Oct 032017
 

#391

When in your cups, you could argue that Haitian clairins parallel the development of rum as a whole.  Just as rum (and rhum) was ignored for a long time, so were the indigenous likkers of Haiti.  And I posit that just as rum worldwide is going through a new golden age, so are clairins (with cachacas coming on strong). So far we have met amazingly pungent, raw and tasty white lightning from the stills of Sajous, Casimir and Vaval, which were promoted and given great visibility by Luca Gargano of Velier (to his lasting credit) and I’ve been fortunate enough to write about another small producer on the half-island, Mascoso Distillers, who produce the Barik brand of clairins (or klerens) — and I really believe that not only are they worth a look and a buy, but the Kreyol Nasyonal Brut de Fût may be one of the better ones…makes me wonder what Luca would have done had he stopped by there as well as the other three distilleries.

Anyway, I’ve tried the Kleren Nasyonal Traditionnel 22 and its sibling the Premium; this one is from the same source as those two white rhinos, just a little less pugnacious (50% ABV).  It was aged for three months in lightly charred first-fill small (5 litre) white oak oak barrels, which is why the rhum is light gold in colour – even that short time in a barrel was enough to impart some maturation and heft to the bottled product, which I think is better than any of the two unaged siblings,and eclipses the Sajous and the Vaval (but not the Casimir).

Perhaps a sense of my interest and appreciation can come as you run through the tasting notes, made as I tried all six of the clairins together. The nose on this one was definitely the best of the lot.  Some interesting earthy notes under here, not much sweet. A cereal and bean lover’s delight –  lentil soup, dhal, even some cumin with sour cream; roti, fresh baked bread, vanilla, sugar water – I swear to you, this is what I got right out of the gate and it developed into slightly more tart flavours of ginger and citrus rind (nicely balanced), plus bananas and pineapples, green grapes and ripe gooseberries.  It was amazing that at 50% and a mere three months old, it seemed quite tame and well adjusted and it reminded me nothing so much as one of Takeuchi-san’s six-month aged rums from over in Japan, twisted into its own creole style.

Taste wise it dropped a few notches from that nose, though still quite good – and it presented a bit thin compared to the powerful  “consider my cod” animal potency of the 55% unaged Premium edition.  That may be the price paid for civilizing it, I suppose, but fortunately such flavours as were there, emerged with a flourish and elan, and lost little of their own uniqueness – some initial tastes of wax, olives and salt (a wink to its origins, perhaps), then  vanilla and fleshy fruits like peaches and cherries, leading gently back to more bananas and pineapples, plus some astringency and tartness of unripe green mangoes (and those gooseberries again).  Those rich cereal and soup elements of the nose, alas, disappeared and were not to be found, and the finish surprisingly short for something bottled at that strength — lucky for us, it coughed up closing notes of cherries, salt and olives, a faint whiff of caramel, and additional fruits that pulled curtains on the show very nicely indeed.  

Mike Moscoso with bottles of the next-gen premium cuvee, aged for six months (not three)

In fine, this rum was intriguing as hell, tasty to a fault, with some weak points here or there, but which in no way dissuade me from going after more of Mascoso’s rhums – when researching background with him (the man is great at responding to messages), he remarked that he had some six month old versions coming out soon, and in 2018 he would be making the festival circuit of London, Berlin and Paris.  I can’t guarantee you would like everything he makes – clairins are, as I’ve observed before, something of an individual thing, containing a fierce, barely contained pungency (the French island version of a dunder bomb, I guess you could say) but I guarantee you’ll be as intrigued as I was, as interested, and may even like them enough to give more of them a try as they come out into the wider world to add lustre to Haiti’s spirited output.

