), well, at least it was long for a 45% rhum, and provided me with closing hints of white sugar soaked in lemon juice, reminding me of all the times I dosed my stepmother with that exact mixture when she had a bad cold.

If I had to make some criticisms, it would be to say the nose isn’t entirely up to the excellence of the taste, though even with its relatively subdued nature (relative to the other Neissons) it’s damned good.  And the finish, aromatic as it might be, could have been beefed up some.  But really, these are minor quibbles in a rhum that is all-round yummy and does its company and younger brothers no dishonour at all.  While not everyone is into agricoles – Lord knows it took me long enough to learn to appreciate them – if you can get a sample of this XO, by all means give it a shot.  Different it may be. Tasty it definitely is. Deficient? Absolutely not. It is the best of the Neissons I’ve tried so far.

Jun 122016
 

Damoiseau 1989-2

The 1980 Damoiseau was no fluke, as this 1989 forcefully demonstrates.

(#278 / 88/100)

***

Last week I wrote about the Longueteau Grande Reserve which I tasted in tandem with this excellent Damoiseau (and five or six others), and wow, did this one ever stand out. At the risk of offending that actually rather pleasant and inoffensive Grande Reserve, I think the Damoiseau shows what it could have been with some egging on.  (Actually, this is what the Pyrat’s XO could have been had they ever found their cojones, lost the oranges and dialled the whole thing up to “12”, but never mind).

Because frankly, I believe that the dark orange 58.4% twenty year old beefcake is one of the better rhums to come out of Guadeloupe – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, there are few, if any, missteps of any kind (unless you count the paucity of any single sterling point of achievement as a misstep) — there’s so much that’s right with it, that it seems almost churlish to point out where it fails to ascend to the heights of brilliance achieved by, oh, the Chantal Comte 1980 or even its own 1980 older brother.

Dsmoiseau 1989-1

Consider first the smell of the thing: it was amazingly full bodied, with a charging, yelling, joyous nose – if Braveheart ever visited Guadeloupe, it’s this he would have been drinking and all the Scots would be speaking creole and we’d never have heard of that obscure Hebridean tipple.  Candied light oranges started the revels off (here’s where my reference to the Pyrat’s came in – observe the tact with which the citrus was presented here versus the overripe nonsense Patron has been selling).  Peaches, apricots, and brown sugar soaked in lime juice, which sounds a little loopy until you actually taste it. And after letting the rhum open up a bit and settle down, lovely aromas of honey, licorice and sweet soya came forward to lend piquancy and heft to the experience.

Damoiseau 1989There were fond memories of other agricoles issued at cask strength in my tasting, and  I felt no particular amped-up over-aggressive heat  from the 58.4% ABV at which it was bottled. The sharpness burned off in no time, leaving a warm solidity of the honey and soya to carry forward from the nose.  And then it was like slow fireworks going off – strongly heated black tea, coffee, chocolate, earthy, waxy and citrus notes detonated on the tongue in solemn grandeur.  Some fleshy fruits (more apricots and peaches), lemon zest and yes, those candied oranges were back again for an encore, dancing around the backbone of the other, firmer notes. The control of the oak, by the way, was pretty good, and in no way intrusive – at most there was some background of vanilla and vague tannins, and even that was in no way offensive or overbearing.

I was looking for the herbal and grassy profile of a true agricole, and must confess there were just about none.  It was just a really well-constructed panoply of tastes both strong and subtle, leading into a slow, warm finish as post-coital languor in a courtesan’s boudoir – you almost want to break out the newspapers and some shag for your pipe as you enjoy long, pleasant closing notes of coffee, orange peel, and bitter black chocolate.  What a lovely piece of work indeed.

As I’ve observed before, I have a slight, sneaking preference for Guadeloupe agricoles over Martinique ones (though both are good, of course – it’s like asking me who I love more,  Little Caner (my fast-growing cheeky son) or Canerette (my just-graduated, far-too-clever daughter)…a pointless exercise since both have aspects of real distinction which get equal adoration from their papa).  I must simply sum up by stating that the way traditional, classic agricole components in this rum have been melded with something that is almost, but not quite, a molasses product, is masterful. This, for its price, is a rum to treasure.

