Mar 302016
 

D3S_3715

One of the best five year old rhums ever made, and a showcase for the wonderful directions the profile of a rhum can take.

(#264 / 89/100)

***

If I was underwhelmed by the “standard” 45% 2012 Liberation, and shrugged at the 2010 version (both rated around low eighties scores), let me assure you that the 2012 “Integrale”, bottled at a mouth watering 59.8%, is a beast of an entirely different colour. If your sojourn into agricoles ever takes you to Guadeloupe rhums, you could do a lot worse than stop a while at Marie Galante, where Gianni Capovilla makes his home. Because this five year old blasts even its own siblings right out of the water.

The bottle and its cardboard enclosure – which boast the picture of a lobster and other creepy crawlies in a reference I’m sure I’m not  clever enough to understand – make no notes on the age statement, but running around the internet assures me it’s a five year old (as if the title didn’t already suggest it), aged in white oak barrels that once held sauternes white wine…Chateau d’Yquem from the domaine of Leflaive for those of you who are interested in such things.  The rhum derived from undiluted cane juice fermented for around ten days, which is quite a long time, relatively speaking – most distillers don’t ferment for more than five days, and many for less.  Double distillation took place in Bielle as part of a collaboration between Gianni Capovilla and Luca Gargano (a new distillery was built right next to Bielle with sugar coming from there), using small copper pot stills before being set to age. And of course, it was utterly unmessed with – no sugar, no dilution, no additives of any kind.

Because Guadeloupe has never sought the AOC certification, they seem to feel a childlike enthusiasm for going in any direction they feel inclined to on any particular day.  Here that succeeded swimmingly.  The nose presented an amazingly strong, fruity and clean profile right off the bat…plums and rich elderberries (of the kind Mrs. Caner doses me with every time I get a cold), crisp apples and pears, very little citrus of any kind, grassy and vegetal and almost perfumed.  Very mildly heavy, well balanced to the senses. To say I was impressed might be understating matters: it was something like  a slinky black cocktail dress mixed up with a Viennese ball gown, leavened with a helicopter gunship in full combat mode: three parts sensuality, two parts aggro and one of prurient decorum. Right out of the gate, this rhum was simply ludicrous: nothing this young should be this good.  And while it was younger then the Compagnie des Indes Guadeloupe, it was rounder, fruitier and more complex…in point of fact, it reminded me more of the J.M. 1995 which was three times older.

D3S_3718This amazing mix of class and sleaze and style continued without missing a beat when I tasted it.  Sure, 59.8% was something of a hammer to the glottis but man, it was so well assembled that it actually felt softer than it really was: I tried the Liberation on and off over four days, and every time I added more stuff to my tasting notes, becoming more impressed each time. The dark gold rhum started the party rolling with plums, peaches and unripe apricots, which provided a firm bedrock that flawlessly supported sharper tangerines and passion fruit and pomegranates.  As it opened up (and with water), further notes of vanilla and mild salted caramel came to the fore, held together by breakfast spices and a very good heat that was almost, but not quite, sharp – one could barely tell how strong the drink truly was, because it ran across the tongue so well.  

The fade was similarly impressive, lasting as long as the wait of an errant child for a father’s inevitable punishment: here the soft, firm roundness of the taste gave way to something drier and more assertive, yet this was not unpleasant by any stretch, and gave me final gifts of lemongrass, light brine, teriyaki, and more of those prunes, well dialled back.  In fine, a wonderful rhum all ‘round, and for its price, I think it’s a steal, five years old or not.  It adheres to all the style markers of the French West Indies, and then goes just a little bit further.

It’s just about impossible to get away from Velier and Mr. Gargano these days.  This is not to take anything away from Gianni Capovilla, by the way, because he’s the architect who understood and built on the dream that Luca espoused with this remarkable agricole rhum and so real credit is due to him also. But think about it: a decade ago just about nobody outside Italy ever heard of Velier or Luca, and yet today you can’t get into a discussion of pure rhums without his name popping up. 

That may be the key to why he has become so synonymous with pure rhums.  It’s not that he makes anything, produces anything, or distils anything.  What he does is choose.  He chooses the best of what’s out there in service to his personal values and and ideals, collaborates with the roneros and producers to share that vision…and then he brings the results to the attention of the world.  More, he articulates what is possible for everyone else.  Not all of his work succeeds, of course, but much of it does.  

