Feb 102016
 

D3S_3799

A fascinating introduction into the twists and turns an agricole rhum profile can take

(#255. 84/100)

***

To the extent that agricoles have their own flavour profile, they haven’t surprised me much yet.  My tastes were formed by products from Clemente, Rum Nation, Damoiseau, Depaz, J. Bally, Trois Rivieres and others, and there were always those herbal and grassy notes to them and displayed similar general characteristics. That was until I ran through four Neissons one after the other…and was forced to conclude that agricoles can be just as fascinating and unusual as any other sugar cane drink.  Seriously – Neisson may make some of the most distinctive agricole rhums I’ve ever tried. They’re demonstrably cane juice rums, sure…but then they happily head off into undiscovered country.

The Extra Vieux, which in the absence of better information I’m tentatively saying is 6-10 years old was bottled at 45% and was an amber-brown, which I tried with its siblings from the same company, and then added a Rhum Rhum Liberation and a CDI Guadeloupe 16 YO…just to be sure.

Follow me through the tasting and let me describe what I tried. The divergence from the norm began with the scents it gave off when poured.  Neither overly sweetly scented or too deep in profile, it was had solid fruity credentials, and had some of the muskiness I usually associated with tequila, combining that with the meatiness of salt beef.  So already, some interesting digressions. The rhum’s aromas went away surprisingly swiftly, so re-sniffing was in order, and it was a little less tamed, a little more raw than one would expect.  Once it opened up some more, it also manifested a certain lack of snap and crispness I sometimes associate with younger agricoles, yet one could not entirely fault the result, which was thick and creamy, very well rounded (perhaps I never quite understood the term before now), mixing in coconut shavings, butter and a nice Philadelphia.  Another odd thing was the absence of clearly identifiable grassy notes – others might disagree, but I hardly smelled any vegetals or herbaceous elements at all.

The palate continued in this provocative vein: it was warm, displaying characteristics of fleshy fruit rather than the cleanliness of freshly mown lemon-grass (though some of that crept through, now).  In a way it was quite winey, with tastes of sauternes, vanilla and sour cream mixed in with a fruit salad that had a few too many red grapes and currants.  Yet the smoothness and heft to the mouthfeel, the overall texture, were quite good, once I got past a set of divergent tastes and just went along for the ride without projecting my own expectations or preconceived notions on the thing. The fade was perhaps the most traditional thing about this rhum, being short and lush (not dry at all); sweetish, closing with scents of nuts, red grapes, butter (again)…and, weirdly enough, caramel (what was that doing here?).

D3S_3800

Neisson has existed in Martinique since 1922 when the Neisson family started the plantation (the distillery was started in 1931). Nowadays it is run by the son and daughter of the founder, and they hold almost 9000 acres of cane under cultivation close by Le Carbet in northwestern Martinique (Depaz is up the road, and Dillon a little further south east of it).  Cane is not burnt as it is in Guyana prior to harvesting, and the cane is crushed in a steam engine driven crusher.  Fermentation takes about three days before being distilled in a single column copper Savalle still: the 65-70% distillate is stored for about three months in a stainless steel vat while being regularly stirred to eliminate unwanted volatile elements, before being transferred to 180-200 liter French or American oak barrels for ageing — most for a minimum of four years, but some for only 18 months, the latter to produce what is known as “Elevé sous bois”, or stored in wood, rum.

So all that aside, does the rum work?  Well, yes and no. It’s nowhere near as fierce and individualistic as, say, the Clairins, and that does take some getting used to.  The integration of the taste components is done well, it’s not very sweet, and the mouthfeel isn’t bad at all.  Where it falls down a little, for me, is in that salty tequila-like undertone, and where it succeeds is in the gradual unfolding of character and complexity.

I wasn’t totally enthralled, at first…yet kept getting pulled back to it, largely due to its queer and unique originality, which was like an almost-but-not-quite familiar face one sees in a party. The Neisson Extra Vieux does a right turn and then a twist on the standard conceptions of what an agricole should be, building up to an idiosyncrasy that requires both some adjustment, and some patience.  If you have those and are willing to meet it on its own terms, this AOC rhum is actually quite an experience.

 

Jan 252016
 

C de I Fiji 1

A well assembled rum made by someone who knows his business, yet, as with the BBR I tried some years ago, not entirely to my taste.

(#252 / 84/100)

***

Florent Beuchet, the man behind the independent bottler Compagnie des Indes, really likes to go off the beaten track in his search for proper casks of rum to release: either that or he has access to some broker or other with some cool geographically dispersed stocks.  Think about the rums he has in his young portfolio so far – from Guyana, Cuba, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Panama, Jamaica, Trinidad, Belize and Barbados, all the old stalwarts.  But show me another maker who in a single two year period can also claim to have added St. Lucia, Haiti, Fiji and Indonesia to the mix. St. Lucia alone should draw nods of approval.  But Haiti? Fiji? Indonesia?  

Therefore, yes, I’m a little impressed, more than a bit intrigued, and follow his issues closely, though thus far I don’t have that many…yet.  I was fortunate enough to try several samples of the Fijian 10 year old bottled at 44% in my ongoing effort to draw attention to obscure corners of the world where rums are made (but receive too little attention), and where unsung treasures may be found to the aspiring, perspiring rum collector.

So, this one: it was one of two 2015 Fijian releases CdeI made (each from a separate barrel), and it’s from the South Pacific Distilleries distillery – Florent didn’t tell me, but come on, it’s right there on the label…and anyway, even if it wasn’t, how many other distilling ops are there on the small island? This in turn is controlled by the Carlton Brewery (Fiji) Ltd, and that itself has the parent company of the Australian group Foster’s.  They make the popular Bounty rums (not the same as St. Lucia’s) and so far as I can tell, only BBR, Duncan Taylor and Cadenhead have released any bottlings from there. And full disclosure, I didn’t care much for the BBR Fiji 8 year old.