(85/100)


Other Notes

  • The “ESB” moniker is French – Élevé Sous Bois – and means simply “oak aged.”
  • The original distillate of the rhum is the same as the Kleren Nasyonal rhums reviewed before
Aug 162017
 

#383

When one tastes a raft all kinds of rums from around the world and across the ages over an extended period, there is a normal tendency to look for stuff that’s a little different while still conforming to commonly-held notions of what a rum is.  After all, how many times can one try a basic rum redolent of molasses, caramel, sugar, banana and maybe raisins and citrus without getting a little bored?  Well, for sure there’s no shortage of new and interesting popskull coming on the market in the last few years, and I’m not just talking about the new agricoles, or the geriatric rarities released by the independents, but actual distillers and bottlers like Hampden, Worthy Park, Savanna…and that interesting outfit called Moscoso out of Haiti.  Drink some of their klerens, and believe me, if you’re afflicted with ennui, this’ll cure what ails ya…if it don’t put you under the table first.

Also called Barik (a creole word for “barrel”), Moscoso interested me enough to write a full profile of the company a few months back, and since that time they are aggressively seeking outlets and distribution in Europe, to say nothing of issuing all kinds of aged or unaged permutations of their booze. And my goodness, when you taste these things, the inescapable conclusion is they’re aren’t just rarin’ to take Barbancourt out back, kick the snot out of it and give ‘em a run for their money, but also casting narrowed snake’s eyes at the Velier-issued Vaval, Casimir and Sajous as if to say “Mwen nan bouda, nou zanmi”.

Perhaps they have good reason. Their 55% Traditionnel 22 was a rum that stunned and smacked the unwary with all the force of a Louisville slugger to the face, and yet I felt it had been reasonably well made, with much of that elemental joyousness that so marked out the other, better known clairins like the Sajous that have so impressed me over the last few years.  

Which is not to say you wouldn’t be a little startled by the initial smells given off by this 55% white rhino. I mean, I nosed it and drew back with widened eyes, wondering if there wasn’t some excess Jamaican dunder or balsamo-infused cachaca in there — because aside from the brine and wax and glue and shoe polish, I was also getting a barrel of rotting bananas and funk, mixed up with musky, damp wood and wet dark earth (which I’m sure you’ll concede is not normal for a rum).  It started out raw and fierce, and perhaps it needed some resting time, because after some minutes of letting it stand there (glowering sullenly around the room the whole time) additional aromas of freshly ground black pepper, cumin, masala, lemon peel and herbs became more prominent. “Meaty” is not a term used often in these pages, but here it was exactly right to describe what I was experiencing.

What elevated the rhum to something better than the nose suggested was the way it tasted. As seemed to be the case with all such Haitian whites I’ve tried, the nose was “da bomb” and the palate calmed itself down quite measurably, and a drop or two of water helped as well.  Here the sugar water and watermelon came through much less aggressively, as well as brine and olives, fresh cane sap, nougat (!!), some nuttiness and citrus (not much of that, a pinch not a handful), coming to an end with a long, somewhat dry finish which reminded me of sharp, damp sawdust of some freshly-sawn unnamed lumber in a sawmill (yeah, I worked in one once), as well as fresh grass, and sugar cane juice.

So…quite an experience.  Strong, distinct, flavourful, uncouth, odd, just on this side of bats**t crazy, and overall a pretty amazing drink – it would light up a cocktail with fireworks, I’m thinking.  On balance the nose of the original Nasyonal earned my favour, but here the taste profile carried it ahead – it was a shade more complex, tastes better integrated. Whether you buy into that premise or not depends a lot, I feel, on where in the spectrum of rum appreciation  you fall. I wouldn’t recommend it to a person now starting to branch out into white full proofs; and for those who prefer the softer, sweeter profiles of Diplomatico, Zacapa, Panamanians or dosed rums like El Dorado or Plantation, stay away.  For everyone else?  Oh yeah. Give it a try, if nothing else. And take a gander at what Mike Moscoso is making — because as he noted so elegantly up above, he’s coming for all of us.