And as we followed the man’s outturn through the years, we all saw the signposts: markers on the road of rhum discovery,  making our own sojourn that much more exciting, that much more interesting.  Offhand, I think of the dead serious Skeldon 1973 and PM 1974, the dour Caronis, the fine depth of the Damoiseau 1980, joined by the ribald insouciance of the Clairins…and now, by this lovely exemplar of Capovilla’s art.  I think I’ll linger here for a while, if you don’t mind, just to savour it some more.

Other notes

  • Outturn 1420 bottles
  • The “Liberation’ in the name refers to the liberation of the spirit from the barrels, and according to Cyril of DuRhum, the “Integrale” means “fullproof”.
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

 

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

Jan 082015
 

D3S_9369

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

(#196. 87.5/100)

***

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

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

D3S_9373D3S_9376

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

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

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

D3S_9371

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

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

 

 

Oct 122014
 

D3S_9334

 

***

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

(#183. 91.5/100)

***

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

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

D3S_9338

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

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

D3S_9341

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

 

Other notes

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

 

 

Mar 302013
 

 

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

(#122. 90/100)

***

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

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

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

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

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

Some closing notes.

Premium or true vintage rums are a secondary enterprise for those who make them. Rums live and die at the mid-range and low-end, places and price-points that have never been welcoming to either old-timers or eccentrics. The hoi-polloi sneer at the past and don’t bother about the future, aimlessly seeking pleasure only in the amorphous now. Great and well-known legends in other genres have an easier go of it (like whiskies do), and gradually some older rums are finally getting their due. But no matter how reviewers like me flog the alternative, aged, unusual stuff, we know in our hearts that they will always represent a niche market, and be unappreciated by most – and if you doubt me, look no further than dusty Renegade rums gathering spiders webs of neglect in the liquor stores of Alberta.

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

 

Mar 272013
 

Never had a rum that tasted so much like a peated whisky. And yet….and yet….

(#118. 81/100)

***

If ever there was a rum that exemplified the inconsistency of the Renegade line, this is it. I’m not saying it was a bad rum, just one that didn’t conform to any profile of rum that people could say they recognize as a rum. And in that fact lay (in my opinion) its failure.

Of course, like all Renegades, it was lovely to look at, with the now-familiar frosted glass enclosure and a label that gave as much information as one would wish. Column-distilled in 1998 at the Gardal distillery in Guadeloupe, bottled in 2009 with a limited run of 1300 bottles. All things are good, right?

And yet the beginning gave no hint of the surprising volte face to come, like Dick Francis’s horse skiding to an ignominuous belly flop just shy of the finishing line in the 1950s. Consider the initial scents of this hay blonde product: it was soft and light and delicate, very much like a decent cognac, and this was not surprising, since it was aged for eleven years in Limousin oak casks and then enhanced (for three months, I think) in Chateau Latour casks…so some of that cognac finish came out in the aromas. Pineapple, red grapes just starting to ripen, a good rough red wine, mellowing into a leathery dry hint. Pretty damned good. And no hint of bite or snarl or bitchiness, in spite of the 46% bottling strength.

Yet the palate was where things (in my estimation) started to come unglued: the smoky and dry aromas came out full force, attended by the over-aggressive bridegroom of iodine and seaweed, of peat and brine that suggested not so much cognacs and Gallic savoire-faire, but the elemental hacking of a Gaelic invasion, complete with longboats and battle axes. WTF? Even after opening up, the rum could barely emerge from those heated flavours, and none of the first scents I discerned could make it past the claymores of the single malts. Why do I get the feeling Bruichladdich mischievously mixed up a cask from its whisky stocks, and is sniggering into a sporran somewhere?

So the arrival was great, the palate not to my taste, and the finish, in my opinion, vacillated hestantly between the two. At 46% I’d expect a long, leisurely exit, and this was indeed the case, long, heated, dry and smoky, not displeasing in any way, with a faint nutty note batting my senses on the way out, as if to apologize for the palate.

