Feb 102016
 

D3S_3799

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

(#255. 84/100)

***

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

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

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

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

D3S_3800

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

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

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

 

Jan 172016
 

TR 1986 Label 1

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

(#250. 89/100)

***

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

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

TR 1986

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jan 092016
 

Chantal 1977 1

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

(#249 / 89/100)

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other notes

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

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

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

Chantal 1977 3 Box

Dec 222015
 

TR 1975 Label

Proof that year of make does not confer exceptionalism.

(#246. 85/100)

***

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

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

TR 1975

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

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

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

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

TR 1975 Label back

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

Other notes

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

 

Dec 022015
 

Chnatal 1980 2

This rhum is a quietly dazzling masterpiece.

(#243. 92/100)

***

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

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

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

Chantal 1980 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other notes

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

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

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

Opinion

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

 

Sep 202015
 
Photo Copyright (c) Henri Comte

Photo Copyright (c) Henri Comte

An agricole that bends the rules just enough to be original, without dishonouring its antecedents. What a remarkable rhum.

(#233. 86/100)

***

In between the larger and more well known independent bottlers lurk smaller operators pursuing their own vision. Some, like Old Man Spirits, or Delicana, fight the good fight without undue recognition or perhaps even real commercial success.  Others seem to find a more workable middle road. Chantal Comte is one of these, an eponymous company run by a bright and vivacious lady who Cyril of DuRhum interviewed earlier in 2015.  I first saw some of her products in 2014, bought some more out of Switzerland, and now keep an eye out for anything else the lady makes, because, almost alone among the independent bottlers, her company specializes in agricoles and pays no mind to the larger market of molasses based rums.  That gives her rhums a focus that seems to pay huge dividends, at the price of being relatively unknown and relegated almost to bit-player status in the broader rum community.

Born in Morocco into a family with West Indian connections, Ms. Comte started out as a winemaker in the early 1980s, in Nimes. Martinique influenced her interest in rhum, and through the decades she was mentored by two major players in the agricole world, André Depaz of the Mount Pelee plantation, and Paul Hayot (the Hayot family company took over the Clement distillery, you will recall). In the  mid eighties this interest developed to the point where she began blending and bottling some of Depaz’s rhums (with André’s encouragement) and stuck with a philosophy of blending the original vintages, sourced from all over the French West Indies, and bottled at natural strength…whatever was felt to be appropriate to the final expression.

What I had here, then, was a bourbon finished 46.5% amber-coloured AOC Martinique rhum…the questions for me were, which plantation and how old, because Martinique has quite a few different agricole makers and Ms. Comte bottles several. But then the fine print on the label showed it was L’Habitation Saint-Etienne, so mystery solved. How old?  No idea. The rhum is a blend, and comprises several different vintages from HSE: there is no detail on whether the blend was itself aged or not, and how long the bourbon finishing regimen was. It was probably an XO, six years old at least, and honestly, I felt it was likely older than that. On the other hand, I was informed that all vintages are derived from small creole column-still distillates (much like most of the French island agricoles) aged in limousin oak before final transferrence to bourbon barrels for the final finishing and blend.  No additions, no filtration, and the AOC designation remains.

D3S_8953

These days I don’t write much on presentation unless there’s something intriguing (or irritating – cheap corks and tinfoil caps are pet bugbears of mine).  Still, I’d like to comment on the beefy barroom bottle, similar to Rum Nation’s, as well as the wooden box, which certainly gets my nod of approval, given the thing costs over a hundred euros – I’ve never discarded my feeling that when one pays a fair bit of coin, then one is entitled to a fair bit of bling, and here the delivery is just fine. (Note to wife: makes a great gift at Christmas).

On to the rhum, then.  Amber coloured, remember, and middling strength. Pouring it out was almost sensuous, it even felt thicker than usual.  It nosed well, and smelled heavenly – instant green lime zest mixed with softer vanillas, plus eucalyptus and that characteristic grassy cleanliness that so mark agricoles.  I remember looking at my glass in some amazement, wondering how the soft and the sharp scents could meld so well.  Trust me, they did. As it opened up cinnamon, rosemary and riccotta cheese came out, and there was a growing background of ripe fruits from the bourbon barrels tapping my tonsils to say “Oy…we’re here.”

