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.  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.”

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“Never tried one,” I admitted. The Sage looked utterly scandalized at my ignorance: I had evidently dropped a few notches in his esteem. He darted behind the counter, rummaged around a bit and came back tenderly cradling a tasting glass brimming with a white liquid.

“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 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.  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 (yet to be written about) – 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.  (Now that I think of it, it also reminded me a little of the SMWS Longpond 9 81.3%).

“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 rhum. 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.

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.

Mar 242013
 

First posted 19 June 2010 on Liquorature. #025

***

Barbancourt.  Just roll that on your tongue and you can almost hear the whisper of words both foreign and exotic – Barbarossa the Ottoman privateer; the Barbary Coast; Hispaniola; bucaneer…the name reeks deliciously of of piracy.  And aside from peg legs, parrots, cutlasses, the Spanish Main and caravels of looted or buried treasure, is there any product more identified with the term than that of their most famous drink?

I have to admit that it was the romance of the name and origin – and some honest curiosity –  that made me pick this one.  Haitian rums are not made from molasses but rather directly from cane juice, and the sojourns of the Club have not made it to this island nation yet; nor have I seen that many examples of the brand here in Calgary. Like other French islands (Martinique for one), what we have here is a rhum agricole, and I was fascinated as to the difference in the end product. There are more expensive examples from Barbancourt out there (the 15-year estate offering for a start), but this seemed like a reasonable compromise.

Agricole rhums are lighter-coloured than the average, as a result of being made from cane juice as I noted above, and tend towards dark yellow. This Special Reserve originated from a double pot-still distillation, and was then aged for eight years in Limousin white-oak barrels imported from France (they once held cognac, I believe). Press releases and distributor’s notes suggest Barbancourt is among the most widely distributed and available rums from the Caribbean, but I chose to dispute that: the Law of Mediocrity (which is not what you think it means) suggests that if, in  the first store you enter in some average spot on the globe, they stock this stuff, then you’re likely to find it anywhere.  Since I’ve spotted this rum once in many years (last week)…well, you get the point. I’ll grant you however, that it’s probably one of the better known Haitian exports.

I liked the light colour (hidden from casual view by a darkened bottle of no distinguishing presentation) and a swirl in the glass revealed shy legs that took their own time draining back into the glass.  The nose surprised me because the spirit surged to the fore immediately: it was, quite honestly, a bit overwhelming, even medicinal.  But as that faded, I managed to pick out notes of butterscotch, toffee, brown sugar and…honey. Nice.

The taste was tricky because the more powerful components took charge so quickly.  You have no problems picking up vanilla, the toffee, caramel and burnt sugar, but subtler flavours hide behind the skirts of the more aggressive ones – a bit of nuttiness flirted around with a faint citrus I could not identify (I always have a problem figuring out whether it’s lime, lemon, orange, tangerine or some other Vitamin C bearer I’m tasting). The burn on the backstretch is not strong, but definitely present, a phenomenon I attribute to the prescence of oak in the maturation process. I wish there had been less spirit sting, to be honest, because it marred what to me had been a spiffing job up to that stage.  But really, it’s a minor point, because overall, I thought it was a decent sipper: not top of the line, but a very pleasant sundowner.

The body of the rhum is not as rich as I might like, and in taste it hints at the heritage of Dupre Barbancourt who hailed from the cognac producing region of France and formed the company in 1862.  So it’s perhaps a bit schizophrenic in that it’s a medium- to light-bodied paler rum, slightly dry, and not as sweet as might be expected – hardly the profile of a rum as I’ve been used to defining the term: more like a cognac, really. And here, my plebian instincts overwhelm my own snootiness, because with that kind of flavour and texture, the spaces of the drink are very nicely filled by a coke, and in doing that, a masterful little mixed drink is created which I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending to any who ask.

As a point of interest: Haiti is unique as a nation because it is where the only successful slave revolt in the West Indies took place, under Toussaint L’Ouverture, at the turn of the 18th century. Sadly, it is now the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, and successive dictatorships have left the place in shambles. High marks go to the businesses that manage to produce this excellent product…one can only speculate under what conditions they do so, or with what methods.

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