Aug 302016
 

La Confrerie HSE 1

A lovely, supple rhum from the French island.

(#299 / 87/100)

***

La Confrérie du Rhum’s Martinique Extra Vieux (as labelled), a 2007 millésime rhum bottled at a forceful 52.2% had darker notes reminding me of the Damoiseau 1989, until it went off on its own path and in its own way, which makes perfect sense since it’s actually from Habitation St Etienne. And while I have not had enough of those to make any kind of statement, after trying this one I bought a few more just to see whether the quality kept pace…because La Confrérie’s rhum was quite a lovely piece of work.

The Habitation Saint-Étienne is located almost dead centre in the middle of Martinique.  Although in existence since the early 1800s, its modern history properly began when it was purchased in 1882 by Amédée Aubéry, an energetic man who combined the sugar factory with a small distillery, and set up a rail line to transport cane more efficiently (even though oxen and people that pulled the railcars, not locomotives). In 1909, the property came into the possession of the Simonnet family who kept it until its decline at the end of the 1980s. The estate was then taken over in 1994 by Yves and José Hayot — owners, it will be recalled, of the Simon distillery, as well as Clement —  who relaunched the Saint-Étienne brand using Simon’s creole stills, adding snazzy marketing and expanding markets.

The Brotherhood itself is an odd sort of organization, since it exists primarily on Facebook.  Running the show are Benoît Bail, a sort of cheerfully roving rum junkie without an actual title but with an awesome set of tats and love of rum who currently resides in Germany, and Jerry Gitany who moonlights at Christian de Montaguère’s shop in Paris; among various other rum promotional activities, they dabble in importation of spirits, and starting in 2015 they were first approached to be part of a co-branding exercise (they are not independent bottlers). What this means in practice is that they work with a distillery to chose the rum (a cask or two), put La Confrérie’s logo on the label, and designate which shops get to sell it to the final consumers, and work to promote it afterwards. So far they’ve co-branded four expressions: Les Ti’Arrangé de Céd (March 2015), Longueteau (June 2015), La Favorite (December 2015) and this one.

La Confrerie HSE 2The story of this particular rhum started during one of Jerry’s regular visits to HSE, when Cyrille Lawson, the commercial director, remarked, “Jerry, we want to do a cuvée with La Confrérie.” “Sure,” Jerry said “But you have to do something that you’ve never done before.”  And Cyrille, probably relieved not to be asked to go base-jumping in a pink suit, agreed to come up with something good. One year later, Benoît and Jerry were at HSE picking and chosing among six different samples, the final result being this first full proof 52.2% beefcake. It was distilled in a creole column still, then aged in an American oak barrel between July 2007 and February 2016, had no additives, fully AOC compliant, and turned out at a very nice 800 bottles. It turned up for sale just in time for three hundred to be snapped up at the 2016 Paris rumfest, and for me to walk into the establishment two months later, see it and want to check it out. 

The aromas of the gold-amber rhum were excellent: the initial attack was all about anise, fruits, raisins, coffee and some red wine (I’m not good enough to tell you which) – this was the part that reminded me of the Damoiseaus. But then it went its own way, adding orange zest, more coffee, and some molasses (what was that doing here?), with just the slightest bit of vegetals, lemongrass and sugar cane juice. They were crisp notes that scattered like bright jewels on a field of black velvet, somehow vanishing the moment I came to grips with them, like raindrops in moonlight.

The taste, on the other hand, did not begin auspiciously – I actually thought it somewhat uncouth and uncoordinated, being sharp and spicy and seemingly harsh, but then it laughed, apologized and developed into an amazingly beautiful profile: honey, dill, candied oranges and coffee, bound tightly together by the clear hot firmness of very strong black tea.  And that was just the beginning: as it relaxed and opened up (and with some water), sugar cane juice and herbals and grasses came up from behind to become more assertive (though not dominating).  Again there as that odd caramel and molasses backtaste, and then came one I’m at a loss to explain except to say trust me, it was there: the scent of salt beef in a tub, hold the beef (I am not making this up, honest). It all finishing up with a lovely fade, long and warm, dry, not overly tannic, with some smoke and light dusty haylofts mixed in with chocolate, juice, zest and grass. I mean, guys, I had this thing in my glass for almost two hours while I went back and forth in that shop, and what I’m describing was real – the rhum has a phenomenal palate…less sharp than might be expected for 52.2%, and yet quite distinct and strong, a veritable smorgasbord of cooperating tastes.La Confrerie HSE 3