For a rum this light in colour, it was also pleasantly deep (though not heavy a la Port Mourant or Caroni, it was too fresh and clear for that) – somewhat stinging initially, even harsh, so watch out.  And also, be warned…there’s an opening salvo of cordite and firecrackers in here, a gun-oil kind of metallic note; not strong enough to overwhelm subtler tastes that were waiting in the wings, and they died away quickly…but it did make my hair curl for a moment.  More traditional tastes followed in swift, balanced unison, trip-trapping across the palate – semi-sweet fresh fruit, lemon-grass,  ripe mangos, papaya, vanilla, ginger (very faint). It began to trend towards driness as it trailed off, and the finish just confirmed that – fairly long, heated, arid, and last flavours of grass and mild zest to round things off.

Honestly, I don’t know how they managed to meld the offbeat metallic notes with sharp citrus, clean grasses and soft fruits all at once and wrap it all up in a bow of tannins that were kept in check, but they did it, and the result is really worth trying. I liked it partly on the strength of that originality, and indeed, it was on the basis of this one rhum, that I bought their 1977 45% and 1980 58% Trois Rivieres editions as well. It’s a little offbeat, marching to its own tune, and if it’s not quite as insane as the certifiable Clairin Sajous, well, I guess they thought that they had taken enough risks with their client base for one day, and pulled in their horns

My experience with independent bottlers is that they usually come to rum after dabbling in the obscure Scottish drink and only later discovering the True Faith.  Ms. Comte took a different path, starting out with wine (she owns the Château de la Tuilerie which she inherited from her father, and until recently, ran the winery there).  It’s debatable what specific skills can be transferred from one spirit to another: yet, if other editions put out by her company are on par with or better than this rather interesting and remarkable rhum, all I can say is that I hope more wine makers move over to rhums, and quickly.

Other notes

Big hat tip to Cyril of DuRhum, who not only wrote the initial interview with Ms. Comte, but proofed my initial post.

 

Sep 142015
 
Photo Courtesy of Josh Miller @ Inu A Kena

Photo Courtesy of Josh Miller @ Inu A Kena

An unaggressive, bright and clear, sipping-quality rhum agricole that can serve as a bridge between traditional molasses rum and agricoles.

(#232 / 85/100)

***

Clément holds the dubious distinction of providing one of the first agricoles I ever tried.  That was five years (and some change) ago. At the time when I tried that Tres Vieux XO, just about the top of their range, I remember the clarity and smooth brightness of it, and how it flirted with a molasses profile without ever stepping over the  line.  That rhum was a blend of three exceptional years’ production…the Hors D’Age I was trying this time around was supposedly a blend of the best vintages of the past fifteen years.  On the basis of such remarks are high prices charged.  Note the “hors d’age” statement – what that means in principle, is that the rhum is aged between three and six years, which strikes me as absurd for a bottle costing in the €90+ range.  Still, it is an AOC rhum, Clément is enthusiastic abut the care with which they assembled it, and all in all, it’s a pretty decent dram.

Clément has a long history, dating back to 1887 and the purchase of domaine de l’Acajou by Homère Clément. Initially it just produced sugar and raw alcohol, but the demand for liquor durting the first world war persuaded him to upgrade to a distillery in 1917. After the death of Homère, his son Charles took over the business. Credited with developing (some say perfecting) the company’s rhum agricole methodology, he studied distillation at the Louis Pasteur School in France, and named the first bottlings after his father.  He subsequently expanded the company by instigating mass exports to France, which became the company’s primary market outside the Caribbean.  When he died in 1973, his sons took over, but thirteen years later they sold the Acajou distillery to another Martinique business owned by family friends (Groupe Bernard Hayot, one of the largest family businesses in France), who have kept the brand, heritage and plantation intact and functioning and modernized. The company gained the AOC designation in 1996.

Agricoles, of course, even the aged ones, trend towards a certain clarity and lightness to them…one might even say sprightly. The nose on the Homère Cuvée broke no new ground, while still being quite delicious to sniff. It presented a tasty mix of the tartness of freshly pressed apple juice (almost cider-like), and softer tastes of under-ripe apricots, freshly sliced.  Some vague grassy hints wafted around, very much in the background, and after a few minutes traces of nuts and yellow mangoes and a little leather and waxy stuff rounded things out.  It was quite soft and smooth, with very little sting or bite to it.