Still, things started out okay: the yellow rum was spicy and dry to sniff, with sugar water and delicate floral scents.  Watery is a good term for the sort of smells it exhibited – and by that I mean watermelon, juicy white pears, diluted syrup from a can of mixed fruit, grass after a rain.  This was all to the good.  What happened after a while was that waxy notes crept in, black/red olives in too-sour brine, and that C de I Fiji 2palled my enjoyment somewhat.

The taste of this light bodied, column-still-made rum was the best thing about it. Hot, freshly brewed green tea, no sugar, was my initial thought.  Brine again, more white flowers, guavas, sugar cane sap oozing out after you chop a stalk down.  Overall the lightness was somewhat illusory, because the rum displayed a good warmth and firm delicacy (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms), and demonstrated why there remains no “perfect” rum strength – a higher proof would have shredded this Fijian, while 44% was exactly right. In fact, it showed off a lot of characteristics of an agricole, more than a rum coming from molasses (it was confirmed that it did indeed derive from molasses, not cane juice).  The finish was short, smooth,heated and elegant, but nothing really extra was added to the party over and beyond what I noted above…perhaps some faint vanilla, gherkins in weak vinegar, swank, not much else.

 

I thought it was a decent rum, made by a company which knew what they was doing when they selected it, and you could sense the assembly was done well – the mouthfeel, for example, was excellent.  Where it fell down for me was in the snarly disagreement between the individual sweet versus sour/salt components – they didn’t mesh well, and the wax and turpentine notes kept interrupting like annoyingly plastered gate-crashers at your daughter’s wedding. This is quite a bit better than the BBR 8 Year old I reviewed back in 2013, which had similar issues, just more of them, and there I attributed it less to terroire and more to  insufficient ageing.  

Now, I’m not so sure – the clear and somewhat jagged profile may be characteristic of the area, and if so, we who love rums should try a few more before rushing to condemn and criticize – it’s not like there’s a historically huge sample set out there to compare with.  Suffice to say, for the moment, this isn’t quite my cup of tea. It’s a technically well made rum whose individual components, delicious on their own, aren’t quite cohering the way they should to make the experience a sublime one. Or even a better one.

Other notes

Florent advised me the barrel was bought through a broker, and no sugar was added.

 

Jan 212016
 
Photo courtesy of velier.it

Photo courtesy of velier.it

Slow, not entirely promising beginning, with a strong development and finish.

(#251 / 87/100)

***

In between its major releases from Trinidad, Guyana and Damoiseau where it made its bones, Velier occasionally took time off to travel the more traditional route of the indie bottler, and issue one-offs like this one (and the 1997).  I consider it a curious addition to the oevre, and not entirely a rum so good that it rates admittance to the pantheon, though nevertheless deserving of praise.

I call it “curious”: it was distilled in October 1995 and bottled in January 2008…but in between those dates, it was, like Velier’s own Damoiseau 1980, stored in dead vats to cease the ageing, from 2006 on.  So it’s up to us to decide whether the resting vat had any residual influence which would make it 12½ years old…or whether it didn’t and it’s just around ten.

(That’s something that seems to be coming up more often in relation to older agricoles I’ve tried – a millesime (the year of distillation) is trumpeted to the heavens, but in some cases the makers aren’t nearly as forthcoming about the date of bottling, and one has to have the sleuthing nose of a Poirot to ferret out these little nuggets.  Fortunately, Velier has always been pretty good about providing the info we need on its labels, and now you know what I do, so let’s move on.)

Presentation was the usual bottle, enclosed in a dour blue box with bright abstract art on it. What I liked about it was that it didn’t just say “Guadeloupe,” as most independents would do on their labels, but “Basseterre”, and further along, a notation of Distillerie Carrère in Petit-Bourge – that allowed me to delve more deeply into the history, which is further down for those who are interested in the provenance and background.

Right, tasting notes. The opening aromas were crisp and sharp, even a little uncouth, a little undisciplined – lovers of smooth and easygoing fare are likely to be disappointed here. Both salty with red olives, and sweet at the same time, yet also lightly perfumed with the scent of delicate florals (not much), mixed in with a nice white wine…a good Riesling, perhaps. As the minutes wore on it developed into a light and clear smell, the sharpness wore off and gave over to tree sap, green leaves, wet grass, some vanilla and faint smoke.  It was all pleasantly tied off into a bow with additional cherries and hard yellow mangoes.

D3S_3751

The Basseterre was an amber coloured rum, medium bodied, and bottled at 58.2%, and it hesitated not at all before skewering the tongue.  I was a little surprised at its unrestrained aggressiveness, to be honest (I was tasting it in conjunction with the Velier Damoiseau 1980, Chantal Comte 1977 and two Neissons, all of which were slightly smoother), and while I immediately tasted honey, walnuts and almonds, I put it away for a while to let it open up some more. This was the right approach, because it gentled out more after five minutes, and the shy flavours of flowers, tree sap and aromatic tobacco emerged, behind which coiled sharper notes of tannins, fresh-sliced unripe peaches, citrus and ginger.  In fact, the pendulum swung just a shade too much in the other direction as time wore on, and canned fruit syrup, yoghurt and whipped cream (I kid you not) started to take away from the initial freshness I liked.

The fade was long and spicy and complemented the palate very well.  Not much new going on except for some cereal and milk, more honey and nuts (cheerios?), and that lovely aromatic pipe tobacco finished things off with perhaps some ginger and citrus hanging in there.  

Looking back and considering the experience dispassionately, I must concede that this might actually be one of the few Veliers that didn’t ascend to the peaks of their other (more popular, better known and higher-scored) rums…y’know, like the UF30E. It feels younger than ten years old, somehow. Still, the Basseterre got better as it glared around and opened up: it is a solid, strong, agricole, which started off a little poorly but came up to the finish line with good credentials.  Luca still hasn’t replied to me with what the outturn was, and I paid €190 for mine – for the quality I got, I’d suggest it’s a borderline purchase. If you’re not into agricoles, it’s unlikely this one will turn you into an aficionado…however, if you are, it surely won’t disappoint.