(84/100)


Other Notes

  • This rhum is not a true agricole, the label is an accidental misprint which (at the time) Mr. Moscoso was too poor to fix and reprint. It is made from raw brown sugar liquified to 12-14% brix with 7-12 days of fermentation (using baker’s yeast). Distilled on a 12-plate creole columnar still, final distillate coming out at 65-70% ABV and reduced to 55%. It is unaged and blended from the various returns of the distillation run.
  • Points should be given to the company for issuing 200cl bottles for sale, aside from the standard full-size.  For someone on a budget who wants a taste but isn’t sure, those things are a godsend.
  • The significance of the “22” lies in the proof point.  Under the Cartier scale this translates into 55% ABV, while the more common Gay-Lussac scale equating to 55% / 110 proof is used everywhere else in the world
  • All clairins and klerens in my possession (six) were tried together, blind.
Mar 062017
 

#347

By now, just about everyone in the rum world is aware of clairins, those indigenous crude white taste bombs out of Haiti, and once again, points have to be given to the farsightedness of Luca Gargano, who brought them to the attention of the wider world by promoting and distributing the Sajous, Vaval and the Casimir.  Unfortunately, the acclaim these three have garnered have somewhat eclipsed any other clairins – and when supposedly some 500+ small outfits make the juice on the half-island, one can only imagine what else of interest is lurking there waiting to be discovered by anyone who loves crazy, speaks patois and has a 4×4.

One that came across my radar not too long ago was the Kreyol Kléren series of rums made by a company called Mascoso Distillers, sometimes as Barik – a real company, not some garage-based pop-and-pup moonshinery making it with granny’s recipe for the relatives on the weekend jump-up.  I ended up buying two of them and getting a sample of a third, which caused the customs officials in Frankfurt some real puzzlement as they had no clue what the hell this stuff was and required no end of paperwork from Michael (the owner) to prove that it was a rum, why the price was so low, how come they were all around 55% and no, they weren’t meant to be weaponized.

You can understand their confusion (or trepidation).  The Kléren Nasyonal Traditionnel 22 (a supposed “rhum agricole artisanal superior” based on the label, but not really, since the source is a sugar mash not sugar cane juice, and the label is a graphic design error) had an initial smell that was like inhaling a small fire-breathing sweet-toothed dragon.  It was fierce, herbal and salty, and reminded me somewhat of that long-ago sonofabitch in the playground in second form who rabbit punched me in the schnozz without warning.  I was using all three of the other (Velier-distributed) clairins for controls here, and what I sensed with the Nasyonal was their genesis taking form.  It was not as cultured as the Vaval or the Casimir, and even the Sajous was somewhat more tamed (when was the last time you read that about those three?), but in its very basic and elemental nature lay much of its attraction.  It was rough and jagged and yet still joyously powerful, eventually giving up more leafy notes (basil, maybe), sugar cane sap, with much of the same salty wax and swank taste I remembered so well from the others.

Thankfully the rhum settled itself down some when I was tasting it and now edged closer to the quality of my controls.  Oh sure, it was still liquid sandpaper and not for the weak (or those preferring softer brown fare) – I would never try to convince you otherwise.  Yet behind all that macho display of sweat and stink squirting from every pore was some pretty interesting stuff – sweet sugar water and herbal cane juice again, some gherkins in vinegar, and salt and olive oil and dill backing it all up.  Phenomenal, long finish, by the way, making up some for the brutality of the preceding experience, suggesting salt and herbs and (again) cane juice. Not the most complex drink ever made, of course, and after taking it out back and beating my palate a time or three, it occurred to me to wonder, if Luca had smacked his label on it, would I have been able to tell the difference? (So I had the wife give me all four blind, and I was just able to pinpoint the Sajous and the Klerin but mixed up the Casimir and the Vaval – it was the edge on the first two that gave them away).

Clairins may be made in every bottom-house, backhouse and outhouse on Haiti, where jury rigged creole stills are slapped together from mouldy leather jockstraps, old bata flip-flops and disused petrol cans (probably with duct tape).  And yes, many of them are probably best left undiscovered, or relegated to those with noses, palates and livers more robust than mine.  This one, the least of the three I’m going through, possesses enough points of distinction to merit a recommendation, so long as your tastes run in this direction.  It’s a massive, Duke Nukem style hot shock to the system, displaying zero couth yet uncompromisingly boasting a uniqueness worthy of note.  I can’t entirely or unreservedly praise the rhum, but it must be said, when I was trying it, I sure as hell wasn’t bored. I doubt you would be either, no matter how your experience turns out.

