Jan 092019
 

Rumaniacs Review #088 | 0587

You’d think that a rhum issued less than fifteen years ago would still be reasonably available – you’d be wrong. This amazing leather-labelled, oak-aged 15 year old agricole from J.M. (Martinique) is almost impossible to find, and if you do, it’s not cheap.  It’s long since vanished from J.M.’s online shop, and I finally ended up tracking a bottle down in Switzerland, where it was a fetching a cool five hundred bucks or more, which just goes to show it’s not just other people’s money the Swiss are squirrelling way.  One can only wonder how many (or how few) bottles of J.M.’s juice made up this millésime, or how good it was, for it to disappear so completely.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 45.8%

Nose – Starts off with a small bang of rubber and acetones. Then sweet peppers, floral notes; turns out it’s also chock full of strawberry bubble gum, vanilla, herbs, apple cider, unripe papaya, cherries and something deeper and darker that stays well in the background….spoiled mangoes, maybe.  Really nice, but it doesn’t reveal its secrets easily.  You could nose this for an hour (which I did) and still come up with some last wispy and near-unidentifiable note.  Because it’s just lovely, a nice departure from heavier Jamaicans, Guyanese or Bajans.

Palate – Not quite as rich as the nose, which is a factor of the strength. Okay, I’ll cut it some lack for now, let’s see how that works out. Flowers, sweet fruits, vanilla, leather and aromatic pipe tobacco. Watermelon, grass and sugar water, also dill, rosemary and sage.  The rum’s textire is smooth and warm, there’s very little sharpness here, and the balance among all these subtle flavours is damned fine.

Finish – Not too inspiring, somewhat weak and nothing really new.  It’s light and breathless as if, having used up all its energy providing the nose and palate, it had little left to cough up.  Flowers, light fruits, watermelon and pears, and a little vanilla.

Thoughts –  Some concentration and work required here, but it’s rewarded right up to the finish.  It’s all very light, that’s all – and has a snappy sort of crispness that makes every flavour stand out clearly – you could spend a whole afternoon sipping casually away and then wonder when the bottle went dry. The close is disappointing though, and leaves one wanting more – it’s too good to be indifferent to it, but too indifferent to be really good.  Other than that, this is a really fine piece of work by J.M. — the way it smells and tastes, and possibly the limited outturn, goes a long way to explaining how come the thing is so rare…and so expensive.

(85/100)


Other notes

I’ve written about other J.M. rhums before this and provided some brief biographical notes of J.M.’s background in each, but if you want more details, the Wonk-in-Residence has his usual in-depth recap here, and here.

Jan 072019
 

After the initial flurry of articles attendant on the forming of the first new distillery / rum brand in Martinique in, oh, I don’t know, forever, there’s been a surprising drop in attention for A1710. The big guns like Neisson, Bally, HSE, Trois-Rivieres, Depaz et al, with decades (or centuries) of brand awareness underlying their name and fame, continue to issue their excellent agricole rums, of course, but it’s almost like A1710 dropped by the wayside.  Yet this tiny outfit makes rums with a lot of zip, zap, zowee and swoosh, and should not be ignored just because it’s small.

A1710 is the first attempt in a long time to shake up Martinique’s well known rum industry, being created in 2016 as a micro-distillery for Habitation Le Simon (not to be confused with the distillery of Simon, though they’re close by), which rubs shoulders with Clement on the mid eastern side of the island.  The estate’s roots go back to 1710 when the founder, Jean Assier, arrived on the island (hence the “A” in the title) and founded the sugar plantation, which seems to have been family owned and operated as a sugar estate ever since. Yves Assier de Pompignan, the 50-year-old who created the brand and founded the distillery in 2016, first made a career in stationery and office supplies before accepting his True Calling, perhaps channelling the family heritage — a great-grandfather owned the current factory of Saint-James, a grandfather owned of rum brand, his father is a cane agronomist and he has connections with the Hayot family as well.

What distinguishes the small distillery is that it did not chase the AOC designation (they have creole column still, ferment juice for around five days and reap cane year round, to name some points of divergence), and its organic focus, which eschews the more mechanized bulk approach taken by bigger competitors.  I usually nod and smile at such statements, but when the results are as good as these, who am I to rain on their parade? Besides, it’s canny – there’s a market for such niche products made as free from technological interference as possible, and I’m sure A1710 knew and bet on that. 

And after all is said and done, the white rum they make is excellent.  Just nosing this 2017-issued 54.5% product makes that clear: it’s sparkly, sprightly sugar water with a light tinge of brine. Olives, nail polish remover, turpentine, floor wax, freshly sawn lumber and sawdust.  Cider gherkins and apple cider. Very impressive because it never loses sight of the creole still origins and even after half an hour it still coughs up some earthy notes, well polished leather and a lovely thread of green apples.