History

Guadeloupe is comprised of three main areas: the butterfly shaped conjoined landmasses of Grand Terre and Basseterre making up Guadeloupe proper, with the small island of Marie Galante to the south east. Petit Bourge is on the eastern side of Basseterre, and serves the Montebello distillery — when it was founded by the Dolomite family in 1930 it was called Carrere (named after an even smaller village nearby) but in 1968, after many years of declining revenues it was sold to a Jean Marsolle (whose brother owned the Séverin distillery a little to the north west). He in turn sold it to his sons Alain and Emamanuel in 1974 – they renamed it Montebello in 1975. It remains in the family to this day, and produces 500,000 liters of rum annually. They have the curious practice of not only casking their rums in oak, but then dunking the filled barrels into heated steel containers to accelerate the maturation.  Whether that works to enhance the resultant rhum I can’t say, since I never bought or managed to try any.

Other notes

This is not an AOC certified rhum.

Basseterre 1

 

Jan 172016
 

TR 1986 Label 1

Like a kilt, this ten year old rhum proves that less can often be more.

(#250. 89/100)

***

The Japanese art of ikebana is that of flower arranging, and if you think its principles lack applicability to rum, well, give that some thought. Sorting a big bunch of flowers into a vase is not what it’s really about (one could say the same thing about the chanoyu).  The true art is about selecting just a few elements, and finding the perfect way to arrange them so that they rest together in harmony.  Trois Rivières is unlikely to have studied the matter…but this rum displays all the fundamentals of both art and simplicity, in a way that elevates the whole to a work of sublime grace.

Trois Rivières issues specific years’ output, perhaps more than any other rhum maker in Martinique – there are millèsimes from 1953, 1964, 1969, 1970, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, and so on. Rarely, if ever, is it stated how old these are, aside from the “vieux” notation, meaning a minimum of three years ageing.  But to my mind, a rhum this good (sorry for the spoiler, but you already know the score) is a poster child for why we need the guys pushing great hooch out the door to stop messing about and tell us poor lambs what we need to know right up front – in this case, how old the thing is.  Because speaking purely for myself, I want to know whether age is the primary factor in the excellence of the 1986 millèsime over the 1975, or some other factor.

TR 1986

Still, I soldier on under the burden of my anguish, since there’s nothing to be done about it right now. Presentation was that consistent yellow box (I’ve seen several millèsimes with the same one) with that famous windmill, the year 1986 enclosing a slim bottle with the same info on the label…and surmounted with that same annoying tinfoil cap that somehow makes my expensive purchase seem…well, cheapish.  Ah well…

I can tell you though, that my small disappointments and whinges from above were forgotten the instant the bottle was opened up and poured it into the glass. Because with a nose like the one it presented, I could swoon like a maiden from Walter Scott.  It was so sweetly wonderfully rich that I almost went running for my thesaurus. It opened with juicy pears and white guavas, fennel and the faint lemony twist of a good cumin.  Scents of treacle and honey followed on, very rich and smooth and almost perfect at 45%.  Even after half an hour it kept giving out some extras – vanilla and well-controlled tannins, almonds, very light smoke and leather.  The 1986 blew past the 1975 millèsime from the same company as if it was standing still, which was why I wrote about the latter the way I did.

It was similarly good to taste, and again showed up some of the shortcomings of the 1975.  Warm and smooth, the 45% strength didn’t hurt it at all.  Medium bodied and dry (but in a good way), providing first tastes of peaches, plums, more guavas, black grapes.  I was actually a little startled at the fruitiness of it, because it was an AOC designated rhum, but where were the light, clear notes one could expect? The grassy vegetals? Luscious notes of licorice and vanillas and even molasses backed up the zesty citrus notes that gradually came to the forefront, and again there were these delicate hints of cumin and lemon zest I had observed on the aromas.  And this was not all, because tart (not sweet) red fruit – strawberries, red currants and raspberries also made themselves known…I kept asking myself, how old was this thing?  Even on the medium long finish, which was a bit dry, warm and breathy and easy-going, some of those fruits retained their ability to amp up the enjoyment – prunes, licorice and vanilla for the most part, and always that citrus component which coiled behind the primaries to lend a unique kind of counterpoint to the main melody.

TR 1986 Label 3The question I asked of the 1975 (which I was using as a control alongside the Rhum Rhum Liberation Integrale, the Velier Basseterre 1995 and two Neissons) was how old it was, and the labelling on that one was at best inconclusive.  With the 1986 things seemed a bit more clear: the box had a notation “Vieux 86” and next to that “Sortie de fût: 04-96” which I take to mean it was distilled in 1986 and released from the barrel for bottling in April of 1996…a ten year old rhum, then, if the numbers mean what I say they do. TR never did get back to me on my inquiries, so if anyone has better knowledge of the age of this rhum, feel free to share.  I’m going to go on record as believing it’s ten.

And what a rhum indeed, at any age. It is an amalgam of opposites that gel and flow together with all the harmoniousness of a slow moving stream, gentle and assertive, thick and clear, with wonderful depth married to controlled intensity.  We sometimes get sidetracked with fancy finishes, family recipes, strange numbers on a bottle and all sorts of other marketing folderol, not the least of which is the conception that the older the year-stamp on a
bottle is, the better the rhum inside must be (and the more we can expect to pay for it). The Trois Rivières 1986 shows the fallacy of such uncritical thinking.  Like the Chantal Comte 1980 it demonstrates that great rums can be made in any year, at any age…and that beauty and quality and zen are not merely the province of those who fix motorbikes, pour tea, or arrange flowers.

 

Jan 092016
 

Chantal 1977 1

Another lovely Martinique agricole from Chantal Comte, lacking something in its construction to be truly great.

(#249 / 89/100)

***

Before I venture into fresh waters, the next few weeks will be about housekeeping – writing about rums to which I have referred elsewhere and which are now getting some attention of their own. Unsurprisingly, the first one is the older-but-not-quite-so-stellar brother to what may have been the best rum I tried in 2015 (the 1980 Chantal Comte), also from Trois Rivieres on Martinique, somewhat older (twenty years, versus seven), but with less power (45% ABV), more outturn…and less of a price tag.