(82/100)

Other Notes

The significance of the “22” lies in the proof point.  Under the Cartier scale this translates into 55% ABV, while the more common Gay-Lussac scale equating to 55% / 110 proof is used everywhere else in the world.  The scale here is a peculiarity of Haiti, as is the word “Traditionnel” which on Haiti means an agricole, not a molasses based rum.

Straight from still to bottle, no ageing at all.

Barik’s rhums are very affordable for those with an adventurous bent, and best of all, they’re sold in 200ml bottles as well.  This is a conscious decision by Michael Moscoso, the owner, who understands that for it to sell even locally in a time of competition and adulterated Chinese crap trucked over the border, small bottles at affordable prices must be part of the sales strategy.  Given how many full sized bottles I buy in a single year, I can’t help but applaud that.

Barik has a fairly robust heritage.  Founded by Michael “Didi” Moscoso’s grandfather way back in the early 1900s, it is now supposedly the fourth largest in Haiti, but plagued by infrastructure problems and those cheap ethanol derivatives.  There’s a separate biography, here

Apr 102016
 

Barbancourt Reserve Speciale

Rumaniacs Review 021 | 0421

Here’s a pretty decent, if somewhat anorexic, rhum from Haiti, courtesy of the House of Barbancourt.  The name “Réserve Spéciale” is still in use, and refers these days to an eight year old, but so scarce is any kind of information on the sample I was provided (even getting a photo was problematic hence the lousy quality of the one you see here), that for me to say it was an eight year old back then is an educated guess, not a fact.  Still, info or no info, a sample was sent, and there it is and here we are. It’s not something a rum junkie can ignore.

Colour – dark amber

Strength – 43%

Nose – Thin and yet still very aromatic.  Lots going on here – light cherries, and dark prunes, fried bananas and french bread covered over with green grape skins and dark chocolate (I know how that sounds, believe me) – the way it all comes together is tailor made for leisurely sniffing.

Palate – For a rum this dark, it’s surprisingly delicate…y’know, like a sumo wrestler wearing heels.  Heated with a sly citrus sharpness to leaven it all. More plums and ripe cherries carrying over from the nose, to which is added grapes, black olives, vanilla, cinnamon and some cardamon as it develops.  With water not much changes, some vague grassier hints round things out.  It’s actually quite a smooth product, once it settles down. Still lacks real body though.

Finish – Short and easy, warm and fragrant.  Florals, lemon zest, grass, vague but unidentifiable fruitiness plus some vanilla. A bit too thin, really, but I concede that what it does present is nothing to sneeze at.

Thoughts – Nothing much to say.  A decent agricole all the way through.  The modern Barbancourt series are not very far away from this, which says a lot about the overall consistency of the line through the decades.

(83/100)

Opinion

Sometimes even a short series of notes like those above illustrate larger points about the rum universe.

What is becoming clearer as I do these reviews, is that while independent bottlers take care to keep track of and list every one of their offerings — including from which country, from what year and at what strength — more commercial “country-based” makers (like DDL, Barbancourt, Mount Gay, Angostura, St. Lucia Distilleries, Flor de Cana, the Travellers, the Jamaicans etc etc) who keep a single line of rums stable for many years, never really bother.  That’s why Carl Kanto could mourn the passing of older DDL rums marketed in the pre-El-Dorado days, of which no trace, no list, no photograph, no profile, and no sample remains.

I believe that in these cloud based internet days, every rum maker owes it to the generations to come to preserve a complete set of every rum they have ever made, are making, and will make — in writing and in photographs, and maybe with a few cases squirrelled away in a vault someplace.  It may seem like a waste now, but in fifty years it would be a treasure beyond price.  And as we all get older ourselves, haven’t we all noted that the years are passing more quickly? That fifty years will be gone in a heartbeat.

 

 

 

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 quite simply makes you rethink what ageing means – 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

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.

