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. 77/100)

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 Posted by on March 30, 2013 at 7:59 am
Mar 272013
 

Never had a rum that tasted so much like a peated whisky

(#118. 62/100)

***

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 (for me, 62 is a roughly mid-eighties score according to other ranking schemes). 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!!

A:7/10 N:19/25 T:16/25 F:14/25 I:6/15 TOT: 62/100

 

 

 Posted by on March 27, 2013 at 8:13 pm
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. 50/100)

***

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.

 

A:5/10 N:13/25 T:13/25 F:12/25 I:7/15 TOT: 50/100

 

 

 

 

 

 Posted by on March 27, 2013 at 5:53 pm
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. 69/100)

***

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.

A:7/10 N:18/25 T:17/25 F:17/25 I:10/15 TOT: 69/100

 

 

 

 Posted by on March 27, 2013 at 5:53 pm