The golden rum was equally gentle to taste, providing very little aggressiveness even at 44% (unless it was just me and my palate being fireproofed by stronger drinks).  The feel on the tongue was quite pleasant, gentle and easy-going to a fault.  It started out smooth and then morphed to something drier over time. Sharper tastes of lemon dueled it out with more apples, mint-leaves and green grass, some brine and dates, all of which came together really well, with additional breakfast spices, cinnamon and hazelnuts being in evidence…even some chocolate.  I found it, in fact, to be somewhat similar to the XO (they were side by side, so I tasted them both simultaneously, one to inform the other), just not quite as good.  Still, even after all those tastes, there was still some faint traces of leather and smoke to round things out, and while I won’t swear to a tinge of molasses in there, it certainly felt like it. The fade was sweet and aromatic, smooth and warm, pretty short, some wood, leather, chocolate and citrus ending the experience.

There’s enough good stuff trapped in the bottle to please, even satisfy, just insufficient excitement to make it a ultra-remarkable drink that would score higher. Of course, chosing which vintages to blend into a rhum like this presents its own difficulties to the makers, and I’d never say it was bad rhum: my feeling is simply that the Cuvée had more modest goals than the rather more impressive XO, and aimed no higher.  Did I like it?  Yes.  Enjoy it?  Surely. It’s a really well-made AOC rhum for those who like agricoles and displays the hallmarks of time and care and blending expertise.  So when I say you won’t feel short-changed by the Cuvée, that’s entirely true…what you won’t be is seriously challenged.  Still, just because it doesn’t rise to the heights of its predecessor is no reason to dismiss it out of hand. It’s a worthy addition to the brand.

 

***

Other notes

It’s possible that this rhum has been made in order to replace the sadly discontinued XO.  Some people disliked the XO (I was initially not enthused myself, though my appreciation grew over the years), and there’s a whole FB thread about varying opinions on the matter; the cynic in me thinks that by not stating which vintages comprise the blend, it allows Clément the freedom to sidestep the issue of what happens when those vintages run out…unlike with the XO, where they couldn’t mess with the assembly because everyone knew which years’ production was inside.  I hope the silence on the components of the Homère is more a trade secret than an end run around the buying public.

May 072015
 

D3S_9063

Cool bottle, great product.  Almost the perfect mid-range rhum, not too young to be raw, not too old to be over-pricey, or unavailable.

(#213. 86/100)

***

The zippy, funky young J. Bally Ambrè agricole was an interesting rhum from Martinique, and I enjoyed it, simply feeling it had some growing up to do – which is perhaps natural for a rhum aged less than five years. The Vieux 7 year old certainly addressed many of these concerns, and was a better rhum in almost every way.  Ageing may not always confer quality  (neither does price) I’ve heard it said, but I think the person who tries these two side by side would agree that the 7 is a step up the ladder of value.

The rhum came in an enclosure that had all the panache of Mocambo’s Pistola, Nepal’s Kukhri, R.L Seale’s 10 year old or Don Omario’s star-shape, and seemed to reiterate J. Bally’s desire to be different (the Ambrè did too, remember?) – and I must admit to doing a double take myself when I first saw the pyramid-shaped 700ml bottle, so the effect has certainly not waned with the decades since it was first introduced. There’s a whiff of the nautical to it – in rolling seas, the tall slim bottle of the Clairin Sajous would be over the side in no time, but drunk or sober, storm or calm, this one would remain rock steady, ready for you to reach out from your hammock belowdecks and get your tot.

Anyway, this was a rhum I savoured right alongside its younger brother, and appreciated even more. Goldish brown with reddish tints, it was aromatic right off the bat even from a few feet away on the initial pour.  I immediately sensed soft flowers and cut grass, that herbal sap-like fragrance so characteristic of agricoles, and given the rhum was bottled at 45%, quite warm and easy going…quiet, almost.  No aggro at all.  I swirled my glass a little wondering if it would grow fangs,  develop into something more intense, but no, it remained quite placid. Once I allowed it to sit around for a while, it opened up a shade, and the ageing became more evident, with background of oak and vanillas becoming more prominent, but never quite overtaking the herbaceous primary aromas.