Years ago when studying the games of go-masters, I remember reading that one of them lost not when he played the most promising or “proper” moves, but when following lines of play which resulted in an elegance and purity of his game which overwhelmed his desire to win.  It was all about the pleasing  arrangement of stones on the board, you see: the beauty. The ending was, in its own way, superfluous. Irrelevant.  The pattern was everything.

I have a feeling HSE’s master blender might know this game. He started with nothing – an empty board, so to speak – and stone by stone, element by element, year by year, built a mosaic, a poem in liquid, that resulted in this fascinating rhum.  He has not won, no — there are indeed weak points in the final result.  But I contend that what has been made here is a thing of rare skill, of elegance, and yes, even of beauty. That alone, to me, makes it worth buying

***

Other notes

A sample straight from the bottle, one of several that Jerry Gitany let me try in Christian’s shop in Paris in early 2016. You could argue that I was positively influenced by it being a freebie, but since I picked it and he didn’t, and since a fair bit of my coin had just vanished into his till, I chose to believe otherwise.

The dates on the label make it clear this is an eight year old. Benoît confirms it is a true millésime.

As an aside, so Jerry informs me, HSE was so happy with this rhum that they asked La Confrérie to collaborate on a second batch, supposedly to be even better. It will be delivered by the end of 2016 (November or December).

Aug 132016
 

JM 1845 Cuvee - 1

After a tough day at work, the Cuvée 1845 is a balm to the exhausted mind.

(#294 / 88/100)

***

Even at 42% ABV, The Rhum J.M. Cuvée makes a statement for agricoles that is worth listening to.  It finds a balance between body, mouthfeel, taste, spiciness and warmth in a way that reminds us that agricoles should not be taken as merely a small subset of the greater rumworld, but should hold a place in the pantheon second to none. While these days my preferences run mostly towards stronger, full proof rums, I must say that there’s nothing about this lovely product that makes me want to ask for it to be dialled up.  It’s excellent as it is.

Issued as an anniversary edition for the 170th year of production on the plantation in 2015 (which was when I tried it), the Cuvée is a rhum aged at least ten years in oak barrels, gold in colour, and housed in a handsome gold etched flagon of admirable simplicity.  J.M. is, of course, the old house on Martinique which issued the haunting 1995 15 year old, as well as the equally memorable 2002 Millesime 10 year old, but I think this one is just a shade better. J.M. as a plantation has been in existence for longer than 170 years – Pere Labat founded the sugar refinery as far back as the 1700s, and it is clear that the current owners have forgotten nothing about what it means to make a top notch rhum.

JM 1845 Cuvee - 2There was a certain tartness in the nose that started things off, something like ginnip and soursop, the crisp and firm ripeness of a green apple. It was not sharp or spicy, just heated and well controlled in a way that made smelling it a joy rather than an exercise in pain management – I didn’t have to set it aside to chill out and breathe, but could dive right in.  Once it opened a bit, it softened up, providing additional easy-going scents of vanilla, gingerbread cookies, unsweetened yoghurt and just a dash of pepper and cumin (which is not as odd as it may sound).

It was the taste that elevated the rhum above its 1995 and 2002 compatriots. What sinks an agricole in the minds of many molasses rum lovers is both the clarity and sharpness, whatever the tastes might be.  Nothing of the kind happened here.  In fact, it displayed the sort of originality and balance of crispness and softness which many rums these days seem to shy away from in an effort not to piss anyone off. The feel body was medium, soft, and had the instantly recognizable herbaceous background which marked it as a cane juice product.  Over a period of time, spices, black pepper, vanilla, light citrus and flowers emerged, surrounded by woody notes from the oak barrels where it has rested.  These oaky notes were held in check, providing a background of tannins that did not overwhelm, but enhanced further notes of ginger snaps, orange zest, ripe apples, and created a lovely mix of clear, light softness redolent of these many flavours all at once.  And the finish was equally high-grade – sweet, smooth, warm, tasty (nothing new added here, alas); perhaps a bit too short…more a summing up of the whole experience than any effort to go off the reservation by presenting anything new.

