Jun 122016
 

Damoiseau 1989-2

The 1980 Damoiseau was no fluke, as this 1989 forcefully demonstrates.

(#278 / 88/100)

***

Last week I wrote about the Longueteau Grande Reserve which I tasted in tandem with this excellent Damoiseau (and five or six others), and wow, did this one ever stand out. At the risk of offending that actually rather pleasant and inoffensive Grande Reserve, I think the Damoiseau shows what it could have been with some egging on.  (Actually, this is what the Pyrat’s XO could have been had they ever found their cojones, lost the oranges and dialled the whole thing up to “12”, but never mind).

Because frankly, I believe that the dark orange 58.4% twenty year old beefcake is one of the better rhums to come out of Guadeloupe – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, there are few, if any, missteps of any kind (unless you count the paucity of any single sterling point of achievement as a misstep) — there’s so much that’s right with it, that it seems almost churlish to point out where it fails to ascend to the heights of brilliance achieved by, oh, the Chantal Comte 1980 or even Damoiseau’s own 1980 older brother.

Dsmoiseau 1989-1

Consider first the smell of the thing: it was amazingly full bodied, with a charging, yelling, joyous nose – if Braveheart ever visited Guadeloupe, it’s this he would have been drinking and all the Scots would be speaking creole and we’d never have heard of that obscure Hebridean tipple.  Candied light oranges started the revels off (here’s where my reference to the Pyrat’s came in – observe the tact with which the citrus was presented here versus the overripe nonsense Patron has been selling).  Peaches, apricots, and brown sugar soaked in lime juice, which sounds a little loopy until you actually taste it. And after letting the rhum open up a bit and settle down, lovely aromas of honey, licorice and sweet soya came forward to lend piquancy and heft to the experience.

Damoiseau 1989There were fond memories of other agricoles issued at cask strength in my tasting, and  I felt no particular amped-up over-aggressive heat  from the 58.4% ABV at which it was bottled. The sharpness burned off in no time, leaving a warm solidity of the honey and soya to carry forward from the nose.  And then it was like slow fireworks going off – strongly heated black tea, coffee, chocolate, earthy, waxy and citrus notes detonated on the tongue in solemn grandeur.  Some fleshy fruits (more apricots and peaches), lemon zest and yes, those candied oranges were back again for an encore, dancing around the backbone of the other, firmer notes. The control of the oak, by the way, was pretty good, and in no way intrusive – at most there was some background of vanilla and vague tannins, and even that was in no way offensive or overbearing.

I was looking for the herbal and grassy profile of a true agricole, and must confess there were just about none.  It was just a really well-constructed panoply of tastes both strong and subtle, leading into a slow, warm finish as post-coital languor in a courtesan’s boudoir – you almost want to break out the newspapers and some shag for your pipe as you enjoy long, pleasant closing notes of coffee, orange peel, and bitter black chocolate.  What a lovely piece of work indeed.

As I’ve observed before, I have a slight, sneaking preference for Guadeloupe agricoles over Martinique ones (though both are good, of course – it’s like asking me who I love more,  Little Caner (my fast-growing cheeky son) or Canerette (my just-graduated, far-too-clever daughter)…a pointless exercise since both have aspects of real distinction which get equal adoration from their papa).  I must simply sum up by stating that the way traditional, classic agricole components in this rum have been melded with something that is almost, but not quite, a molasses product, is masterful. This, for its price, is a rum to treasure.


Other notes:

  • Distilled April 1989, bottled January 2010, so, a whisker under 21 years old
  • Tasted in Paris in 2016, courtesy of Christian de Montaguère and Jerry Gitany.  I bought seventeen rums and tasted a raft more, which we all thought was fair.  Merci beaucoup, mes amis.
  • Nope, I never managed to acquire the Velier Damoiseau 1989 for a comparison.  But now I really want to.
  • €100 for this?  Great value for money. BUT….In an odd (but not entirely uncommon) coincidence, Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun wrote about this rhum this same week.  He rated it at 78, remarking on its ‘indefinite’ character.  Also, Single Cask Rum ran three Damoiseaus past each other (1989, 1991 and 1995) and it lost out to the other two…so balance their reviews with my more enthusiastic one.  If you can, try it yourself before buying.
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
Apr 282016
 

D3S_3879

A rum from Ago.  Perhaps only a Guyanese or a retired British Navy man could truly love it.