D3S_9064

At 45%, it showed great technique – I’ve had forty percenters that were more raw and uncouth; it was an impressively smooth and warm drink, and could be had neat with no issues at all. It was heated and yet clear, even crisp.  Although initially my perceptions were of briny notes alongside cheddar cheese on rye bread, cinnamon, burnt sugar, caramel, white flowers (creamy would not be out of place to describe it), these tastes subsided after a while, giving way to tobacco and vanilla and a faint butterscotch without ever being overwhelmed by them.  Underneath it all was that breezy, grassy layer that melded well with what came before.  And I really enjoyed the fade, long and clean, with lovely closing notes of fresh cut green apples, lemongrass and crushed cane at the factory.  You might not think that works well with the vanilla background imparted by the ageing in oaken casks, but yeah, somehow it does.

So…it’s a quietly impressive rhum that would find favour just about anywhere. With some drinks I have to be careful and state that a person who is just looking to start his rum journey might not appreciate it, or one who prefers his molasses might not like it.  In other cases, the taste might be too raw, too funky, too out-of-left-field, too strong, even too original. Those who possess an A-type personality might prefer something else entirely.  But here, J. Bally have provided a synthesis of all the things that make rum such a wonderful drink, something to appeal to the many without catering to any of them.  There would be few, I believe — fan, starter, boozer, mixer, collector or connoisseur — who would not appreciate this very good all round seven year old rhum from Martinique.

Thank goodness, too, because as soon as you crack the bottle and take your first sip, it’s going to be hard to stop at just a single shot. I sure couldn’t.

***

Other notes

  • I’ve spoken to the history of J. Bally in the Ambre review, for those who like the background filled in.
  • Like the Ambrè, this rhum is AOC certified
  • Unfiltered, unadulterated.  Aged in oak for seven years
Mar 242015
 

D3S_9061


Young, rambunctious, uncoordinated, somewhat raw, and a riot in a mix of any kind.  Even neat it has a funky, raw charm all its own. In that, it’s an agricole all the way through.

(#208. 83/100)

***

The J Bally Ambrè Agricole is a young rhum that is still finding its legs, and places its origins in an estate on Martinique that stretches back to 1670, when the Lajus sugar plantation was founded.  It was one of those rhums from a company that has long had its place in the roll call of honour of the French West Indies – HSE, Trois Rivieres, Damoiseau, La Favourite, Courcelles, JM, La Mauny, Neisson are some others. I wish it was easier to find outside of Europe – I sure never saw anything like it in Canada when I lived there.

The eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902 completely destroyed parts of the island, and decimated its economy for years.  By the time Jacques Bally (no relation, ha ha) started sniffing around for opportunities fifteen years later, Lajus was already bankrupt and in receivership, and he bought it for a fire sale price. He shifted the emphasis away from sugar and towards the production of rhums, and in a daring innovation (for that or any other time) introduced quirky bottle shapes like the triangular one of the 7 year old, or the square blocky shape of this subject.  Within a few years the rhums of Bally were known over the island and were receiving good reviews worldwide.

D3S_9061-001

The blocky square shape of the Ambre was retained through the years to this day.  I wish they had not surmounted it with a cheap-ass tin foil cap, though….consciously or unconsciously it says something about the overall value the makers place on the rhum within.  Still, it had a lovely colour when sunlight beamed through it, and slow thick legs draining down the glass edge, and that gave me hope.

Nor was I disappointed: the Ambrè had what I can only call an amazing nose.  Yes it was light, grassy, herbal and vegetal.  I expected that.  Yes, it was heated, even sharp – for a rhum aged three or four years and issued at 45% ABV, it was a given that a soft feather brush wasn’t on the cards.  What I really enjoyed was the depth and pungency of the aromas, and how, after a while, they gave up generous secondary scents of distinct plums, peaches and ripe yellow mangoes.  I don’t know if it’s something about agricoles specifically, but many that I’ve tried seem to have this really strong intro, sharp and pungent and assertive (for good or ill), often quite complex even in the young ‘uns.