Moving on, the flavour profile on the palate is nothing short of impressive. It comes smooth and warm across the tongue, providing warm notes of sugar water, watermelon, papaya, licorice, sweet bonbons, grass, and pungent lime leaves in a thai curry.  The rhum displays real potency without overcrowding the taste buds with either too much power or excessive complexity, a perfect combo of sweet and salt and herbals in a complex interplay of citrus, grass, cilantro and 7-up. It’s almost cachaca-like, minus the bitterness of strange Brazilian woods. The finish was okay but things start to slow down here, and it (fortunately) stops just shy of being bland – the heat carries off some of the taste and closing aromas but there was lime leaves, gherkins and sugar water, getting sweeter and more delicate (but always crisp) over time. It reminded me a lot of the J. Bally Blanc agricole, but was a smidgen better, I’d say.

When Cyril of DuRhum rendered one the first online opinions of A1710 and both their 2016-edition whites and aged rum selection, he wrote honestly (and disparagingly) about the flowery marketing push and the price, especially the aged ones. Fast forward a year or two and the online-store costs for the 2017 white written about here are pretty much in line with others of their kind; and the marketing, well, every company under the sun trumpets its niche advantage and special something – I yawn through the usual adjectives and hyperboles anyway so it doesn’t trouble me unless it’s an out-and-out falsehood and has no real info behind it. Putting that aside, what I appreciated about A1710 was the courage it took to open the eighth distillery on the island at all, against some formidable competitors.  What emerged at the other end was a white rum of real quality which possessed a solid taste profile and whether known or not, can take its place without apology alongside all the other blancs that may be better known and sell more. That’s a real achievement, for a company this young.

(#586)(85/100)

Dec 182018
 

White rhums – or blancs – were not products I paid much attention to back in the day, but over the last five years they have continually risen in my estimation, and now I consider them one of the key building blocks of the entire category.  Not the lightly-aged, blandly filtered and softly murmuring Spanish-style cocktail staples, you understand – those I regard with relative indifference. No, I mean stuff like the Mexican Paranubes, the Haitian Le Rocher, the Guyanese Superior High Wine, Japanese Nine Leaves Clear, Tahitian Mana’o White or the Surinamese Toucan White, to say nothing of the new crop out of Asia – Samai, Issan, Laodi.

What elevates these blancs and all their cousins above the regular run of whites is the way they often maintain a solid connection to the distillate of origin and the land from which they came.  They are usually unaged and unfiltered, commonly around 50% or better. Sometimes they’re raw and pestilential and shockingly rude, at other times they’re almost placid, hiding their bright tastes and clear profiles behind a wall of easy and deceptive complexity that takes time to tease out properly (and for both reasons causes them to be occasionally under-appreciated, I think).

Which brings me to the 55% ABV Habitation Saint-Étienne (HSE) Rhum Blanc Agricole that was distilled in Martinique in 2016 and bottled in 2018 (it rested in steel tanks for the duration and can therefore be seen as unaged). We haven’t talked about HSE for a while, but that doesn’t mean that the Martinique brand has been resting on its laurels, because it continues to produce much good rhum – all AOC compliant – and even taken the whites in a new direction. In this case, perhaps channelling Velier’s Uitvlugt East Field 30 from all those years ago, they selected a special type of sugar cane (canne d’or says the bottle, or “gold cane”, varietal designation R570) not just from their sugar estate in the middle of Martinique, but from a specific part of it – the Verger and Coulon plots of land, issued as a rhum they call Parcellaire #1.  So it’s a sort of micro version of HSE as a whole, showcasing a very small part of its terroire.

Aside from HSE, Longueteau, or the new kid on the island block — A1710 and their white La Perle — such atomized drilldowns into smaller subunits of an estate are almost unknown…but they are intriguing to say the least (even though it may all just be cool marketing – I like to think otherwise). Fortunately the way it smelled and tasted skated over such concerns.  The nose, for example, was quite fragrant, starting off with slightly rotten fruits (bananas), rubber, sawdust, set to a background of soft wax candle, all very restrained. Overall it was a little sweet and relaxed, and as it opened, additional notes of nuts, cereals, almonds and nougat came forward. There was also a hint of olives, brine, pineapple, sweet green peas and ripe oranges in an excellent melange that combined themselves very well, without any single aspect being particularly dominant.