 

Other notes:

  • Distilled April 1989, bottled January 2010, so, a whisker under 21 years old
  • Tasted in Paris in 2016, courtesy of Christian de Montaguère and Jerry Gitany.  I bought seventeen rums and tasted a raft more, which we all thought was fair.  Merci beaucoup, mes amis.
  • Nope, I never managed to acquire the Velier Damoiseau 1989 for a comparison.  But now I really want to.
  • €100 for this?  Great value for money. BUT….In an odd (but not entirely uncommon) coincidence, Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun wrote about this rhum this same week.  He rated it at 78, remarking on its ‘indefinite’ character.  So balance his review with my more enthusiastic one.  If you can, try it yourself before buying.
Jun 072016
 

Long

Strong beginning, fine development, chokes on the backstretch

(#277 / 85/100)

***

There are many things about agricoles that I slowly learned to appreciate: the clear profiles, the subtleties of their ageing, the differences and similarities with the molasses based rums that some almost indifferently dismiss as ‘industrials.’ So far I seem to be leaning more towards Guadeloupe rhums than those from Martinique, and while the Grande Reserve I sampled in Paris in April 2016 wasn’t one of the shining stars of the firmament, it wasn’t all that bad either and I had several hours to come to grips with it properly

Longueteau distillery has been around since the end of the 19th century, and is located in Domaine Espérance Belair, Sainte-Marie (on a SE corner of Basse-Terre) – it produces the Karukera and Longueteau lines.  Originally the whole estate was part of the the property of the Marquis de Sainte Marie, but the poor chap dedicated himself somewhat excessively to the pleasures of the nobility that came with his station – wine, women and gambling, all the expected high points — and was forced to sell out to Henri Longueteau in 1895 to cover his debts. The notary handling the sale, so local legend has it, passed it to Henri on trust, since that worthy didn’t have enough money either, and that faith seems to have paid of handsomely. Four generations of the family have kept the estate going ever since.

Longueteau-2This dark orange-gold ten year old began well on the nose: phenols, acetone, caramel, sweet red licorice, wet cardboard, it gave a good impression of some pot still action going on here, even though it was a column still product. Then there was some fanta or coke — some kind of soda pop at any rate, which I thought odd. Then cherries and citrus zest notes, blooming slowly into black olives, coffee, nuttiness and light vanilla.  As a whole, the experience was somewhat easy due to its softness, but overall it was too well constructed for me to dismiss it out of hand as thin or weak.

That thin note of acetone and nail polish remover came and went as fast as a man through the window of his paramour’s house  when the husband comes through the door.  Thick and almost full bodied, warm, welcoming, non-aggressive.  Herbal and grassy notes, much less prevalent than in a true agricole (or a white) and I got the impression, right or wrong, as I do with many Guadeloupe rums, that this was a molasses based rhum (which it isn’t).  With water there was more fanta and soda pop, bubble gum, plums and prunes.  Certainly fruit, without the tartness of unripe mangies but something more subdued, like ripe black cherries and soft apricots, and some of that watery soggniess of watermelon just starting to go. But hey, I liked it, and to be able to pick out that much from a living room strength rum is no small achievement — maybe it was the cognac barrels in which it had been aged. The finish was more problematic – short, nutty, giving up hints of salty caramel.  The fruity notes were there but just, I dunno, evaporated.  Nice enough, just the weakest part of the whole experience, which was a shame after noting how well it all started.

So where does that leave me?  Feeling pretty good, all in all, because it is a very well assembled rhum, with few faults except a certain lack of heft, and the finish which seemed in a hurry to either get me to put the glass down, or to refill it.  It shared many points of kinship with another rhum I had that day, the Damoiseau 1989 20 Year Old (which was better).  Part of the issue might be the 42%.  Perhaps it was filtered, I don’t know.  For your average Tom, Dick or Harrilall it would work pretty well, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to start working his way around to the French islands’ products, without hesitation.  It’s a very good rhum for that — even if for me, it’s not one to add to my pantheon of great rums.