Tastewise, I didn’t feel it brought quite as much to the table: the Ambrè was medium heavy, with a decent textural sensation on the tongue, and the 45% gave it some heft and spiciness.  Here some of the mouth puckering driness and aggro I’ve also noted in several agricoles was evident, as was a a funky sweet grassiness hearkening back to fresh cut cane in the field after the fires have come through.  Sweet fruits like pineapple and (again) overripe mangoes were evident, which with some concentration could be further deconstructed into vanilla, some faint leather (probably deriving from the oak in which it was aged), cloves and rosemary, tightly bound into a central grassy, sap-like core.  And it all faded into a peppery, dry and clear finish with those same herbal notes, that was a bit too harsh for my personal taste. I imagine that the older expressions would smoothen things out more.

D3S_9062

These days, J. Bally no longer exists as an independent, completely integrated entity in its own right. After being acquired by Remy Cointreau in the 1980s, the distillery operations were closed and shifted to the centralized Simon Distillery, though I gather that the original recipe for its rhums remains intact, and sugar production continues at Lejus, as does the bottling and ageing up the road at Le Carbet. As with many French island products, it retains a certain cult following, and a cachet all its own.  The Ambrè may not be at the top of the line, but as a representative of unique agricole style of rhums, and AOC controlled, it hews to all the old traditions that made it so well known in past decades.

The J. Bally is as original and peculiar an agricole as I’ve had; it’s certainly right there in the wheelhouse of other famed agricoles, and your affinity for it will depend on your willingness to surrender to its style and tone and appreciate a slightly raw smacked-on-peyote vibe.  You may describe it variously as “dry”, “vegetal”, “sprightly” if you enjoy it, and “dry,” “vegetal” and “sprightly” if you don’t — the adjectives you add will show your feelings.  It’s all about perception and patience, I think, and while not entirely falling under its spell, I didn’t begrudge the time it took sample the supple charms of this young, not-quite-tamed rum from Martinique.  It was quite an enjoyable experience and I look forward to climbing up the age-value chain to see how the older expressions develop.

***

Other notes:

Unfiltered, unadulterated.  Aged in oak for 3-4 years

Mar 032015
 

D3S_9074

A unique fifteen year old agricole that lacks something of the deep dark depth of the Damoiseau 1980 I so liked, but is a great and tasty example of the style nevertheless…as long as your tastes run that way.

(#205. 86/100)

***

As adolescents, among our most fervent wishes was to have coitus without interruptus the way a hobbit has breakfast: whenever possible, preferably all the time, twice daily if we could manage it (well, what teenager hasn’t?)  But as the years wound on, some reality entered that little fantasy: the truth is that unlimited anything gets boring after a while. One does not wish to eat manna from heaven every single day, do the same job day in and day out,  indulge in neverending bedroom calisthenics…or drink the same kind of rum all the time.

I relate this (possibly apocryphal) story to link to another conversation a fellow reviewer and I had not too long ago: that agricoles just weren’t his thing, and remain an acquired taste enveloped in a certain subtle snobbery for those who preferred them.  I understand this perspective, since agricoles as a whole are quite different from molasses based rums that reek of caramel, licorice, fruits, toffee and what have you.  And while I don’t care for the term “acquired taste” – this is where the imputed elitism has its source – the fact is that the gent was right: tastes do evolve: rums which are current favourites may lose their place in the sun, to be replaced by others you would have never dreamed of touching when you were just starting out.  Rhums are seen by their adherents to possess remarkable quality in their own right, no matter how much the taste profile bends away at right angles from what others have come to accept as more common (or better).

Anyway, remembering the  wonderful experience I had with the Damoiseau 1980, when I saw a bottle of the JM 1995 Rhum Tres Vieux 15 year old (which nowadays retails in the €200 range), I dived right in.  And believe me, when I say it’s different, those of you who prefer more traditional fare can take that as the absolute truth. It’s not for everyone necessarily, but for those whose palates bend in that direction, it’s quite a drink.

As is proper for a top-of-the-line aged product, the green bottle, sealed with wax and possessing a cool leather embossed label came in a fine wooden box that showcased its antecedents, its AOC designation – which means it adhered to stringent manufacturing guidelines such as how soon after reaping the source cane had to be distilled, additions, filtration, etc – and its age.  Now strictly speaking, this is a millésime, but it is noted as being a très vieux (very old)…it could just as easily be termed an XO, but I’m not a purist on the matter and will let it pass with just that comment.