Blanc agricoles’ tastes are usually quite distinct, showing variation only in the details.  This one was slightly different — very smooth, very light, the usual herbs and light citrus and grasses starting things off, just less crisp than one might be expecting. This seemed to be kind of nothing-in particular, but hold on a bit — the other, more complex flavours started to creep out.  Dill, sugar water, olive oil, cucumbers, watermelon, light pimentos and gherkins, all sweet enough not to be off-putting, salty/sour enough for some character. I thought it was really quite tasty, giving aged offerings from the same house some serious competition, and finishing things off with a fade that provided last memories of sweet sugar water, light delicate notes of cumin and watermelon and papaya.

Does that all work? Are the specific plots of origin really that clear? I suggest that as a showcase for such a tiny bit of land, for the general rum drinker, not really.  The differences between the regular run of blancs from HSE and this one can be chalked up to miniscule divergences deriving from batch variation rather than anything so refined.  Admittedly though, I’m not a professional sommelier, and lack the experience such people bring to sensing gradations of wine hailing from neighboring vinyards in France – so someone with a more finely tuned snoot may take more away from this than I did.

But I liked it.  I liked it a lot. Above, I wrote that really good whites are either cheerfully rude or deceptively polite:  this one tilts slightly more towards the latter while still remembering its objurgatory antecedents. It’s a enormously drinkable dram, near perfect strength, with wonderfully delicate and strong tastes mixing up both sweet and salt in a terrific white rhum.  You could drink it alone or mix it as you please, and you’d enjoy it either way, with nothing but a nod of appreciation for what HSE have achieved here with such seeming effortlessness. And for its price? This thing may just be an undiscovered steal.

(#580)(86/100)


Other notes

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.

Nov 272018
 

Thailand doesn’t loom very large in the eyes of the mostly west-facing rum writers’ brigade, but just because they make it for the Asian palate and not the Euro-American cask-loving rum chums, doesn’t mean what they make can be ignored; similar in some respects to the light rums from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama and Latin America, they may not be rums du jour, yet they continue to produce for their own local audiences and sell very nicely worldwide, thank you very much.  There’s a market for the profile, and given the enormous population of Asia, it’s no surprise that they can make rums for themselves, and sell them, without always worrying too much about the hot topics of purity, additives, ageing and terroire that are so much discussed elsewhere.

That’s not to say that Issan, the company that makes this low-key white rum, doesn’t adhere to such principles.  They certainly do. Located just a short distance from the Laotian border in the north east of Thailand, a stone’s throw from the town of Vientiane (which makes its own rum), Issan uses handcut, hand-peeled cane (grown without herbicides or pesticides, sourced from its own farm and from small farmers around the area), its own strain of yeast, and a small copper pot still imported from Europe.  Like the French Caribbean islands, cane is cut and pressed to cane juice and set to ferment within 48 hours (for 3-4 days), and the waste cane is used as both fuel and fertilizer in an effort to be both ecologically sound and environmentally sustainable. The operation is somewhat more primitive than Chalong Bay (for example), but one can’t argue with the philosophy of artisanal production espoused by founder David Giallorenzo, a Frenchman from Abruzzo, who relocated to Thailand to start Issan in 2011 after a career in the financial services industry.

With export licenses taking a year to put together, the still arriving in December 2013, the next year started with just under a thousand bottles of production, and then initial exports were limited to a thousand bottles to France, Italy, Switzerland, Andorra and Belgium.  This was not large, but the company got a boost in 2014 when it won a silver medal in Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition (again in 2016), as well as bronze and gold medals in the Paris Rhumfest in 2015. By 2018, the target was ten thousand bottles of production, new stills had been ordered (for greater capacity) and with continued market increase in Europe and exposure by online magazines and bloggers, its rumprint is sure to escalate in the years to come.

Aged rums (or rhums, if you like) are not a major part of the program at this stage (though they do age their rums for a minimum of six months which suggests some level of filtration), and the one I tried was their 40% white, about which I’d heard quite a bit over the years but never got a chance to try — John Go sent it to me, knowing of my fondness for juice from Asia.  And for a product that was more or less still in swaddling clothes compared to its agricole competition in the Caribbean, it wasn’t half bad.

The nose was very very briny, accompanied with what seemed like an entire basket of olives, and alongside that was the dry mustiness of dried rice paddy and sacking (similar to the TECC and Cambridge Jamaicans, remember those?), yoghurt, and sweet flavours – swank, mangoes, green peas fresh out of the can, very delicate fruits which had to do major lifting to get themselves past the wall of salt.  There was also some faint acidic notes which balanced things off, light citrus (tangerine, let’s say) and also cereals, biscuits and oatmeal cookies and some buttermilk, all of which got slightly sweeter after everything opens up. In other words, it took the aromas of any good agricole, and then went their own unique way with it.