Note that just because the rhum is cheaper doesn’t make it a bad investment.  In its own way, the Chantal Comte Rhum Vieux Agricole 1977 is also a very good product (its misfortune was to be tried in parallel with a better one), and I would never tell you to steer clear of it, because it displays all the hallmarks of a potentially great agricole — well tended, lovingly aged, smartly selected and a sheer delight to drink. Plus it doesn’t have some ridiculous outturn of 100 bottles that makes people shrug and walk away – fifteen thousand bottles of this thing were issued, so there’s hope for us all.

Anyway, let’s get straight into the sniffy matters. Quite some polish and salty wax wound about the opening scents of this mahogany rhum, and somewhat like the Neisson line of agricoles (to which we will be turning our attention later this year), they were relegated firmly to the background withChantal 1977 2out ever letting you forget they existed. Salt beef in brine, red olives, grass, tannins, wood and faint smoke were more readily discernible, mixed in with heavier herbs like fennel and rosemary.  These well balanced aromas were tied together by duskier notes of burnt sugar and vanillas and as it stood and opened up, slow scents of cream cheese and marshmallows crept out to satisfy the child within.

So not bad at all on the nose, a lot of differing profiles were duelling for attention, but nothing to complain about.  Was the taste as good, or better? I thought so.  The smooth mouthfeel and heated overall texture of the 1977 and the 1980 were almost exactly the same to me, though the tastes did diverge. A sort of passive-aggressive meaty paté on rye bread underlay other flavours of bitter black chocolate, coffee and almonds on the medium bodied 1977 in a way that had been much more dialled back in the 1980.  It was a darker rhum, however, and maybe even a smidgen richer (just not better).  With water we got more party favours: additional tastes of sugar coated butter cookies, those candied chocolate oranges, salted butter, eclairs, more cream cheese, some more definite leather and smoke, and a light floral background that elevated the whole experience.

Finish was medium long, almost short, but warm and not spicy at all. The lack of strength made this easy going. The briny notes persisted, accompanied by almonds, oak a last bit of vanilla, sweet and deep – quite good, if not as exceptional after the excellence of the palate and nose.

So, clearing away the glasses, then. I didn’t think the 1977 was as good as the 1980, though it was still quite exceptional in its own way, as that score shows.  Leaving aside the slightly faltering fade. it was the same salty and olive notes so well held in check by the 1980, that took on a slight dominance here: and that created a subtle imbalance in the profile, detracting from what was an otherwise excellent – even remarkable – rhum. However, this is a personal quibble – you would not be doing yourself a disservice to acquire the 1977 (not least because of the lower price point for an older product that is a very good one).  

And if you can, try the two in conjunction.  Each informs the other and allows you to judge the strengths of one against the difference of the other – I’m almost convinced you would love them both given the chance. I know I did, and consider that the experience of sampling them together, in the company of the persons who were in the room that day, one of the best of my 2015 rum calendar.

Other notes

I’ve spoken about the company in both the 1980 and the Tour d’Or reviews, so I won’t go back into the details here.

The rhum is AOC certified.  No additives, adulteration or other messing around. Twenty years old

The presentation was good,with a shiny cardboard box enclosing the bottle as shown in the photo above. 

Chantal 1977 3 Box

Jan 072016
 

Casimir 3

This rum is like Hooters: delightfully tacky, enjoyable as hell, and unrefined to a fault.  And once you’ve given it a shot, it’s like you have a sneaking suspicion you’ll soon be back, grumbling all the while Poukisa rum nan toujou fini?”

(#248 / 86.5/100)

***

The Clairin “Casimir” white rum, the third of the Haitian Clairins, is maddening and strange if you are not in tune with it, mesmerizing if you are. I noted in a comment on the Vaval that it’s tough to love, and the same applies here, only more so. If you have not thrown the thing away in disgust after ten minutes, it’s very likely that thereafter, you will never entirely get it out of the mental arsenal of your tasting memories.  

Does that make it a good rum? Not necessarily for all people, in all places…although it does make it an original, cut from wholly different cloth.  And as with any such thing, we must be ready for strange detours, waves of difference and surreal experiences without clear analogues in our minds…except perhaps other Clairins.  I first sampled the Sajous back in Paris in April 2015 and was enthralled on the spot; my love affair continued with the Vaval, and I felt it was only fair to get the review of the Casimir out the door just so the full set was available for those who don’t mind straying not only off the beaten path, but into another country entirely.

Casimir

I make these points to prepare you for the massive pungency of the Casimir’s initial attack. As I’ve mentioned before for the other two, I recommend approaching it with care (maybe even trepidation) especially if this is your first sojourn into the world of these organic, traditionally-made, pot-still, unaged white full-proofs. Because while it initially presented to the nose very prettily, this was just a way to lure you into the same smack in the face. Powerful, pungent scents of boot polish, fusel oils, freshly lacquered wooden floors lunged smoothly out of the gate, skewering the unwary sniffer. I felt the sugar to be stronger here than on either the Vaval or the Sajous, with additional notes of soy sauce, teriyaki chicken with loads of green vegetables, Knorr packet soup, thick, heavy and my God, it didn’t ever let up. Even at a “mere” 54% it handily eclipsed the 57% Rum Nation Jamaican white pot still rum in sheer potent olfactory badassery. The Casimir is quite simply absurd – nothing this young and unrefined should be this remarkable.

On the palate, I remember thinking, Man this is great. It had the smooth, hot body of an energetic and buxom porn star, and took a sharp left turn from the nose, starting out with sweet sugar water and cucumber slices in diluted vinegar…it sported a mouthfeel that alternated between silk and steel.  Mint, marzipan, more floor polish, faint olive oil notes drummed on the tongue.  It had less of the fusel oil that so marked the Sajous, with dill, coriander, lemon pepper, fennel, fish sauce, and some weird mineral/vegetal component that reminded me of peat for some reason. I don’t know how it managed that trick, but somehow it walked the delicate line between tongue-in-cheek titillation and overt sleaze. Really quite a lovely taste to it, the best of the trio.  And the finish, no major complaints from me there either, it was long, sweet and oily, with just a note of kerosene in the background to mar what was otherwise a great drinking experience, and I gotta tell you, I really liked this one (different though it was).