 

Jun 292015
 
Barbancourt 15

Photo courtesy of The Whisky Exchange

Rumaniacs Review 005 | 0405

The forerunner of the still excellent fifteen year old rhum made in Haiti to this day, this one was generated in the 1970s, and it’s a pretty good rhum even after a remove of so many years.  Pot still 43%, about 15,000 bottles were issued according to The Sage, while The Whisky Exchange says 20,000…doesn’t matter, they’re rare as hen’s teeth these days anyway.  I think the recipe they used then is a little different than the current iteration of the 15, but not by much.  Note also the similarity of the box to today’s edition.

Nose: Oddly thin and discombobulated. Spicy, not too much. Nuts, caramel, port infused pipe tobacco, black grapes, some zest. Gets easier as you keep at it, rewards some patience and savouring.

Palate: Light bodied yet not anorexically thin, thank God (hate those). Some beef and biceps kept under velvet sleeves – 43% is great here.  Not quite a molasses background, but some – caramel, vanilla, toffee, crushed walnuts, ice cream without enough cream. Black grapes continue, red guavas, some anise and fennel and black tea (without sugar).  A shade too thin, really – still, you can’t fault the fact that it’s delicious.

Finish: Medium short, unremarkable.  Nothing more than the aforementioned spices and toffee to report. Goes down nicely, and at least it doesn’t hate you.

Thoughts: Amazing how consistent this is in quality to the current 15 year old, which I quite liked. Still, tasted after the >25 Year Old Veronelli, you can sense the difference. Surprised this was/is a cane juice product — has elements that hearken more to molasses, but what do I know?  A pretty good all-round rhum in all times, in all worlds.

(83/100)

  • 90 + : exceptional
  • 85-89: excellent, special rums
  • 80-84: quite good
  • 75-79: better than average
  • 70-74: below average
  • < 70 : Avoid

Barbancourt 1970s 15 yr old

May 282015
 
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Photo shamelessly cribbed from Lo Spirito Dei Tempi

Rumaniacs Review 003 | 0403

A craft bottling from 1977, made by Luigi Veronelli of Milan, who had visited Haiti and was so impressed with the Big B, he was granted permission to take a few barrels.  Outturn 1196 bottles, 43%.  Note the age statement…greater than 25 years.  One can only sigh with envy.

Nowadays, fresh pressed cane juice is no longer used to make Barbancourt rums, but reduced syrup; and the old Charentaise still is gone, replaced by more modern apparatus.  This allows greater volume, but perhaps some of the older taste profile has been sacrificed, as this rum implies.

Nose: Rich, very warm, not quite spicy. Nuts, caramel, coconut shavings, black grapes.  Faint mint and hot tea. Excellent stuff.  Invites further nosing almost as of right.

Palate: Medium to light body.  Remarkably smooth, wish it had been a bit less thin. Fruity, of the just ripening, sharp kind – grapes, apples just sliced…wtf?  Let me check that again. Mmm…yes, it was as I said.  Also: the watery clarity of peeled cucumbers (no, really); more tea, some smoke, faint vanilla, toffee, nougat and caramel, but also well melded with more “standard” agricole flavours of grass, green tea.  Really goes down well.  Perhaps I was wrong, though…let’s try another sip.  Nope, still good.

Finish: Not too long.  Some last smoky, aromatic tobacco notes, a bit of dried fruit. You can help it along with another taste. Perhaps three. A rum this old and this rare deserves to be generously sampled.  All in the name of science, of course.

Thoughts: there’s a subterranean voluptuousness, a complex richness coiling inside this rum that I cannot recall from the current stable of Barbancourt’s products, even the 15 year old. Maybe it was the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Barbancourt’s old stock; maybe it’s the still; maybe it’s just the history. Whatever the case, I understand why so many Europeans on a grail quest for it.

(89/100)

  • 90 + : exceptional
  • 85-89: excellent, special rums
  • 80-84: quite good
  • 75-79: better than average
  • 70-74: below average
  • < 70 : Avoid

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D3S_1676

Apr 302015
 

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Drinking this rum is knowing what harpooning Moby Dick felt like. A wild-haired full-proof bodybuilder of a rhum, so absolutely unique in taste that it it defied easy description. I sampled it and knew I wanted to write about it immediately.  