The nose was pretty good — the palate was where it was somewhat weaker. This was, I suppose, to be expected — standard proof rums have to be remarkably intense to get one’s attention these days and that goes as much for whites as any other.  So – it was watery and quite light, in no way aggressive, warm and sweet, and actually quite pleasant. You could mix it, but why bother? It had the light sugar water, light lemon zest, light pears and white guavas, and light spices….cumin, a suggestion of nutmeg, little else aside from a pinch of salt.  There’s a finish of sorts, short, sweet, watery and slightly fruity, and about all that could reasonably be expected.

Still, given that I walked in expecting even less, it was a really enjoyable product, akin to a softer clairin.  My personal experience with Asian spirits suggests they tend to be less in-your-face, smoother, a shade sweeter – sometimes additives perform the function of making it palatable.  As far as I know, Issan issues what comes of the still into the bottle without any messing around except to reduce it to 40% and some filtration, and they do a pretty good job here…I can only imagine what a more potent full proof version would be like (probably knock my socks off, I’m thinking, and if they could get it past Thai legislation which forbids bottling spirits north of 40%, and out to the West, more medals would be in the offing for sure).  

The Issan isn’t out to change the rumiverse, doesn’t want to reinvent the pantheon of rums (white or otherwise), and is a left-of-straightforward, relatively light, eager-to-please white rum — and deceptive in that you only think it’s weak when you start…then it grows little fangs and shows some aggro, and you realize there’s rather more here than was immediately apparent.  It’s a neat drink, well made, a slow-burn white, perhaps made for those who walk in believing they’re getting a gentle sundowner…and are then suckered into enjoying something just a shade more potent.

(#572)(79/100)

Oct 252018
 

No, that’s not another typo in the title, it’s just the way the bottle spelled “rum” so I followed along even if it is an agricole-style product and by convention it might have been better termed “rhum” (though the words mean the same thing – it’s purely a matter of perception).  Since looking at the Engenho Novo aged rum last time, I thought it would be fitting to stick with the island of Madeira and see what one of their whites would be like, especially since I had been so impressed with the RN Jamaican Pot Still 57% some years ago….would this one live up to to the rep the Caribbean one garnered for itself?

There’s an outstanding email to Fabio Rossi of Rum Nation about the Ilha da Madeira white, because, curiously, there isn’t much to go on as regards the background aside from the obvious: we know it is 50% ABV and made from cane juice in a column column still in Engenho’s facilities (same as the which also produce the “Nova”, which is to say, the reconstituted William Hinton). It’s unclear whether it’s unaged and unfiltered, or lightly aged and then filtered to clarity…and if the latter case is what happened, then what kind of casks. We’re not sure what the “Limited edition” on the label actually means. And, as always with RN, there’s also the question of any additions. We can however infer that based on the chubby, stubby bottle and label style, that the rum is part of their standard lineup and not the higher-proofed, higher-quality, higher-priced Rares (as an aside, I hope they never lose the old postage stamps incorporated into the design), and possibly from the word “crystal” used in their website materials, that it has been filtered. But I’ll amend the post once I hear back from them.

Anyway, here’s what it was like. The nose of the Ilha da Madeira fell somewhere in the middle of the line separating a bored “meh” from a more disbelieving “holy-crap!”.  It was a light melange of a playful sprite-like aroma mixed in with more serious brine and olives, a little sweet, and delicate – flowers, sugar water, grass, pears, guavas, mint, some marzipan. You could sense something darker underneath – cigarette tar, acetones – but these never came forward, and were content to be hinted at, not driven home with a sledge. Not really a brother to that fierce Jamaican brawler, more like a cousin, a closer relative to the Mauritius St. Aubin blanc (for example). What it lacked in pungency it made up for in both subtlety and harmony, even at 50%.

It was also surprisingly sippable for what it was, very approachable, and here again I’ll comment on what a good strength 48-52% ABV is for such white rums.  It presented as sweet and light, perfumed with flowers, pears, green grapes and apple juice, then adding some sour cream, brine, olives and citrus for edge. There were some reticent background notes as well, cinnamon mostly, and an almost delicate vein of citrus and ginger and anise. It tasted both warm and clean and was well balanced, and the finish delivered nicely, redolent of thyme, sweet vinegar dressing on a fresh salad, and green grapes with just a touch of salt.

Average to low end white mixers – still occasionally called silvers or platinums, as if this made any difference – are defined by their soft, unaggressive blandness: their purpose is to add alcohol and sink out of sight so the cocktail ingredients take over. In contrast, a really good white rum, which can be used either for a mixed drink or to have by itself if one is feeling a little macho that day,  always has one or more points of distinction that sets it apart, whether it’s massive strength, savagery, rawness, pungency, smooth integration of amazing tastes, funk, clarity of flavour or whatever.