The single column copper-still rhum was a honey gold colour with coppery hints, and gave promise of a medium-light body, which the nose certainly confirmed. It gave forth immediate scents of freshly mown grass and crushed sugar cane, slightly sweet…and quite dry, though not enough to wrinkle the nose.  There were notes of toffee, salty peanut brittle, bon-bons, even a slightly sweetish bubble-gum background which balanced off the brininess. The 44.8% strength was just about right, I think, otherwise we might have really been struck with a dry desert wind on this one.

Still, I liked it, and as the taste developed, saw no real reason to change my opinion.  The palate was smooth and warm, where all the harmonies of the nose developed to a fuller expression – flowers, rain-wet grass, sugar cane rind stripped with the teeth, a flirt of tangerine rind, and biscuits with dry cheese — a liquid warm croissant with a dab of rich, freshly churned butter — all underlain with a sweetish vanilla background, and almost no oak tannins at all.  None of the individual components predominated over any other – the balance was really quite something. What also surprised me was the faint anise taste that revealed itself after a few minutes and melded well into the overall whole.  The finish was short to medium and reminded me a lot of the Clemente XO: both had that closing aroma of smouldering cane fields and vanillas that to this day evoke so many memories.

Situated in the north of Martinique in Bellevue, J.M. began life with Pére Labat, who was credited with commercializing and proliferating the sugar industry in the French West Indies during the 18th century.   He operated a sugar refinery at his property on the Roche Rover, and sold the estate to Antoine Leroux-Préville in 1790 – it was then renamed Habitation Fonds-Préville.  In 1845, his daughters sold the property again, this time to a merchant from Saint-Pierre names Jean-Marie Martin.  With the decline in sugar production but with the concomitant rise in sales of distilled spirits, Jean-Marie recognized an opportunity, and built a small distillery on the estate, and switched the focus away from sugar and towards rum, which he aged in oak barrels branded with his initials “JM”.  In 1914 Gustave Crassous de Médeuil bought the plantation from his brother Ernest (I was unable to establish whether Ernest was a descendant or relative of Jean-Marie), and merged it with his already existing estate of Maison Bellevue.  The resulting company has been family owned, and making rhum, ever since and is among the last of the independent single domaine plantations on Martinique.

If I had fault to find at all in the rhum, it was its aridity, which subtly spoiled (for me) the smoothness of the overall experience, and is another reason I appreciated its relatively lower proof.  Though my sample set of agricoles is too small to make the claim with assurance, it may also speak to my palate being adulterated by rums that have added inclusions (like sugar) to smoothen out such a profile, a practice eschewed by AOC agricoles. Still, summing up, this is a rhum I’ll have to come back to, in the years to come, and will probably rise in my estimation much as the Clemente did. The J.M. 1995 is the kind of rum I’ve been pestered about for ages. People couldn’t quite describe it, but they said I had to sample it, and review it. I just had to.

Well, I did. They were right. It’s quite a lovely drinking experience

***

Other notes not strictly pertinent to this review

Many French West Indian distilleries adhere to a certain puritan strain of rhum production (whether or not they apply for AOC rating).  They use cane juice, don’t add anything to their rhums to either colour them or adulterate them, often issue them at cask strength, and sniffily refer to molasses based rums with the somewhat disdainful moniker of “industrials”.  They may have a point – if there had ever been a pure ethos of rum making, shorn of all the modern and technical innovations, surely it is the agricoles which represent its continuance in modern times. They are a miniscule part of the rum world by volume of sales, yet they hang in there, producing these uniquely tasting, offbeat rums, seen by their tasting champions as exemplars of the craft the way it is, and was, meant to be.

I don’t really agree with that concept 100%, since it is in the nature of mankind to move forward and evolve…and to stick with “the way things were” forever strikes me as unreasoning, almost fanatical, adherence to a single tradition or ideology.  But there’s no doubt that JM, with rhums like this one, are probably on to something, and to tamper with the philosophy of how it’s made would be to discard a link with rum’s past, lose the variety that makes rum great, and leave us poorer for it.

So while not all aspects of the JM 1995 find favour with me (all apologies to the cognoscenti who feel the opposite is true), I acknowledge its distinctiveness and remarkable profile — and if I don’t entirely fall under its beguiling spell, I don’t hate it either, and maybe it’s all just a case of me still acquiring the taste.

 

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