There’s was something almost sensuous about the whole experience.  The 1845, and indeed the rest of the rhums from this company, lacked that peculiar sense of individualism that marked out the Neisson line, yet in their own way are as distinct as any other, and with a quality not to be sneezed at. This is a rhum so well made that sipping it neat is almost mandatory – mixing it might be a punishable offense in some places, and I certainly wouldn’t.  Admittedly, the only J.M. rhums I’ve tried have been fairly high end ones – when you can carry only one and buy only one, you tend to chose from the better end of the spectrum – but even among those I’ve sampled, this one stands out.  It’s a remarkable, tasty, solid accomplishment from one of the last single-domaine, family-owned houses still in existence on Martinique.  And a feather in its cap by any definition.

Other notes

  • Blend of rhums aged a minimum of ten years in 200-liter oak barrels
  • A brief bio of J.M is provided in the 1995 review
Jul 282016
 

La Favorite Cuvee 1995 - 2

A delectable rhum, of an age we don’t see very often these days.

(#291 / 89/100)

***

Anyone who thinks agricoles are an afterthought in the rum world and should only be taken when one runs out of the more common brown-based stuff, would do well to sample what La Confrérie Du Rhum and La Favorite issued last year.

La Confrérie is actually not a company — translating into “The Brotherhood of Rum”, it is the largest Facebook rum group currently in existence —  its French language antecedents don’t stop it numbering nearly sixteen thousand members when last I looked (for comparison, Ed Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum FB page has around seven thousand, and the Global Rum Club is right behind it at six thousand or so). A few years back, one of its founders, Benoît Bail, decided to make some bottlings of well known companies and issue them to the market, some solo, some in collaboration.  The WIRD and Damoiseau editions were bought via the broker EH Sheer, while Les Ti’Arrangés de Céd, Longueteau and La Favorite were taken from the source plantations themselves; five more are in the pipeline over the next two years. This one came out in November 2015, and for my money, it was worth the wait.

Some brief facts – it is a column still product made on Martinique by La Favorite (who also made the very excellent Cuvée Privilège 30 Year Old), aged in white oak and issued at 45.3%. I was informed that just about the entire process is manual, down to the little old lady at La Favorite who glued the labels to the bottles one by one (I begged for her name and some background, but Jerry didn’t know, alas). Four casks were selected — numbers 25, 26, 27 and 42 — and exactly one thousand bottles were issued.

La Favorite Cuvee 1995 - 1Was it any good?  Oh yes. I mean, I could almost smell the age on the dark orange-amber rhum.  Well, maybe not, but the scents of dusty, rich berries and dark plums reminded me somewhat of the Cuvée Privilège, whose haunting quality has resonated in my tasting memory to this day. Blackberries and blackcurrants, very ripe cherries, juicy and thick, billowed out of the glass, followed, after many minutes, by cedar woodchips, aromatic tobacco, before morphing sweetly into a creamy smell of Danish cookies and maybe a butter-daubed croissant or three. It was soft, easy going, distinct, with each olfactory note clear as a bell yet harmonizing like a well-oiled choir.

With some rhums, like the Boys from Brazil I looked at recently, there was a radical difference between nose and palate.  Not here.  The Cuvée Spéciale 1995 segued smoothly and easily from one to the other without a pause, enhancing what had come before.  It was soft, earthy, even slightly salty, just avoiding maggi-cube brininess by a whisker.  It presented separate hints of caramel and vanilla, very faint molasses, a good brie, black olives, with just enough sweet to make it ravishing.  Once a little water was added, things proceeded in stately order, with yet additional flavours of raspberries, sawdust and freshly brewed coffee emerging.  Nothing particularly distinctive or new came out of the finish, which was thick and breathy and longish, but it seemed churlish of me to mark it down severely for something that had done such a great job at all the preceding elements.  