Other notes

Distilled Mar 2004, bottled April 2014

LOngueteau-3

May 182016
 

Nine Leaves French 2

A love note to the concept of kaizen

(#274 / 84.5/100)

***

It’s an old joke of mine that Nine Leaves’ staff consists of  a master blender, office assistant, purchasing agent, bottler, General Manager, brand ambassador and sales office, and still only has one employee.  This was and remains Mr. Yoshiharu Takeuchi, who single-handedly runs his company in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan, and basically issues some very young rums (none are older than six months) on to the world market. The unaged whites in particular are getting all sorts of acclaim, and I have one to write about in the near future.

Back in December 2014 I wrote about the six-month-aged 2014 French Oak, which I thought intriguing and pleasant to drink, though still a bit raw and having some issues in the way the flavours blended together.  Running into Mr. Takeuchi again a year later, I made it a point to try that year’s production, the The American Oak “Spring 2015” and this “Autumn 2015” … and can happily report that Nine Leaves, in its slow, patient, incremental way, is getting better all the time (and as a probably unintended side-effect, has made me buy a few more Japanese rums from other companies just to see how they stack up).

Just a brief recap: the rum was distilled in a Forsythe copper pot still, double distilled, using sugar cane juice from cane grown in Okinawa, so the rum is an agricole in all but name. Mr. Takeuchi himself decides when and how to make the cuts so that the heart component is exactly what he wants it to be. The rums are then aged for six months in the noted barrels, which are all new, and lightly toasted, according to a note Mr. Takeuchi sent me..

Nine Leaves French 1The French Oak “Autumn 2015” rum was a bit lighter in hue than the American Oak version I tried alongside it, and also a little easier on the nose…and smoother, even rounder to smell, in spite of its 48% strength. There was a subtly increased overall depth here that impressed – though admittedly you kinda have to try these side by side to see where I’m coming from.  Aromas of fanta, orange, cinnamon, vanilla were clear and distinct, as clean and clear as freshly chiselled engravings, and after a while, sly herbal and grassy notes began to emerge…but so little that one could be forgiven for forgetting this was an agricole at all. This was something I have enjoyed about Nine Leaves’s rums, that sense of simultaneous delicacy and heft, and the coy flirtation between molasses and agricole profiles, while tacking inobtrusively to the latter. 

The profile on the palate continued on with that subtle dichotomy – it was slightly sweet and quite crisp, beginning with some wax and floor polish background, well controlled. Sugary, grassy tastes of cane juice, swank, vanilla, some oak, dill and incense led off, and while it displayed somewhat more sharpness and a little less body than the roundness of the nose had initially suggested, further softer notes of watermelon, cucumbers and pears helped make the experience a bearable one. As with the American, there was a chirpy sort of medium-long finish, as the rum exited with dry, bright, clean flavours of citrus, breakfast spices, some cinnamon and maybe a touch more of vanilla. It was clearly a young rum, a little rambunctious, a little playful, but overall, extremely well behaved.  I sure can’t tell you which agricole is exactly like it – Nine Leaves inhabits a space in the rum world uniquely its own, while never losing sight of its rummy antecedents.  That’s always been a part of its charm, and remains a core company competence.

Clearly Nine Leaves is slowly, patiently improving on its stable of offerings. I spent a few hours checking for news that the company intends to issue progressively more aged rums without result – it seems that the current idea is to continue with gradually improving the young rums that area their bread and butter (though I know that Yoshi has a few barrels of the good stuff squirrelled away in his warehouse someplace that he isn’t telling us about, and will issue a two year old American oak rum as a limited edition at some point).  I can’t fault the concept, and if a new distiller can make rums this decent, and improve a little bit every year, you can just imagine what they’ll be putting out the door within the decade. Until then, we could do a lot worse than try one of these lovely seasonal issues Nine Leaves makes.

Kampei!

Other notes

  • Because of some obscure tax regulations in Japan regarding spirits three years old, Nine Leaves is unlikely to issue really aged rums for the foreseeable future
  • The French Oak cask rums are now no longer being produced.
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