Honestly, I expected more of the latter, going in: something fiercer and more elemental…but I can’t say what was on display here was disappointing. In October 2018, when I asked him what rums he had that was of interest, Fabio actually tried to steer me away from this one (“It’s good, but not so interesting,” he laughed as he pulled down a Rare Caroni).  But I disagreed, and think that what it really comes down to is that it’s a solid addition to the white portion of the rum spectrum and certainly a step above “standard”. It’s tasty and warm, and manages the cute trick of being dialled down to something really approachable, while still not forgetting its more uncouth antecedents. And if it is not of the pungent power that can defoliate a small patch of jungle, well, it may at least blanch a leaf or two, and is worth taking a second look at, if it crosses your path.

(#560)(83/100)


Other Notes

From the 2017 release season

Oct 222018
 

The mark of the successful long-term independent bottler in the public perception rests upon two main pillars – one is of course the quality of the rums they put out the door (and perhaps, how consistently); and the other is the level of originality they bring to the game.  By that I mean how often do they stray from the mainstream of the standard pantheon and go in new directions, seek out different maturations, different ages, different barrels, different distilleries (or whole countries). It is because Velier nails both of these aspects that they are as successful as they are, though I would certainly not discount Samaroli, Compagnie des Indes or Rum Nation (among others).

Rum Nation, also from Italy, has been somewhat out of the public eye of late, but the point about originality does apply to them – think back on the Jamaican White 57% rum, for example, or the Supreme Lord series, or the 20+ year old Demeraras, or their Peruvian and Guatemalan rums, the latter of which most other indies don’t often go near. In the last few years Fabio Rossi, the founder of the brand, went in yet another direction by issuing a new limited-edition series called the “Small Batch Rare Rums” … and one of them was this intriguing little number from Madeira, from a distillery called Engenho Novo – they are the boys behind the William Hinton brand of rums which have recently become more available in Europe over the last few years.

I’ll provide some more background detail in the Other Notes below, but for the moment let’s just read off the fact sheet for the rum which is very helpfully provided on the Rare Rums website and on the bottle label itself. This is a cane juice distillate and can therefore be classed as an agricole-style rhum; distilled 2009 and the four barrel outturn from a column still was aged in Madeira casks, providing 570 bottles in 2017, with a strength of 52%.

For those not into their lighter spirits, “Madeira” is a fortified wine made in the Portuguese islands of Madeira off the African coast, and can be either dry or sweet.  Given the entire ageing period of the rum took place in such casks, I expected to see a substantial divergence from both an aged agricole or any other kind of “standard” ex-bourbon-barrel profile. In fact, swirling the dark brown rum in the glass made me wonder if some caramel hadn’t been added to colour it…or whether the casks were completely dry of wine before pouring the good stuff in to age.

Still, the nose delivered, if not precisely that clear-grassy-herbal aroma characteristic of the French islands.  Oh no. This was more like one of those mated with a drowsy Demerara from Port Mourant: it smelled of dark ripe cherries and coca cola, fleshy stoned fruits and red licorice, plus unsweetened cooking chocolate, hot black tea, raisins and wasn’t that a bit of brine and olives down the back end?  Sure it was. And very nice too.

And even at 52%, after an initial whiff of its cane juice origins — it began somewhat fresh and crisp before relaxing — the rum proceeded quite softly on the palate, and suggested a taste reminiscent of a stack of old books in a dusty library nobody now visits, the dry mustiness of barnyard hay.  This was set off by the taste of a Haagen-Dasz dulce de leche ice cream (the Little Caner loves that stuff and I pinch it from his tub every chance I get), as well as brine, more olives, licorice, prunes, red wine, citrus peel, cider and the vague tartness of gooseberries and unsweetened yoghurt.  It was quite rich and flavourful, a nice drink, finishing with with warm notes of cherries, raisins, a little herbal, and cider, salt caramel and sour cream.

So where does that leave us?  Well, with a rather peculiar product.  It is unique in its own way, giving you the odd-but-pleasant experience of tasting a well-assembled agricole-Demerara blend, or maybe a molasses-based Guadeloupe rhum.  That may be a Madeiran thing – I can’t tell, since I have not had enough from there to make the claim with assurance (yet). But in any event, Rum Nation doesn’t make bad rums – they’re too professional an outfit for that, and I’ve thought so ever since I ran into them in 2010 and bought that entire year’s output at once. They stratify their products into the starter rums, sweeter ones (the Millonarios), high-end aged rums (the Demeraras and Jamaicans) and these higher proof Rares for the cognoscenti. This one isn’t the best or most original rum they’ve ever made, but it does show Fabio Rossi forging ahead in his own way to expand his company’s range, producing new and fascinating rums for us all to try — and it’s definitely a rum to sample if you’re ever bored with the regular islands’ rums and want to try something different…but not too different.