So where do I stand on this whisky in sheep’s clothing? Not very positive, to be honest. The mouthfeel and texture on the tongue of this Renegade were, I thought quite good, and of course the opening scents were lovely. I’m just confused by that damned palate. The cognac profile I was expecting was utterly absent, while none of the lightness and floral scents of a true agricole were really in evidence. I acknowledge originality (even celebrate it), and I’m not a despiser of whiskies by any means – one can’t be a member of Liquorature for going on four years and not have gotten a real education in the subject from those who are incessantly beckoning me to the Dark Side – yet of all the ones I’ve tried, peats are my least favourite (sorry, friends of Islay). And so on that scale, the Renegade Guadeloupe fails for me.

I can’t deny its excellence on a technical level, which is why it scores so relatively well. But I’ll tell you this – if I wanted an Islay profile rum, I would not have spent €53 in the best rum shop I’ve ever seen (the Rum Depot in Berlin), but bought myself something else instead. Points to Renegade for pushing the envelope of what the definition of a rum is and can be, and congrats to people who love whisky who will marvel at the amalgam and congruence of their favourite libations (and probably tell me I’m out to lunch)…but for this rum lover, all it gets is a shake of the head, and a rum that’s left behind.

Yo, Maltmonster….I have  rum here for you!!

 

 

 

Mar 272013
 
****

A generally unimpressive agricole aged five years, better as a mixer than a sipping rum.  I imagine its older brothers will be better (if I can ever lay my hands on one).

(#105. 75/100)

***

Karukera strikes me, from the dearth of any kind of hard information on it (even on its own website), as a boutique wannabe rum, something made on an relatively limited basis by an outfit seeking to build a more international sales on the back of its appeal to connoisseurs appreciating its limited production (and based on the unique characteristics of the terroire). This should, however, not dissuade you from giving this gold-coloured, light-bodied agricole a try if you come across it on a dusty shelf someplace (however, note that I am not giving it an unqualified pass.)

The French Caribbean islands – Guadeloupe in this case – are noted for their agricoles, which are rums made (in some cases to exacting specifications) from sugar cane juice as opposed to molasses. This gives them, in general, a lighter taste profile, a lighter colour, and a lighter overall mouthfeel. Overall, I have never been entirely won over by them, preferring as I do heavier bodied, darker and more intense rums. There are, naturally, some exceptions, like the Rhum Clemente Tres Vieux XO from Martinique (upon which, after some back and forth tastings I finally came out positive).

This Karukera Special Reserve is a relatively young agricole rum, being aged for five years in small (no further definition is provided) ex-bourbon casks. Its youth is somewhat evident on the nose which is spicy, and has the light floral and grassy hints that so characterize French terroires. Sweet, with some oakiness, cinnamon and faint sulphury notes.

The 42% strength comes out quite robustly on arrival – even that extra 2% makes quite a difference on the palate; unfortunately this presented to me not as an intensity of flavours I so like about overproofs, but more as a sort of harsh initial sting on the tongue. Yes it was redolent of cloves, pepper and gradually something softer (bananas) and maybe liquorice, must be honest about that. It was also a shade dry. No caramel, burnt sugar or molasses aftertastes until the glass dried out the dregs, so no surprises there at all. Not sure I want to wait that long to get the taste I’m after, though. Finish is short and unappealing to me personally. Overall, I must confess to being…well, uninspired.

And yet, and yet…it’s not really that bad after it opens up a shade. I marked it down for the finish, sure, but before that the taste ended up strong and somewhat simpler than I had initially sensed, and I must remark on this before you throw the whole thing down the drain.

All right, so this rum, like most agricoles, doesn’t turn my crank all that much. It’s a young low-to-middle-range rum, not that good a sipper. Indeed, most notes online remark on its excellence as an ingredient in cocktails and tiki drinks, on which I am by no means an expert. I review things on an individual basis as sipping drinks with only occasional nods to the miscibility of the product. On that basis, I would suggest it’s actually not too bad. The cocktail ingredients fill out the lack of the rum quite well.

What irritates me about rums like this is how little information there is that is available for research on the product. All I can tell you beyond what I’ve written above is that it originates in the domaine of Marquisat de Sainte Marie, and made by the oldest distillery in Guadeloupe, the Esperance distillery established in 1895. And that’s it. For a guy like me, who likes providing more rather than less information beyond mere tasting notes, this ain’t much.