(#212. 82/100)

***

So there I was in Paris at La Maison du Whiskey in April 2015, with some fellow rummies. Hundreds of bottles of rhum and rum beckoned from groaning shelves. Samples from years past – decades past! – winked in their little bottles, inviting us to get started. Straight-out rumporn, honestly. Our hands were itching to start the pours, but we were having too much fun just talking with each other to get going.

We were discussing rum classifications – colour, country, age, style – and the organizer of our ramblings (who wanted to remain nameless so I shall simply refer to him as The Sage) suggested that origin was probably best as a primary separator – pot still, single column still, multiple column still, juice versus molasses, etc – before going into further possible gradations of colour and ageing and country and style.

“You simply cannot mistake a pot still product, fresh off the still,” he argued. “Like Pere Labatt white, or Neisson, HSE, any of the agricole makers who produce a white rum at full proof.”

“Don’t forget Haiti,” I suggested, thinking mostly, it must be said, of Barbancourt. But also of the new stuff Velier was developing, from that half-island.

“Yes, absolutely,” said the Sage, switching directions in a heartbeat.  “There are five hundred small producers in Haiti making clear rum the way they have for ages and ages.  Barbancourt is good but gone mass market.  If you want to see what a really original white pot still product is like, you have to try these small ones that only get sold locally, at any strength. Fully organic, old-school stuff.”

D3S_1657

“Never tried one,” I admitted.

There was a hushed sound of indrawn breaths as the room fell silent.  Serge’s impressive mustache twitched.  Cyril dropped his glass, and Daniele choked into his. They all regarded me with pitying stares. The Sage himself looked utterly scandalized at my ignorance: I had evidently dropped a few notches in his esteem. After huffing and puffing his indignation for a moment, he darted behind the counter, rummaged around a bit and came back carefully holding a tasting glass brimming with a white liquid like he feared it might explode.

“Try this. Full proof Clairin Sajous, bottled straight from the still. 53.5%”

The term “clairin” is not a common one: references to it only exist online dating back to 2008. Clairin is, quite simply, clear white pot still rhum made in Haiti from cane juice, sometimes with wild yeast and a longer fermentation period, often without any ageing whatsoever.  They can range from a please-don’t-hurt-me 30% or so, to (in more extreme cases) a more feral gun-toting, bring-it-on 60%. It’s the drink of the country, the way cachaca is in Brazil.

The variants of the rhum span the whole gamut of quality as well: some are rough, bathtub-brewed popskull as likely to kill you as enthuse you, bottled in whatever containers are on hand for the benefit of local consumption; others are slightly more upscale and professionally made stuff, from small one-man outfits like Sajous, Vaval and Casimir – these are occasionally sent abroad.  Velier has distributed these three in its latest offerings, for example, and it was the Sajous I was trying.

The rhum looked harmless, defenceless, innocuous…meek and demure.  I regarded it suspiciously as a result. I remembered traumatic incidents with cachaca, as well as unexpected clear taste bombs from Rum Nation and Nine Leaves. “Not aged at all?” I asked.

“No.”

I took a tentative pull with my nose. Even that tiny, delicate, sommelier-sniffing-the-wine sniff was too much. My eyes watered, my vision swam, my nose puckered, and my knees trembled. My God but this stuff was pungent.  Not so much the strength, which was a relatively strong-but-bearable 53.5%, but its sheer intense potency. If I was older, I might have asked for a defibrillator to be on standby.

There was this incredibly large bubble of salt and wax expanding through my head. Brine and gunpowder exploded on the nose, mixed in with kerosene and fuel oil, turpentine and lacquer. It was almost like sniffing a tub of salt beef, yet behind all that, there was the herbal clarity of water in which a whole lot of sugar was dissolved (“swank” we called it in my bush-working days), crushed green mint leaves and just-mown grass on which the sprinkler is irrigating in bright sunlight.

I withdrew my nose after a few tries of this, scribbled my notes down in a shaking hand, and moved on to taste.  I had learnt caution, as you can see. And if you’re trying a full-proof Clairin yourself for the first time after a lifetime of molasses-based rums, I’d recommend it.