(#559)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Wes, who reviewed it back in January 2018, rated it as 50% ABV on his hydrometer, which equates roughly to 10g/L dosage, give or take.
  • The sugar factory and distillery was founded in 1845 by William Hinton; it reached a peak production of 600 tons of cane processed per day in 1920, but closed in 1986 (no reasons are given on their website, but perhaps falling sugar prices contributed, or the expense of maintaining extensive sugar cane fields).  It was restarted by Hinton’s heirs in 2006 as Engenho Novo de Madeira.
Sep 262018
 

Few are unaware of the existence of the J. Bally 1929 – for those who troll the online shops it remains one of the few very old bottlings from inter-war Gilded Age times to remain available…if one has over two grand kicking about to buy it.The Bally 1924, on the other hand, is a whole lot rarer – I can’t remember the last time I saw one coming up for discussion, let alone sale. And one could argue that its heritage is much more gold-plated – it’s the first vintage from J. Bally. I’ve tried quite a few from this bottler, one dating back to the 1960s, but to try the very first?  That might be worth a kidney right there.

This bottle being such a piece of heritage, a little history is in order. J. Bally was named after Jacques Bally, a graduate of a top engineering school in Paris, the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (ECP, founded in 1829) – he snapped up the Lajus Plantation on Martinique in 1917, a mere fifteen years after Mount Pelee erupted, when memories of that disaster were still fresh and land prices were cheap (Lajus, founded in 1670, was already in foreclosure, having gone bankrupt after the 1902 disaster). By 1920 he had installed new steam engine, fixed up the salvageable equipment he could and (legend has it) pretty much built his own column still from scratch.  In that same year the nearby Habitation Dariste owned by the the Gronier family went bankrupt and Bally bought it in 1923 and moved the distillery equipment to Lajus to augment his own machniery. In 1930, by which time he was already laying away rum stocks to age, he also had a hand in designing the signature pyramidical and square bottles which became so associated with Bally in later years. The rhums Bally made were very popular, sold well, and the company remained in business until the 1980s when Remy Cointreau acquired it, at which point production was shut down at Lajus and moved to Domaine du Simon where (as far as I know), it’s still being made, with cane from Lajus. Note that in 2003 La Martiniquaise bought out Saint James and Bally (to add to their rum portfolio which already contained the brands of Depaz, Dillon, Negrita and Old Nick) which is why the Remy Cointreau’s webpage makes no mention of either one now.

Aside from being made so long ago, what makes the 1924 special is that it was the initial release of an aged rhum from Bally, and one of the first of its kind in the French West Indies, if not the first. Jacques Bally took inspiration from cognac and eau-de-vie makers in France and was apparently the first to consider ageing Martinique rhums in oak. This provided the initial release of his rums in the 1920s with a depth of quality that made them extremely popular and well-known, and one can just imagine all the other distilleries on the island rushing to copy the idea. The inevitable question arises, how old is the 1924 vintage?  “More than six years,” said Luca in a text to me, and that makes sense if the bottle that houses it was only designed and made in 1930. We can leave it there with only one other great unknown, and that’s how many bottles were released – and nobody knows that any longer, sorry. I hit a brick wall on that one.

Enough of the pedantic stuff. How was it to taste, eliminating all the baggage of history and heritage and rarity the rhum came with? It’s one thing to sing high praises because it’s from so far back, but a cold review is somewhat more challenging, especially considering the august company in which I tried it – the Tasting of the Century in September 2018.  You can bet that I was paying real close attention and took a long time with my glass on this one, if only so I wouldn’t be embarrassed when real writers came out with their own notes.

Nose first: nice! For all its age, the Bally 1924 could have come off the line last year and you’d never know it.  It smelled of fresh squeezed apple juice, pears with oodles of sweet light aromas, flowers, sugar water and watermelon, out of which emerged a nice melange of crushed walnuts, fanta, lemon zest, crisp yellow mangoes and cumin.  If you were tasting it blind you’d swear this was an agricole you could pick up online for some reasonable coin – like the Harewood 1780, it presented a profile not a hundred miles removed from something produced today.

Bottled at 45% ABV, the Bally 1924, for all the noble pedigree granted by being made so far back, in many ways resembled Bally rhums from past decades’ that I went through three years ago. It was slightly sharp on the palate, and as clean and clear as any of its descendants.  Apples, cider, brine and olives came smoothly off the assembly line, bolted on to emergent flavours of pears in syrup, green grapes, spices, more lemon zest, leather, a touch of vanilla and nougat and a vague hint of grass, black tea, earthy musk, and rosemary. The overall balance, cleanliness of the mouthfeel was excellent, and the ageing had definitely sanded down any rough edges – it was quite simply a pleasant drink to have, fading easily into a smooth finish that provided little that was new, just a languorous recap of the highlights – peaches, pears, mangoes, lemon zest, watermelon and sweet flowers and herbs and a pinch of cumin. A neat and near-perfect little agricole, coming together beautifully.