The Casimir is made by those friendly Haitian folk down by Barradères, which is a small village in the commune of Nippes Department in the southwestern leg of the half-island. It’s not far from Port-au-Prince, but still needs a tough-ass 4×4 to get to since it is (to use West Indian parlance) “way down dere behine Gad back.” Not much going on in the village, it’s subsistence farming all the way – but this small place has more distilleries than Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica combined – thirteen in all, though admittedly these are small-shack Mom-and-Pop operations for the most part and not industrial powerhouses in the business of stocking global shelves.

Faubert Casimir is a second generation distiller (his father began making the white lightning back in the late 1970s), and is considered by some to be the local maestro of Clairins. The rum derives from Hawaii White and Hawaii Red sugar cane grown on the 120-acre “plantation” out back, and, in a peculiarity of the region, the makers add some herbs or vegetable matter to pure cane juice in fermentation, to enhance the flavors. M. Casimir himself adds leaves of citronella, cinnamon, and in some batches, ginger, and some of that evidently carried over into the final product.  Does that make it an adulterated rhum?  Maybe.  But for something this rich and powerful and bat-bleep-crazy, I’m willing to let it pass just to observe how joyously these guys run headfirst into a wall in making a rhum so distinct. 

Of course, if you have already tried the Sajous or the Vaval (or read my notes on them both), none of this will come as news to you.  And you might think, “Bah! They’re all the same, so why buy three when one can tell the tale?” You’d be right, of course…but only up to a point. They are variations on a theme, each with a subtle point of difference, a slightly different note, making each one similar, yes….and also unique. Perhaps you have to try all three to get that…or simply be deep into rums.

Yon gran mèsi, Faubert

Other notes:
I love those bright, hectic, almost primitive labels — as an attention-getter, the bottle this rum comes in ranks somewhere between running naked through your dronish cubicle farm and throwing a brick through a shop window. The Haitian artist Simeon Michel provided the paintings for the Casimir and the Sajous (but alas, I have no clever story for this one).

Casimir 2

Dec 272015
 

 

D3S_3746-001

A marriage of the best of agricoles with the best of molasses-based rums.  We close off 2015 with the spectacular 2002 rum that opened the Age of Velier.

(#247. 92/100)

***

Velier is better known for the pioneering full-proof Caroni and Demerara rums which have garnered it so much acclaim in the past decade; and more recently they have raised their profile even more with the issue of the Clairins, a close association with Richard Seale, and the “Gargano classification.”  Yet rum aficionados who track this company know that the true beginnings of its rise are contained within the first issue they ever made – the Damoiseau 1980.

There’s a story here, of course. Luca Gargano (to speak of him is to speak of Velier) had bought into the small Genoese concern in the 1980s.  In the late 1990s, in his travels around the Caribbean, he tried the 1980 stock from Damoiseau (in Grande Terre, Guadeloupe), which was considered spoiled by a proportion of molasses in the rum, supposedly rendering it unsellable (perhaps because it diverged too much from their standard product profiles, or, more likely, because it did not match the AOC criteria, as the back label attests). Rather than attempt to bottle it as it was, they put it on the market as a bulk sale, and feeling it was an undervalued masterpiece, Luca bought the entire stock.  Velier issued it in 2002 at cask strength and it became the product that made the rum world (small as it was) sit up and take notice.

Observing the rhum, you see many of the hallmarks that would become better known in the years to come, and some that were in the process of gestation.  The bottle was taller and thinner than its descendants, and the label lacked the puritan simplicity of later issues. Like Damoiseau’s own 1980 bottling from four years earlier, it was released at cask strength, and exhibited the same high level of quality. Perhaps more so, because while it is claimed not to have aged in the resting period between 1998 and 2002, I have my doubts about that, and felt that it very slightly edged out the Damoiseau edition.

D3S_3746

Velier’s version was distilled in February 1980, vatted in 1998, and then issued in 2002.  In the interim, it was stored for four years in a foudre (a large wooden container, meant to be inactive, where it would rest without further evolution), and so I’ll be conservative, take that at face value, and call it an eighteen year old even though you could argue, and I believe, it’s four years older. The outturn was 1,200 bottles, so it’s getting rarer all the time, alas.

Still: what an eighteen year old it was. Bottled at 60.3%, the dark brown rhum with flashes of red had a stunning nose.  Deep, spicy and hot, it was an iron fisted nasal assault encased in a not-so-velvet glove. “Massive” might not be overstating the matter. Initial scents of flowers, sugar water, light molasses and vanilla permeated the room almost immediately upon opening.  I had expected something deeper, more pungent, yet initially all I notes was a certain lightness and delicacy.  This was only the beginning: it gained strength and depth as time wore on, and the flavours intensified to rose water, enhanced by a dusting of brown sugar and caramel, light oak, honey, treacle, red licorice and butter cookies.  There were some more herbal and D3S_3748grassy elements in the background, serving to swell a note or two without ever dominating the symphony

The rhum was enormously self-controlled on the attack, to use the extremely apt French word.  It was very heated (come on, 60.3%?…of course it was), but not unbearably so. Thick and oily, almost full bodied. Once some dry, salty notes seared the mouth and faded away, tastes of salt butter, cream cheese (a nice brie, perhaps) and rye bread briefly danced around, before being replaced in the lineup by light rose hips, honey, almonds, fennel.  And then darker, deeper flavours emerged with water – peaches in syrup, or even cherries – thank God the sweet was very well reined in and controlled. Closing tastes of molasses, anise, caramel, some leather were noticed, and I have to stress how well balanced all this was. The finish was appropriately long, a little dry, with honey, pears and almonds. It was actually quite amazing how little agricole-ness there was in the overall profile, yet it was there.  And what there was melded extremely well with more traditional molasses tastes – it was this which probably made Luca believe it did not have to be marketed or sold as an either/or proposition, but as a beautiful amalgam of both.