The craftsmanship of the the Cuvée Spéciale was not in how much was going on under the hood of its taste profile, but how what did purr away there, came together so well.  There was not a single element of the taste that didn’t deserve to be there, nothing rubbed wrong against anything else, and nothing seemed added to simply grab our attention, or to shock us.  Every component was refined to a sort of zen minimalism, and was there for a reason, lasting just long enough to notice it, enjoy it, and then smoothly move to the next one.

As is more common among independent bottlers, La Confrérie and La Favorite have little interest in pulling our chain, yanking our shorts or introducing anything radically new, and simply wish to inspire our appreciation with a product properly executed and exactingly chosen.  They have succeeded. This is a lovely rum, and my appreciation is inspired.

Other notes

Full disclosure: Jerry Gitany, a co-founder of La Confrerie, asked me to try this one when I was in Paris earlier in 2016, so it was a free sample.  I had already bought seventeen rums from him by that time, and much as I liked it, didn’t want to add to what was already a hefty bill. Maybe I should reconsider.

La Favorite 1995

Jul 072016
 

Neisson XO 1

Trying the last of the four Neisson I bought in 2014-2015 made me happy I saved it for last, because it was, I felt, the best of them all.

(#284 / 87.5/100)

***

“The race does not always go the swift, nor the battle to the strong,” goes that old aphorism; to which some wag added “…but that’s the way to bet.” I feel the same way about older rhums versus younger ones – the best score doesn’t always go to the oldest (the Trois Rivieres 1975 and 1986 are proof of that), it’s just that more often than not that actually is the case.  As it is, here, with Neisson’s excellent XO, one of the really delicious sipping rhums from the domaine Thieubert on Martinique.

The Neisson XO 3me Millesime was begun in 1999 to mark the entry into the third Millenium, and is pretty much Neisson’s top of the line rhum, limited to two thousand bottles a year.  It is a blend of Neisson’s ten best barrels of any given year which already underwent a minimum of six years’ ageing prior to assembly, and one blended, aged for at least another six years (I have seen posts dating back from 2007 suggesting fifteen years total). And unlike the rectangular round-edged standards of editions further down the price ladder, here the company provided an etched decanter with a glass stopper, gold leaf printing, all looking very spiffy.

Neisson XO 2I’ve remarked before on that odd oily tequila-like note I sensed on all the Neissons (e.g  the 2005, Tatanka and Extra Vieux).  In this instance it had been dialled way down from even the 2005 edition, and began with rubber and overripe fruit mixed up with acetone and brine (the last gasp of a tamed post still, maybe?).  It was smooth, heavy, easy, just a little spicy (45%, very well handled).  As I went between it and all its siblings I got back to it ten minutes later to find it had developed really well – pears, red roses (not too overpowering or over-dominant), a few apples just beginning to go, and orange juice, all leavened by a shy shade of coconut. It was a really very nicely assembled nosing rhum…I could have gotten lost in it.

It was on the palate that the gold-brown AOC rhum really shone, though.  The texture and mouthfeel were extraordinarily well-balanced, neither too hot nor too reticent, smooth and just heavy enough, as rounded as John Cena’s biceps.  None of that overripe fruit or rubber/acetone flavours carried over from the nose – instead, what I got was a kind of perfumed teriyaki, salt and sweet, backed up with florals and a cornucopia of light fruits – Indian mangoes, kiwi fruit, white guavas, a little Lebanese grapes, bananas, coconut, cocoa, brown sugar and vanilla, all tied up in a bow with a flirt of light acidity carrying over from some orange or ripe lemon peel.  If the finish was not as complex as the taste (the palate really was the best part about the whole experience), well, at least it was long for a 45% rhum, and provided me with closing hints of white sugar soaked in lemon juice, reminding me of all the times I dosed my stepmother with that exact mixture when she had a bad cold.