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The feel of the Sajous in the palate was hot, thick and heavy, even though the thing was not raw or excruciatingly sharp by any means. It was as intense and flavourful as the nose, if not more so – sap, thick and sweet and oily started things out.  The rhum coated the tongue with the tenacity of a junkie clutching five dollar bill. I don’t often use the word “chewy” but it really works to describe how it felt.  Initially the Sajous presented itself as heated and spicy, and then it smoothened out well, giving over to a buttery, and more agricole-like profile – fresh cut sugar cane, wax, furniture polish, salt beef in malt vinegar (yeah, I know how that sounds), and all shot through with green, unripe fruit, some lemon peel, and that vegetal, green flavour that drives agricole lovers into transports. More kerosene and brine permeated the back end, and the fade, long and deep, lingered for a damned long time – enough to make me put down the glass after a bit, inhale deeply and just try to wait the thing out.  Before starting again.

I finally stopped my sampling, caught my breath, and looked over at Cyril from DuRhum, who was grinning at me with a glass of his own in his hand. “What did you think of it?” I asked him.  He and I both liked the Nine Leaves Clear and had good things to say about Rum Nation’s 57% White Pot Still.  Perhaps the closest rum to this profile I’d ever tried was the SMWS Longpond 9 81.3%). Those were similar to this, but nowhere near as uncultured, as elemental. They had been babied a little, smoothened a mite in the cuts, while this hadn’t even progressed to training wheels. It reminded me of three explosive cachacas I had tried (twice) from a small booth at the 2014 Berlin RumFest – they exhibited that same off-the-scale craziness and untamed wild freedom.

Cyril’s understatement was massively un-Gallic: “It’s different, isn’t it?” He, Daniele and The Sage were vastly amused at my reaction.  I guess that was understandable – I don’t have a poker face worth a damn, and had never tried a white rhum with quite this level of profile intensity before. Just the aroma was enough to make you rethink any preconceptions of what a rum or rhum could be.

“All right then,” I said to The Sage, stealing another sip and shuddering a little less. “What can you tell me about the Sajous?”

He told me what he knew (much of which was on the label): it was made from pure sugar harvested from Java cane originating from India, grown in a small 30-hectare estate owned by Michel Sajous, in Saint Michel de l’Attalaye just north of Port-au-Prince. It was all organic and un-messed with from start to finish.  Fermentation was done over seven to ten days using wild yeast, double distilled at the Chelo distillery on the property – and then run straight into the bottles after coming off the still.  No ageing, no additives, no dilution, no nothing.

“Real traditional agricole rhum before it gets tampered with, purest example of the type,” he said, and it was clear he wasn’t kidding. If there was ever an “original” rhum, the Sajous wasn’t far away from it – the only issue I had with it was perhaps a bit too much.  I liked it…more or less.  And the more intoxicated I got, the better it was, which may have been the point.

Cyril, Serge, Daniele, The Sage and I moved on to other things, sampled a load of old rums, went to dinner, talked about rum, drank some more, talked about rum, and had a wonderful time. They were all courteous enough to speak English to me, as my French is execrable – I got my own back by carrying on in Russian with The Sage’s beautiful better half.  You’d think we would run out of things to say about rum after a while, but no – the subject was as inexhaustible as the varieties. Alas, I had to excuse myself after several hours of it, since my wife was waiting for me and probably getting grumpy.

As I walked back to my hotel, I tried to summarize my feelings about the Clairin Sajous. Without dissing the thing, I can say that this is not everyone’s rum, or a must-have unicorn you share like pictures of your first-born. In fact, Spanish and English style molasses-based rum lovers would likely never approach it again after trying it once.  Even agricole enthusiasts might back off a bit.  I’m scoring it reasonably high because of good production value, great heft, an enormously intriguing profile, and an original character that stands supremely alone on the prow of its self-proclaimed awesomeness, saying “Call me Sajous”. It would make a tiki drink or a complex cocktail that would blow your hair back, no problem, yet it is probably too different from the mainstream to appeal to most – in that lies both its attraction and its downfall.