I was as impressed with Velier’s edition as I was with Damoiseau’s own.  They are both spectacular, and tasting them side by side showed their common origins quite clearly.  On balance there wasn’t much to choose between them except that I thought Damoiseau’s presentation was better, while Velier’s actual rhum exhibited a shade more complexity, some tiny smidgen of quality that made it score a half point more.  But no matter – I’d buy any one of these again in a heartbeat. They were and are enormously well-made rhums that use their strength and age to enhance the good rather than disguise an off-note within (the way the AH Riise did with their Navy rum).

Normally, I feel that agricoles and “traditional” rums have an uneasy relationship when they are put together to duke it out (as Ocean’s distillery found out with its 1997 Atlantic rum).  But then I remember Heraclitus, who remarked that “The counterthrust brings together, and from tones at variance comes perfect harmony.” In this particular case, I argue that such harmony occurred between the muskier tones of molasses and the lighter, herbal profile of the French islands.  It’s rarely, if ever, been done this well — and perhaps the way in which disparate, even conflicting, philosophies can meld and gel and produce something so remarkable, holds a life lesson for all of us, rum aficionados or not.

 

Other notes:

Watch your step with the cork, which is very dry and fragile, and may crack as you try to open the bottle.

Damoiseau did not in fact sell all their stock to Velier, perhaps intuiting that someone as enthusiastic as Luca might have been on to something. It’s unknown how much they held back, but they  went ahead and released their own bottling in 1998, at the same strength. Since Velier subsequently issued other Damoiseau rhums (the 1986, 1989 and 1995) as well, I doubt anyone is nursing a grudge.

Observe the cool factor of the beautiful lady on the label photo (one of Luca’s pictures, any surprise?).  He was doing it to lend emphasis to the creole and black population (who comprise the majority of the labour force), and I suppose to perhaps tweak the noses of the industry leaders on the island, who are mostly békés. Damoiseau has gotten into a fracas over the last few years regarding labour practices and intemperate comments in the media, so maybe there’s a deeper, subtler joke going on here.

The back label roughly translates from the Italian as: “It was one of those days that happens a few times in life. One morning at 9:30, in discussion with Harvey in his office at the distillery, he mentioned that he had found, accidentally, a barrel of rhum distilled in 1980 and rejected by the French AOC for the designation “rhum agricole” because it contained a small amount of distilled molasses. The taste was a powerful complex envelopment. The distillate was a full 60° and I decided that I would not touch it. The great harmonious power it had  could not be showcased by a reduction of a single degree. It was an unexpected discovery, a joy that I wish to all the searching wanderers who pursue the art of living.” Okay, so my Italian is about on par with my French, but that’s not a bad sense of the words, and knowing Luca, I’m pretty sure I caught the gist of his comments.

D3S_3747

Dec 222015
 

TR 1975 Label

Proof that year of make does not confer exceptionalism.

(#246. 85/100)

***

Trois Rivieres in Martinique is over 350 years old, formed in 1660 when Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances to Louis XIV, won a large concession of about 5,000 acres in the south of the island, where it remains still, after many changes in ownership.  In 1953, the Marraud Grottes family, owners of their own distillery and the Duquesne brand, bought the estate and sold aged Trois Rivières Duquesne rhums under the brand until 1972. In 1994 the Trois Rivières distillery was acquired by the company BBS, which also had the La Mauny brand, and they’ve held on to it ever since.  I thought that the 1977 millèsime might be the oldest one I’d ever get (and I’ve been keeping an eye on the 1953), but when I managed to source the 1975 (and 1986) millèsimes, well, I jumped.

Trois Rivieres is certainly one of those French island companies that prides itself in specific years’ output, perhaps more than any other rhum maker on the island – there are millèsimes from 1953, 1964, 1969, 1970, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, etc etc etc…you get the point. The really odd thing about them is that rarely, if ever, is it stated how old they are, aside from the “vieux” notation, meaning a minimum of three years ageing (see “Other notes” below).  Which may be one reason why I thought the 1986 rhum was better than this one from eleven years earlier.

TR 1975

Presentation was a consistent yellow box for these oldies(I’ve seen several millèsimes with the same one) with that famous windmill, the year 1975, enclosing a slim bottle with the same info on the label…and surmounted with a tinfoil cap, which struck me as strange, but okay, perhaps when it was made wrapping and toppings were different. An amber red rhum gurgled invitingly within.

For a 45% ABV rhum, the 1975 was quite soft to smell, more so than the 1986.  Nougat and vanilla flavours led right off, with more delicate, floral and grassy scents curling right behind them.  Lighter fruit, raisins and dates followed swiftly, and while the 1975 was not entirely salty, some small element of brine was definitely there, as were faint rubbery notes and pencil shavings of the sort that used to litter my geometry set in primary school.

My contention is usually that an older rhum or rum is, on balance, a better one – the complexity that ageing imparts cannot be easily duplicated or faked, and if one tries enough products, sooner or later the difference is self evident.  Hence my feeling that for all its supposed antecedents, the 1975’s ageing (whatever it was) was not sufficient to elevate it to the status of cult classic.  I wasn’t terribly excited here: the taste was a bit thin, without as much depth and richness as one might expect.  That’s not to say it was bad or lacking in complexity…because I tasted caramel, raisins, sugar water, honey, prunes, freshly sliced cucumbers, green grapes, more grass and some white guavas, and this was a pleasant melange to experience – it was a perfectly good nose, just not a great one.  

The mouthfeel somehow also didn’t come up to par for something about which I had higher hopes (again, the 1986 tasted in parallel outclassed it) because of a lack of overall body and elegance of texture. Adding water did bring out some background flavours, mind you – more nougat, toffee, cafe latte, with the slight citrus taking something a back seat.  The fade was all right, neither failing nor exciting, giving up some nice florals, nuts, a bit of leather and vanilla and subtler grassy notes.  In other words, an above-average agricole, unaggressive, interesting and very easy to drink, which probably cost me too much.  I think that in another year I’ll look at it again and share it around with the Rumaniacs, see if their opinion is the same.

TR 1975 Label back

It’s funny, in a very short space of time I’ve experienced two rhums that had older brothers, and in both cases those older ones were effortlessly outclassed by their younger siblings.  The 1980 Chantal Comte decimated the 1977, and now the 1975 Trois Rivieres is not as good as the 1986. If there’s ever been a reason why I want more information on a label, this is it, because I’d dearly love to know if it was ageing that caused the difference in quality, or some other factor.  If nothing else, this is perhaps why one should never take reported age or year of make alone as the sole arbiters of how good a rum “should” be – because here I got two that say exactly the opposite.