If I had to make some criticisms, it would be to say the nose isn’t entirely up to the excellence of the taste, though even with its relatively subdued nature (relative to the other Neissons) it’s damned good.  And the finish, aromatic as it might be, could have been beefed up some.  But really, these are minor quibbles in a rhum that is all-round yummy and does its company and younger brothers no dishonour at all.  While not everyone is into agricoles – Lord knows it took me long enough to learn to appreciate them – if you can get a sample of this XO, by all means give it a shot.  Different it may be. Tasty it definitely is. Deficient? Absolutely not. It is the best of the Neissons I’ve tried so far.

May 152016
 

D3S_3819

There are few (if any) weaknesses here: conversely, not many stellar individual components either.  It’s just an all-round solidly assembled product that missed being greater by a whisker.

(#273 / 86/100)

***

So here we are, gradually inching up the scale of the Neissons, with a rum I felt was slightly better than the Tatanka I looked at some weeks ago.  Now, that one had a bright, colourful label to catch the eye (Cyril from DuRhum did a review of the lineup, here), and yet appearance aside, this one was, in my estimation, a smidgen better. It’s a subtle kind of thing, having to do with texture, taste, aroma and a quiet kind of X-factor that can’t be quite precisely quantified, merely sensed and noted.  But yes, I felt it was better.  In fact, it was the second best of the raft of Neissons I tried in tandem, and only the XO exceeded it.

Issued at a sturdy if uninspiring 43%, the Neisson Rhum Agricole Vieux 2005 is a nine year old rhum, an amber-red liquid sloshing around the standard slope-shouldered rectangular bottle which came in a sturdy, nicely done cardboard box. As with all Neisson products, it was AOC certified, self-evidently and agricole, and like its siblings up and down the ladder, had its own take on the way a rhum should be put together.

D3S_3822I speak of course of that oily, sweet salt tequila note that I’ve noted on all Neissons so far.  What made this one a standout in its own way was the manner in which that portion of the profile was dialled down and restrained on the nose – the 43% made it an easy sniff, rich and warm, redolent of apples, pears,and watermelons…and that was just the beginning.  As the rhum opened up, the fleshier fruits came forward (apricots, ripe red cherries, pears, papayas, rosemary, fennel, attar of roses) and I noted with some surprise the way more traditional herbal and grassy sugar cane sap notes really took a backseat – it didn’t make it a bad rhum in any way, just a different one, somewhat at right angles to what one might have expected.

I had few complaints about the way it tasted.  Again the strength made it an easy sipping experience, very smooth and warm and oily.  One thing that I always look for in a rhum is points of difference and originality, a divergence between smell and taste, for example, and the way one blends seamlessly into the other, with some elements disappearing, new ones appearing, and the way they dance together over time — the Neisson 2005 was very nice on that score, presenting as dry, yet also luscious, and just sweet enough.  In fact, that teriyaki style profile had almost totally been subsumed into a tangy, tart texture wound about with half-ripe yellow mangoes, lemon peel, the creaminess of salt butter on dark peasant bread, more fruits, nuts, florals, and some white guavas.  And all of that segued pleasantly into a medium length, velvety fade that gave up last notes of peaches, pecans, and more of that tartness I enjoyed.

There’s very little I disliked here – the texture might have been better, the strength might have been greater (Rhum Rhum Liberation 2012 Integrale did the job exceedingly well, for example though the Neisson really felt thicker to me in comparison).  Nothing major. What it did not do was excite any real passion aside from a rather clinical series of observations on my voluminous notes, like “Good!” and “Nice!” and “Tastes of…” and “Balance well handled” and so on.  I liked it and I would recommend it to you, no sweat, and my essay here provides all the technical notes one might require for an evaluation of its merits.

D3S_3821But I also didn’t get much in the way of wonder, of amazement, of excitement…something that would enthuse me so much that I couldn’t wait to write this and share my discovery.  That doesn’t make it a bad rhum at all (as stated, I thought it was damned good on its own merits, and my score reflects that)…on the other hand, it hardly makes you drop the wife off to her favourite sale and rush out to the nearest shop, now, does it?