Having grumbled my way through the bottom of my glass, let me sum up. It’s a herbal, grassy, slightly spiced drink of some sharpness. I don’t recommend taking it neat, or even on ice. It’s too strong to be ignored, and too light for me to take it really seriously. In short a light, relatively complex mid-ranging cocktail ingredient. And not really for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mar 272013
 
***

An excellent agricole for which it is worth splashing out some extra francs: lovely nose, deeper flavours, better body, and in all ways exceeds the cheaper Reserve Speciale from the same company.

(#106. 84.5/100)

***

Unimpressed by the blah of the Karukera Rhum Vieux Reserve Speciale, I then decided to take the hundred dollar Cask Strength 1997 off the shelf where I had hidden it from the prying eyes of my wife (she who can spot a shredded receipt from a hundred paces). We don’t see many Guadeloupe rums in Calgary, yet Ralf’s Rum Pages out of Germany lists no less than 12 separate distilleries on the islands, so I was pleased to have another to review. And I wanted to see whether my own snootiness regarding agricoles would continue, or were there really one or two out there which I could enthusiastically recommend.

Happily, here was an agricole which in the first stages tempered all my negative remarks made to date (the ageing, perhaps?). For a hundred bucks this rum cost me, I got a simple bottle with a simple label, stowed in a thicker cardboard container than usual (by contrast, note the flimsy packing of all the top end El Dorados). Upon decanting and opening up, a lucious nose stole out: warm, sweet, caramel, mixed in with, but not overpowering, red grapes, cinnamon, and lacking something of the muskiness of molasses. There was a herbal note to it I liked a lot, yet none of this was attacking me the way a 46.3% beefcake such as this normally would have.

As before, there is an frustrating dearth of information about this rum. The most I was able to glean was the obvious: made in Guadeloupe by a famous Espérance distillery (founded n in 1895) located in the marquisat de Sainte Marie, it is defined by its terroire and has the honourable “appellation d’origine” given for adhering to clear specifications of location and manufacture. The rum itself comes from cane juice milled from cane grown around the distillery, and is matured in small bourbon casks – this lot came out in 1997, but the literature gives no details whether it is, as I’ve noted somewhere in notes I have in my file but whose origin I can no longer remember, actually twelve years old. Maybe that accounted for its somewhat herbal nature, and the overall gentleness of the rum. Note, by the way, that there were no filters and additives added to this bad boy: what I tasted was what I got.

That flavour profile was more in tune with agricoles I had tasted before. Yet even here some of the quality I had experienced in the nose came out and mitigated a negative impression. Normally I don’t like the lack of sweetness in the agricole makeup: too much like a pretty flirty lady who is all promises and no follow through, good only in company, never alone (I’ve had a few girlfriends like that…but I digress). With this cask strength offering, I had to concede that Espérance did a fine job with the materials on hand, and a luscious taste of light caramel, fruits (green apples, grapes), vanilla, more cinnamon and flowers came through in a very pleasant combination. At 46% I could not escape some sharpness, true, and the rum was tangy and woodsy as well…just not enough to be distasteful or nasty, useful only in a mix. In many respects the Karukera 1997 reminded me of the Rhum Clemente upon which I vacillated for so long: same phenomenal nose and a bit of a lesser palate. The fade is heated and fiery and smooth and long lasting, and I must say, I was impressed with it.

Unlike a fellow distillery on Guadeloupe (Longueteau) which makes more traditional rums using very old steam-driven equipment, Karukera positions itself in a somewhat more exclusive niche market by concentrating on light argicoles made to the exacting AOC specs. This is not quite my thing, as I’ve noted before: I prefer rums to be rums, not light cognac imitators, and my score reflects that. Still, boutique rums have an occasionally undeserved reputation, based too often on reviews like mine where clear preferences in other directions are noted right up front, or overhyped expectations from clever marketers.

Here we have a 12 year old agricole rum which is close to the top of the Karukera food chain. It’s a good rum, a smooth rum, and a impressive product from a distillery we don’t see enough of here in Canada. My take for you, reader, is to forget the cheaper Reserve Speciale and go straight for this variant: it’s more expensive, yes, but in this case you really do get what you pay for. And that’s quite something.

 

 

 

 

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