Other notes

So back to how old this thing is. Yes the “vieux” statement supposedly tells its tale.  Cornelius, Henrik, Gregers and I pored over the labelling and the box to see if there was something that could give us a clue, and came up with this little mark at the bottom right of the label, where it says “Emb. 97209 A”.  Could that mean bottled in 1997-2-09 or 1997-20-9? If that were true, the thing is 22 years old.  But in that case, why not say it is a très-vieux, or XO?  On the other hand, it could refer to the postal code of Fort de France on Martinique, so don’t take my conjecture as gospel. The mystery deepens until Trois Rivières (or any reader) can provide more information.

 

Dec 022015
 

Chnatal 1980 2

This rhum is a quietly dazzling masterpiece.

(#243. 92/100)

***

The Chantal Comte 1980 purrs away in the glass, containing so many quietly thrumming riches, revealed in so gradual a fashion, that it embarasses ordinary rums.  And yet, its characteristics aren’t gaudily thrown before us to entertain or impress.  There are no marketing tricks here, no fancy “finished in…” or “made this unusual way…”. No dosing, adding or off-the-wall ageing. It is only after I tried it for the fourth time that I truly appreciated the full reach of its accomplishment, and realized how well and how subtly it had been made. And all this from a seven year old rum.

The Chantal Comte Rhum Vieux Agricole Appellation Martinique Controllee 1980 (to give it its full title) hails from St. Luce, which is to say Trois Rivieres. Chantal Comte, a lady who owns the Tullieres estate in France, and who also has a long association with the French West Indies, has an appreciation for rhum which many years ago prompted her to begin issuing aged agricoles under her own label. The Hors D’Age from Habitation Ste. Etienne was a wonderful rhum for example, and the 20 Year old St. Luce 1977 Millesime was also pretty good — yet here she does it one better, and perhaps this is one reason why the price of the seven year old 1980 is more than twice that of the 1977 even though less than half as old (that and the fact that 15,000 bottles of the 1977 were issued, versus 1400 of the 1980).

The presentation was somewhat lacklustre for a rhum of this price: a black cardboard cylinder enclosing a very handsome frosted glass bottle.  Never mind,  I’ve made my sniffy observations on this kind of thing before. The label, relatively simple, filled in some of the details noted above.  The age was not stated and it took some sleuthing around to have it confirmed that it’s a seven year old…no idea why that was omitted – were they waiting for a reviewer to talk about it, perhaps afraid people would be put off by its single-digit age? 

Chantal 1980 1

Anyway, forget the preamble and walk with me through the sampling.  It was a dark amber rhum, issued at a solid 58%, and the nose…well, all I can say it was great. It was a beautifully rich yet simultaneously subtle, and complex to a fault.  An initially warm and delicious melange of fruits, flowers and the faintest background of turpentine and well polished floors. This developed into lavender, toned-down lilies, unripe cherries, everything soft and yet edgy at the same time (that was the 58% speaking – it intensified everything without actually moving the rhum into harsh bitchiness).  But this wasn’t the end. We were in the middle of a six hour tasting session and as the hours wore on we kept coming back to this one glass, and by the time it was over, to those flavours we smelled, were added some faint caramel and molasses, vanilla, cinnamon, very faint ginger and baking spices.  And all these in a really harmonious balance.

Since it was a relatively strong rhum, I expected some sharpness at the inception of the taste, and indeed this was there. But that dialled itself down to a strong kind of heat that made the experience a much better one after some minutes. It was quite full bodied and intense, and the immediate sensations were of butter cookies with a strawberry jam centre (for the benefit of my friends Henrik and Gregers who were there with me, I’ll say they were Danish); cinnamon again, black cherries teetering on the brink of over-ripeness, plus an assortment of light peaches, apricots, bananas and dark honey.  And all this intertwined with the sweetness kept way back, a dusting of leather and smoke, aromatic port infused cigarillos, some drier woody notes, and even some brine…but I must emphasize how extraordinarily well this all came together, without any one aspect dominating any other – it was as well balanced and solid as the keystone in a Roman arch.

As for the finish, well, what can I tell you?  It was great, summing up everything that came before: long and a little dry, spicy and wholesome, with both the sweet and the salt of a top-end Japanese soya, finishing things off with some oaky notes, almonds, vanilla, and port.

The construction and gradual unfolding of this thing is amazing. I started by liking it, an hour later I was impressed, and by the time the evening was over I was in love.  It took time for the full effect to sink in.  It lacks the rough hewn brutality and single-minded intensity of the Veliers, and is perhaps more akin to Rum Nation…just better (perhaps because “dosing” is not part of the assembly).  The 1980 may be classed as an AOC agricole, but I honestly think this has aspects of both French and Spanish style rums (with maybe a flirt of Bajan thrown in for good measure). It’s an order of magnitude better than many products twice or three times as old, and thinking I was being too enthusiastic, I tried it four separate times over a week and yep, it was still as good as that first time. It is the best sub-ten year old rum I’ve ever tried.

I truly enjoy rums that are well made and appealing, no matter who makes them, and find that certain companies are consistently top grade. That they are almost all independent bottlers not seeking to dominate their market (though Velier comes close) may be key to the quality of their rums, because they are niche players, not commercial mastodons like Diageo or Bacardi, and therefore they pay careful attention to what they slap their labels on. Their stuff isn’t made by committee, so to speak; perhaps to them money and market share is less important than making rums, not mere products.

Yet, even within the small independent world of Veliers, Compagnie des Indies, Duncan Taylors, Rum Nations, Moon Imports and Samarolis, there are occasional bright shining stars that amaze and awe us with the sheer brilliance of their creations.  While it’s obviously an unknown if all of Mme Comte’s rhums operate at the level of the three I have tried so far…I can hope.  This rhum is one of the absolute best I’ve had all year, and it earns that accolade not because of stratospheric price or fancy bottle or rarity…but because it really is that extraordinarily good.