Other notes

290 bottle outturn

Cyril wrote a much more positive 92-point review of the same rhum (in French), so you can compare his point of view and mine.

May 112016
 

D3S_3667

A wonderfully sippable AOC agricole from J.M. in Martinique

(#272 / 86.5/100)

***

The unquantifiable quality of the J.M. 1995 Très Vieux 15 Year Old has stayed with me ever since I first tried it.  Some aspects of the rhum did not entirely succeed, but I could never entirely rid my memory of its overall worth, and so deliberately sought out others from the stable of the company to see if the experience was a unique one.  And I am happy to report that the Millesime 2002 10 year old is a sterling product in its own way, and perhaps slightly exceeds the 1995…though with such a small difference in scores, you could just as easily say they are both excellent in their own ways and let it go at that.  

For all the enthusiasm of the above paragraph, it should be noted that sampled side by side, the two rhums are actually quite distinct products, each good in their own way, but not to be confused with one another.  Consider first the aromas hailing from this 46.3% orange gold rhum – they presented as quite fruity and aromatic, quite rounded and mellow, not always a characteristic of agricoles. As it opened up over the minute, flavours of cherries, red grapes, herbals, dill, sugar cane and grass rose gently out of it….and, if you can believe it, a sort of weird and persistent bubble-gum and Fanta melange that took me somewhat unawares, though not unpleasant by any means.

On the palate the texture was phenomenal, smooth and warm and assertive all at once.  There was little of the aridity of the 1995: it presented a sort of restrained spiciness to the senses; some vanilla and tannins were discernible, but very well controlled and held way back so as not to unduly influence what was a very well balanced drink. 46.3% was a good strength here, and allowed firm traditional vegetal and grassy notes to take their place, before gradually being replaced – but not overwhelmed – by citrus zest (that was the Fanta doing a bait-and-switch, maybe), mint, cucumbers, watermelon, papaya and rich, ripe white pears.  And then there was more…rye bread, salt butter, very delicate notes of coffee and chocolate…just yummy. It was an enormously well assembled rhum, luscious to taste and with walked a fine line between Jack Sprat and his wife…one could say it was like the last thing Goldilocks tried, being just right.  Some of the dry profile I had previously sensed on the 1995 was evident on the finish, but again, nothing overwhelming – it was warm and aromatic with light tangerines, spearmint gum, more ripe cherries and those delectable grapes I had noted before.  All in all, just a great sipping agricole, with similarities to the Karukera 2004, la Favorite Cuvée Privilège and maybe, if I stretched, even Damoiseau’s products.

D3S_3668

J.M. is located in northern Martinique at the foot of Mount Pele, and I’ve written a company summary in my review of the 1995, if you’re interested.  One fact that came to my attention afterwards was that JM char the inside of their barrels by setting fire to some high proof rum distillate, and then scraping the char off, which may have something to do with the fruity character of the aged rhums they put out.  The rhum itself was distilled on a creole copper pot still to 72% before being set to age and then diluted to “drinking strength.”  I wonder what would happen if they ever decided to take a chance and leave it cask strength.

Most people I speak to about agricoles, especially those who have tried just a few (or none), comment in a way that suggests they are considered pretty much all the same — grassy, herbal, watery, a trifle sweet maybe, and (horrors!) more expensive. A lot of this is true, but after having tried the marvellous variety of rhums from Martinique and Guadeloupe, the sharp industrial chrome of the whites versus softer aged products, I can say with some assurance that there is an equally dazzling variety within cane juice rhums as there is in the molasses based products. And this is one reason why in the last year I’ve really tried to write about as many of them as I could lay hands on. Trying the JM 2002 with its complex, layered and warm profile makes me glad the adventure still has some kinks in the road, and that I began it in the first place.

Other

  • Aged in Limousin oak
Mar 242016
 

D3S_3795

A youngish agricole with slightly loopy tastes that makes one intrigued enough to take another sip….and another two or three after that.