Well. How to score something like this? Well, I’m going to give it a solid endorsement — not that this means anything given its mythical near-unicorn status. But I should note in passing that for all its quality, the Bally 1924 strikes me more as an essay in the craft of agricole than a completely finished product that stands the test of time. It shows what they were before the snapped into focus in the last few decades of the AOC regs.

Perhaps it’s unfair to rate a rhum made nearly a hundred years ago to the standard of today when so much has changed in the interim — and for sure others around the table that day loved it (Matt rated it as his personal favourite for the evening).  To round things up: the Harewood 1780 presented a startlingly modern profile that went in its own brilliant direction way, strong, forceful, distinct; the Skeldon 1978 couldn’t rise above its elder brother but was still quite an amazing drink; and the Saint James 1885 was a rum made in a style quite different from agricoles as a whole, unique and interesting.  The Bally is caught in a limbo between the modern versions of the spirit, and the old ways of the 1885 – that’s in no way a failure, just that the competition is more fierce because we’ve had so many rums that are so similar to it.

But you know, whatever the score, there’s a certain cachet, even honour, in having been able to try a quartet of such grail-quest rums, so old, so rare, so absolutely stinking of rum history, so generously shared.  The Tasting of the Century might one day be exceeded (though I can’t for the life of me imagine what rums would comprise version 2.0); but whether that happens or not, I’ll always be happy to have tried the Bally — because it was one of those rhums that pointed the way to the modern era of cane juice rhums, so exactingly made, so proudly issued, so excellent to drink.  The Saint James 1885 might be the doddering grandaddy of the French island rhum style, but the 1924 with its crisp and clear profile taking us back to the beginning of the modern era, is surely its godfather.

(#552)(86/100)


Other Notes

Sep 102018
 

How this blanc J. Bally succeeds as well as it does is a source of wonder.  I tried it and was left blinking in appreciation at its overall quality. Like all Bally rums made these days, it’s AOC certified, half pure alcohol (50% ABV), and unaged (rested for a few months in stainless steel tanks before bottling), and I honestly expected something a lot more aggressive than it actually was.  In that ability it had to walk the tightrope between ageing and no aging, between too strong or too weak, between jagged edges and smooth gentling lies a lot of its appeal.

Some time ago when I wrote a small roundup of  21 Great Whites, I remarked on the fact that most of the best white rums out there are bottled without any ageing at all, right as they come dripping off the still.  Whatever filtration such rums are subjected to, is to remove sediment and detritus, not the sort of chill filtration, reverse osmosis or activated charcoal filters that leave an emasculated and flaccid excuse for a rum behind, which is then relegated to the poor-doofus-cousin shelf of a barman’s cabinet, used only for cheap mixes.  You certainly would not want to drink one of those indifferent, milquetoast whites neat to savour the nuances, which is why they have inexorably slipped to the bottom of the rankings of white rums in general, their place taken by purer, cleaner, stronger stuff — like this cool Martinique product.

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 the original recipes for their rhums remains intact, and sugar production continues at Lajus, 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.  Suffice to say they have made some really good rums, and this one may either be the real deal poised for mass market export or some kind of off-the-wall local tipple trotted out for exposure at various Rumfests (which is where I tried it, mostly out of curiosity). It’s reasonably widely available, especially in Europe.

Well, that out of the way, let me walk you through the profile.  Nose first: what was immediately evident is that it adhered to all the markers of a crisp agricole. It gave off of light grassy notes, apples gone off the slightest bit, watermelon, very light citrus and flowers.  Then it sat back for some minutes, before surging forward with more: olives in brine, watermelon juice, sugar cane sap, peaches, tobacco and a sly hint of herbs like dill and cardamom.

The palate was more dialled down, less aggressive…tamer, perhaps; softer. And that’s saying something for a 50% rum.  It was sleek, supple, smooth and sweet, and went down easy. Tastes suggested fanta and 7-Up in an uneasy combination with rained-upon green grass.  A little menthol, thyme and sugar water. A sort of light fruitiness pervaded the drink – watermelon juice, white guavas, pears, combined with sugar water, underneath which lurked a cheeky element of brine that never entirely came out and took over, and was hinted at, never outright disclosed.  Finish was nothing special – a little salt, a little sugar, a little water, a little fruit, but not hot at all, mostly an easy going wave goodbye as it exited the premises.