(#269. 77/100)

***

For the most part, over the last months I’ve concentrated on fairly well known rums, made by bottlers with whom we’re all reasonably familiar. Today, I’m going to reach into the past a bit, to the Guyana Distillers El Dorado Bonded Reserve. Sorry, what? I can hear you say, You mean DDL don’t you, Mr. Caner? Yeah…and no.  This rum was made in the early 1980s before DDL changed its name, and in it was one of those hooches like the King of Diamonds, now long gone and out of production…in it, we can see what local rum was like before El Dorado was launched to the overseas market in 1992.  

Sampling this rum pulled back a curtain of the mind. As a young man, I had had it years ago, before DDL became what it now is, before craft rums and independent bottlers were up to their current stature, and way before the El Dorado line had established itself as one of the baselines of the rum world. You’re not going into the extreme past like with the G&M Longpond 1941, St Andrea 1939 or even the St James 1885, no…but the Bonded Reserve does demonstrate how fast the rum world has in fact evolved since those days – because I cannot remember trying anything quite like it in recent memory.

It was an old bottle.  The label was faded and old fashioned, the tinfoil cap spoke to different days.  Even the bottle glass looked worn and tired. Within it was a 40% rum that decanted a golden rum into the glass.  It smelled thin and dusty, with not much going on at the inception – some smoke and leather and vanilla, a touch of caramel and grapes, raisins, with some cumin and molasses to round things out, all quite subdued and tepid.

D3S_3880Tasting the Bonded Reserve raised all sorts of questions, and for anyone into Mudland rums, the first one had to be the one you’re all thinking of: from which still did it come?  I didn’t think it was any of the wooden ones – there was none of that licorice or fruity intensity here that so distinguishes them. It was medium to light bodied in texture, very feebly sweet, and presented initially as dry – I’d suggest it was a column still product. Prunes, coffee, some burnt sugar, nougat and caramel, more of that faint leather and smoke background, all rounded out with the distant, almost imperceptible murmuring of citrus and crushed walnuts, nothing special. The finish just continued on these muted notes of light raisins and molasses and toffee, but too little of everything or anything to excite interest beyond the historical.

To be honest, the rum was so divergent from the firm, crisp, well-known profiles of todays’ Demeraras that it suggested an almost entirely different product altogether.  It could just as easily have been a Trini or Bajan rum, or even (with some imagination) a softer spanish-style product.  Given that it won a double gold medal in Leipzig in 1982, one can only hazard that the competition that year was feeble, and the rum rennaissance through which we fortunate beings are currently living through had yet to gather a head of steam.

In fine, then, it’s almost, but not quite, an historical artifact.  It’s no longer for sale, isn’t being made, and it was by mere happenstance that I saw this on the Whisky Exchange in 2014 and had some spare cash left over . Rating it might do it an injustice, because you’ll look long and hard to ever find its twin…I might have bought the last one.  

So, how do I put this? Well, let’s see – it’s a rum, contains alcohol, and that’s nice; it’s not entirely bad, or undrinkable.  It will do good things to your cocktail, and there’s my recommendation for it, I guess, because at the end, assuming you ever see a bottle, you probably won’t ever enjoy it any other way.  

Other notes

Peter’s Rum Labels in Czech Republic have this exact label on file, but noted as being made by DDL. DDL was formed in 1983 when Diamond Liquors (Sandbach-Parker’s company) and Guyana Distillers (Booker McConnell’s) were merged.  So this rum had to be made between the time of the medal it won in 1982 and the creation of DDL in 1983.  That would explain how I was able to still find it to drink in 1985 in many shops in Georgetown and the countryside.