Because, you see, some taming of this beast is likely to be required, before it finds real favour and acceptance in the bars of the broader rum world. I liked it for that precise reason, and will get it (and its brothers) again but must be honest enough to say I’d only buy one at a time, far apart…and always have a defibrillator handy.

Other notes

Made by Sajous at Chelo, but distributed and promoted by Velier.

For the guys I met and who took the time to talk rum, a big Merci. It really was a wonderful get-together.

The artwork on both this and the Casimir was done by Simeon Michel, a well known Haitian artist.  There’s a better story behind the Vaval design, if you’re interested, at the bottom of the review.

Mar 262013
 

A rum for those who like cognacs and somewhat lighter fare without the heaviness or sweeter full-bodied physiques of the darker variants. Rewards some patience, because it does not reveal its secrets lightly, and will require you to go back to it a few times before appreciating it for what it is:  a drink both subtle and supple, spicy and sere. Nice.

First posted 20th January 2012 on Liquorature. 

(#100. 82/100)

***

These days, if Haiti is known for anything, it’s for its poverty, political strife (and the 2010 earthquake). Rums are almost an afterthought, yet Barbancourt is there, and has been since 1862, and they keep churning out the product, very well known among the cognoscenti. Their double distillation method produces cognac-like rums many consider among the finest in the world (not surprising since old Dupré Barbancourt hailed from the region in France where such spirits mostly originate)

I had previously tried their Barbancourt 8 year old which I found an intriguing essay in the craft, but lacking some of the richness and smoothness I preferred, and listing slightly more towards cognac than a rum (and I’m a middling proponent of cognac). Others of course, love the thing, and esteem it even above the fifteen year old, which was initially reserved just for the founder’s family and entered commercial production in the 1960s.

The 15 is packaged in much the same bottle as the 8, but with a spiffier label. Same cheap tinfoil cap, however: at least it closed tightly. Like the 8, it originated in sugar cane juice, so it was an agricole, not a molasses-based product, even if it lacks the official French AOC designation associated with a terroire which would perhaps grant it more street cred among the snooty.

By the measure of these characteristics, there were certain things I would have expected of this rum: a medium to light body, a less-sweet-than-average palate, and a certain driness to the taste, as well as a complex mingling of tastes and a lingering finish with a bit of claws at the back end. And indeed, the lead-in started well off to confirming this: a spicy nose, somewhat light and flowery, lacking the dark power of, oh, the Pusser’s 15. Some fresh fruit mingled with pecans, a florists shop and (I swear this is true), freshly done laundry.

As I suspected the body was not entirely up my street (but then, my street is in Tiger Bay in GT and leads into Buxton, not downtown Port-au-Prince, so draw your own conclusions there): a solid medium corpus – in that sense I would compare it against the Clemente Tres Vieux from Martinique, or perhaps one of the middle ranking Colombian Juan Santos rums I so admired. Neither was the palate sweet, or even middling sweet: it was quite sere, peppery almost, and once again there are subtler hints than usual of the flavours we seek, like grapefruit, burnt sugar, caramel, and baking spices.

The lady on the label of the bottle has her own history…

The fade in particular was worthy of mention: long and lasting, releasing notes of citrus, some tannins (not surprising given the lengthy ageing in limousin oak vats) and softer scents like maybe hot damp earth after a rain. Yes, I have to be honest, the thing gave me a bitch slap or two going down, but like the deep carving warmth of a good tea, I liked it for all that

In fine, I was not entirely won over by the Barbancourt 15 year old (no need to call for the headsman’s axe, I’m aware that I’m in a minority), but concede without hesitation that it was not a kick-down-the-door bandit out to relieve you of your valuables…more a sly, subtle thief in the night, with complexities of character that gradually grew on me. And l wasn’t alone – if the measure of the success of a rum is the way the Liquorature crowd lowers the level of any bottle I presented, then this one was close runner up to the Ron Abuelo 12 by being damaged to the tune of over two thirds. That’s a real recommendation by any standard, given that it was done by a bunch of low class whisky lovers. A cognac lover I’m not, and an unabashed Barbancourt fan neither – this rum, however, demanded I pay them a lot more attention.

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