(#263 / 83.5/100)

***

Cheap tinfoil cap aside, this may truly be one of the most original and striking bottle labels I’ve ever seen.  Painted right on, colourful, bright, lovely, and if I was still scoring such things, it would be tempting to add an extra point or two just to show how much it appeals.  The bottle shape was the same as the Extra Vieux I wrote about some months back, but man, the design was as jazzed up as the Tokyo downtown at rush hour, and it’s not alone: there are others in the company lineup sporting this kind of chirpy west indian vibe — Le Corsaire, Le Carbet, Le Galion, L’Amarreuse, and La Distilerie — all appear to be special editions of one kind or another.

This rhum was one of four Neissons I tried alongside each other (the Extra Vieux, the Vieux and the Cuvee 3me Millesime were the others), with two Rhum Rhum Liberations and a CDI Guadeloupe as additional controls; what struck me more than anything else about them was the overall consistency the Neissons shared.  And here’s the thing: though (barely) recognizable as an agricole, the rhum didn’t seem to be entirely sure it wanted to be one, something I already noted with the previous iteration.

D3S_3798Okay, I jest a little, but consider the nose on the 46% orange-gold spirit.  It displayed that same spicy, musky and almost meaty scent of salt butter and olives and tequila doing some bodacious ragtime, sweat and stale eau-de-vie going off in all directions.  It was thick and warm to smell, mellowing out into more fleshy, overripe (almost going bad) mangoes and papayas and pineapples, just not so sweet.  Spices, maybe cardamon, and some wet coffee grounds. At the back end, after a while, it was possible to detect the leather and smoke and slight bitter whisper of some wood tannins hinting at some unspecified ageing, but where was the crisp, clear aroma of an agricole? The grasses and herbaceous lightness that so characterizes the style?  I honestly couldn’t smell it clearly, could barely sense it – so, points for originality, not so much for recognition (though admittedly, that was just me, and your own mileage may vary; mon ami Cyril of DuRhum, for example, is probably shaking his head in disgust, since I know he likes these a lot…it was a conversation we had last year on the subject of Neisson agricoles that made me run out and buy it for us).

D3S_3797Still, there was little to find fault with once I actually got around to tasting the medium-going-on-heavy rhum.  Once one got past the briny, slightly bitter initial profile, things warmed up, and it got interesting in a hurry. Green olives, peppers, some spice and bite, sure, but there was softer stuff coiling underneath too: peaches, apricots, overripe cherries (on the verge of going bad); salt beef and butter again (the concommitant creaminess was quite appealing), and I dunno, a chutney of some kind, stuffed with dill and sage.  Like I said, really interesting – it was quite a unique taste profile. And the finish followed along from there – soft and warm and lasting, with sweet and salt and dusty hay mixing well – I am not reaching when I say it reminded me of the mingled dusty scents of a small cornershop in Guyana, where jars of sweets and medicines and noodles and dried veggies were on open display, and my brother and I would go to buy nibbles and maybe try to sneak into the pool hall next door.

Anyway, clearing away the cutlery: the Tatanka “Le Coupeur” is a limited edition, like all the other similarly designed products Neisson put out (it was distilled in 2010), and had an outturn of a mere 120 bottles, which explains something of the price differential with more standard rhums made by the company.  Aged in a single 190 liter bourbon barrel, Le Coupeur had a fascinating aroma, original taste, and is absolutely a rhum to experience when there is time on one’s hands.  I felt there was not that much difference between this rhum and the Extra Vieux, and my delight at its appearance aside, that one appealed a smidgen more. It’s a subtle kind of thing, having to do with texture, complexity, the way the tastes sidled up, had their moment and then crept away. There’s a great rhum in here someplace, and while it showcased potential more than true over-the-top quality, I’d suggest you can still take it to your best friend’s house for a special occasion without shame, because trust me, this is a five-year old that might just set his johnson on fire.

Other notes

  • Exclusive bottling for La Maison du Whisky
  • Age is unknown but given I bought mine in early 2015, it isn’t more than a five year old
  • Some background to the company is given in the write up of the Extra Vieux
  • This is an AOC rhum, conforming to all the regs required by the designation
  • Some have noted it is a whisky-like rhum, but I think it’s actually closer to a rhum-like tequila.
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

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