Guyana Distillers was based out of Uitvlugt, which goes a long way to clarifying the lack of a characteristic or familiar profile, since their still was a four column French Savalle still, producing several different kinds of rum. Based on my tasting, I’d suggest the rum is less than five years old…maybe three or so.

Jun 282015
 

D3S_8944

A paradox of the mid range: a pot still rum that fails at very little…except perhaps excitement.

(#219. 81/100)

***

I’ve been writing and rewriting this review for almost three months: each time I came to grips with it, I thought of something else to add (or delete), or some new and interesting product eclipsed the Prichard’s and made me want to publish that first. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, maybe.

Prichard’s has been in business since 1996 when they became the first new distillery in Tennessee since the 1940s and have quite a stable of output, including some interesting rum products to their name – they produce three real rums, one spiced rum, three flavoured rums….plus six whiskies and five liqueurs.  So, as with many such outfits in the ‘States, I occasionally wonder if their love isn’t primarily given elsewhere and they make true rums only in order to branch out a little.  However, the website and interviews suggest the opposite, so maybe I’ve got it wrong. And I don’t mind that…I’m just curious about it.

Small companies making rum in the USA sometimes try to recreate the American rums of yore by varying their input or production methods.  In this case, Prichard’s use not blackstrap molasses (the black sticky residue after most of the sugar has been extracted), but sweet Louisiana Grade A molasses, of the sort that could be put on your pancakes the morning after.  The rum is then aged for four years in fifteen-gallon barrels of new oak (another point of departure from more traditional techniques) Whether that works or not is up to the individual.  I don’t think it’s all bad, just not something I’d remember enthusiastically a week from now either. It somehow results in a symphony of ho-hum in spite of some off-kilter moments.

Perhaps starting with the aromas might make the point clearer: initially the amber liquid as decanted from the squat long-necked bottle presented clearly, with chocolate and toffee leading the fray.  A little patience, a drop of water, and spices began to come forward – cardamon, fennel, apples, a cherry or two, and sly twitch of lemongrass for zest – before being blattened into the ground by a ridiculous amount of emerging iodine, leather, caramel, burnt brown sugar that dominated the nose from there on in.

The rum was medium bodied, neither fierce nor fawn.  It slid smoothly on the palate, just a little bit of burn from the standard proofage. I dunno, it seemed diffident, good ‘nuff, like a Three Bears of a rum, neither too much or too little.  Again mocha and dark chocolate, coffee, toffee.  And after it opened up, black grapes, overripe apples, more iodine, and a thin kind of vanilla thread through the whole business, with anise, molasses and caramel really taking ownership at this point and carrying the whole experience through to a lacklustre finish with just more of the same — unexceptionally so, in my opinion.

That grayness of my opinion has to do with the fact that while the Prichard’s Fine Rum  is a workmanlike product by any standard — competently made and reasonably executed — it doesn’t have that extra edge of oomph that excites.  It lacks any single shining point of distinction or originality upon which I can hang my hat and say “this part is freakin’ great,” hence my continual suspicion, however unjustified, that bourbon is what they really want to be making, and rum is an indifferent afterthought. Still…that it’s a drinkable, even sippable rum, with perhaps a shade too much Grade A hanging around in there, but worth the outlay — that’s all beyond dispute; it’s the question of whether it’s a must-have that’s is a bit more open to doubt.

See, some rums trumpet their badassery to the world, while others tick over quietly like swiss watches, the undercurrents of their quality self-evident to those who look and enjoy.  Here’s a rum that neither leaves you turning cartwheels in transports of drunken exuberance, nor shaking your head sadly as you mumble about a piece of junk you wasted time trying – but walking away from the experience, remarking to your friend, “That, mon ami, is a plain old rum.”

 

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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