Other notes

Chantal Comte’s website makes no mention of this rum at all. I contacted the company directly and they told me it was a seven year old, aged in oak (but not what kind).

I highly recommend, if you ever try this rhum, to take your time with it.  The scents and tastes simply grow richer over time. 

The closest rhum to this profile I recall is the Courcelles 1972 which exhibited many of the same characteristics, but was many years older.

Opinion

I read somewhere recently that “French Island style” (agricole) rhums represent less than 10% of market share for rums as a whole.The wonderment is, perhaps, that agricoles exist at all, given the preponderance of molasses based rums in the world.  I think they remain an unappreciated resource, rums that live in their own space and time, in places we must be willing to visit, to touch, to sample, to experience.  An inability to even concede they are worth trying is a profoundly depressing inadequacy, something like saying black and white, silent or subtitled films have no place in the world overrun by remakes, sequels and superhero retreads. Those who casually deny themselves such rhums are also denying themselves the building blocks of the drinking imagination.

 

Nov 162015
 

Clairin-Vaval-etichetta-2014

Looks like water but goes down like a charge of cheerfully boosted C4. You won’t mistake it for any other rhum…except maybe its cousins.

(#241 / 84.5/100)

***

Full of get-up-and-go instilled by the momentous encounter that was the Sajous, I sprang for both the Casimir and the Vaval (plus a Sajous of my own) at the first available opportunity.  Because come on, originality and going off the reservation in the rum world are vanishing ideals, and it’s not often that a rhum is so amazingly, shockingly off-base that it’s in another ballpark altogether.

Such a rhum was the Clairin Vaval, produced by Fritz Vaval of Haiti in his charmingly old school column still — made, if you can believe it, with leather trays and a condenser made from old petrol cans. Luca Gargano of Velier, while gaining greater fame for his own rums and his push for a clearer classification system for the spirit, was the man behind the attempt to bring the Haitian clairins to a wider audience a couple of years ago.  Good for him for using his bully-pulpit for such a cause.  Because while the clairins are not to everyone’s taste, I can tell you with some assurance that they are among the wildest, angriest and most rip-snorting rums available…and also, to my mind, ferociously, laughingly good.  You can almost imagine the Fritz’s fiendish giggles in your mind, as you gaze at your glass the first time you try the Vaval and give vent to a disbelieving “Putain mais c’était quoi ça?”

By now I was more familiar with, and expecting, the initial salt wax nose-bomb, so after experiencing that (I hesitate to say enjoying, since that might stretch credulity to the point of disbelief), I paid rather more attention.  There were fusel oil and kerosene backbones to this colourless liquid, mixed in with gherkins, vinegar and garlic (really!). The pungency of the rhum was as ripe and randy as the Sajous, and only grudgingly gave way to vanilla, sugar water, freshly sliced cucumbers and a sort of clear lightness of watermelons and maybe pineapples – very very light fruit, being hammered home by strong overtones of an unaged pot still product.

The palate was much the same, just more of it. Oily and salty and somewhat rubbery on the first attack, with sweet water backing it up.  Very strong and almost sharp, of course — it was 52.5% after all — but not raw or pestilentially fierce, not seeking only hurt.  Rather, it was thick and warm and almost fatty.  Once the first tastes move on and it opened up (helped with a little water), billowing and very heated tastes of breakfast spices, white sugar, olives, fresh-cut grass, a flirt of vanilla and some more of that kerosene made themselves felt.  Dynamically, assertively, full-throatedly so. You kind of have to breathe deep after each sip when sampling this rhum. The finish was long and not a bit dry, closing the show with some lemon zest and an odd hint of pickles with all the various leaves floating around in it. Trust me, the flavours linger for a hell of a long time on this one, and you almost want it to.

That was some drink.  It was only as I tried it in concert with the other two that its own individuality became more clearly discernible – on its own, or tasted apart, they might all seem quite similar, but they’re not, not really.  Each is as distinct as an adjacent piano key note. Like the Sajous or the Casimir, I would not recommend this unreservedly to the larger population of the rumworld; I would however suggest that if you can, give it a try, very gently, just to see where rum could go if it really felt like it.  Because these gents from Haiti may be the last surviving remnants of microdistillers who make rhum in a totally old fashioned, organic way and you could argue that you’re seeing what rhum was like in its infancy when you try one.

There’s something about clairins that defies easy description.  They’re so pungently, tartly original, so immensely weird, and yet so absurdly tasty, all at the same time. The nose is enough to swat away an angry bear, sure, but that taste…oh man.  There I was at 2am, on a cool, crisp October night on a balcony in Berlin, switching from one clairin to the other, making my notes, enjoying the heat, revelling in the tastes, and I felt something unusual, and you know what?  It might have been happiness.

Other notes:

Made from freshly hand-harvested blue cane, utterly organic, utterly unaged. The cane juice is fermented with wild yeast. Fresh of the column still. Nothing added, nothing taken away. No filtration.

Mr. Vaval’s operation is called Arawak’s Distilleries – it’s been in operation since 1947, and is located near Cavaillon in Haiti’s southern horn, close by Les Cayes. It’s apparently just a couple of cinder-block rooms and a corrugated zinc roof.  It contains a still, some small fermentation tanks and a small crushing mill, all on the grounds of an old colonial maison surrounded by twenty acres of Madame Meuze cane.

I have to share this one with you. Remember how Luca’s own photos embraced the Velier Caroni labels? Well, he took the work of Mr. Simeon Michel (a well-known Haitian artist) for the bright artwork of the Sajous and Casimir labels, but the Vaval bottle design has a different story.  Some years ago, Luca was speaking to an old Genoese taxi driver about rums (he talks to everyone about rums – you gotta wonder about his pillow talk sometimes, honestly), mentioned Haiti and clairins, and the guy turned out to be a long-retired sailor who had been to the half-island and acquired some local artwork, back in the 1960s.  Luca, for the right to scan this painting and use the image on the bottle, paid the man an undisclosed sum…and with six bottles of the first edition of the Vaval.

 

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