There’s little to complain about here, and much to admire.  To me, what sets this rum apart is its how many things it accomplishes in the same bottle, the same shot.  Unlike many whites that are now making headlines, Bally’s blanc doesn’t want to rip your face off or try to show off its package in an effort to show it’s bigger, bolder and more badass than all the others.  It’s also an uncommonly restrained white rum, retaining both elements of its youth, as well as having its rough edges sanded down a shade. It’s a white rhum that is demonstrably an agricole, a vibrantly young sprout of some character and depth, and tailor-made for both those now dipping their toes into the white-rum sea (and don’t want anything too savage), and those who like white agricoles on general principles. That it does all these things at once and with such unassuming style, is nothing short of a tiny miracle.

(#548)(84/100)

May 072018
 

#509

Plastic.  Lots and lots of plastic.  And rubber. The clairin “Le Rocher” is a hydrocarbon lover’s wet dream, and if you doubt that, just take a gentle sniff of this Haitian white.  It is one of the richest whites from Haiti I’ve managed to try, and the best part is, those opening notes of the nose don’t stop there – they develop into a well balanced combination of acetone, salt, soya, and a spicy vegetable soup, into which a cut of jerk chicken thrown in for good measure to add some depth (I swear, I’m not making this up).  And if that isn’t enough, half an hour later you’ll be appreciating the watermelons, sugar water and light cinnamon aromas as well.  This rum is certifiable, honestly – no unaged white should ever be able to present such a delightfully crazy-ass smorgasbord of rumstink, and yet, here it is and here it reeks.  It’s pretty close to awesome.

Sometimes a rum gives you a really great snooting experience, and then it falls on its behind when you taste it – the aromas are not translated well to the flavour on the palate.  Not here. In the tasting, much of the richness of the nose remains, but is transformed into something just as interesting, perhaps even more complex. It’s warm, not hot or bitchy (46.5% will do that for you), remarkably easy to sip, and yes, the plasticine, glue, salt, olives, mezcal, soup and soya are there.  If you wait a while, all this gives way to a lighter, finer, crisper series of flavours – unsweetened chocolate, swank, carrots(!!), pears, white guavas, light florals, and a light touch of herbs (lemon grass, dill, that kind of thing). It starts to falter after being left to stand by itself, the briny portion of the profile disappears and it gets a little bubble-gum sweet, and the finish is a little short – though still extraordinarily rich for that strength – but as it exits you’re getting a summary of all that went before…herbs, sugars, olives, veggies and a vague mineral tang.  Overall, it’s quite an experience, truly, and quite tamed – the lower strength works for it, I think.

Clairins no longer need much introduction.  Velier’s been promoting them up and around the world, people have been shuddering and cheering about their profiles in equal measure for years now.  We know what they are. What we don’t know is the producers and individual methods. Here’s what I know: Le Rocher (“The Rock”, named after Matthew’s injunction in 7: 24-27 not to build on sand) is the product of Bethel Romelus, whose little op is located in the village of Pignon, about an hour’s jouncing away from St Michel where Michel Sajous fires up the Sajous. Le Rocher is different from the other clairins I’ve looked at so far in that it is made from sugar cane juice from three different varieties of cane, which is boiled down to syrup.  It’s fermented naturally, with maybe a 1/3 of the syrup being made from previous vinasses, then run through a discontinuous pot still, before being bottled as is. No ageing, no dilution, no filtration, no additions. A pure, natural, organic rum for all those whole drool over such statistics.

Personally, I’m impressed with the rum as a whole, but if you disagree, I fully understand the source of your doubt – you gotta be into unaged, unhinged whites to be a fanboy of this stuff – for me, that’s catnip, for you, perhaps not so much. Still, If I had to rate the clairins which Velier is putting out the door, I’d say the Sajous remains the most certifiable, the Casimir the most elegant, the Vaval the easiest for its strength.  But the Le Rocher….it’s perhaps the most approachable for the average Joe who wants to know what the fuss is all about and is willing to try one, but is cautious about mucking around with the >50% sarissas of the first three. By going to a lower ABV, by taming a remarkable panoply of potent and pungent smells and tastes, by changing (slightly) the way it’s made, the Le Rocher is setting a standard as high as its creole-still cousins, and if your tastes bend in this direction, it’s definitely worth adding to your collection of whites, and clairins.

(85/100)


Other notes

  • In doing my research I found references to other varieties of the Le Rocher tried at various rumfests last year: one at 51%, another at 43.5%. 
  • Back label translation: “It is at Pignon, at the entrance to the plateau of St. Michael de l’Attalaye, that the Le Rocher clairin is produced using cane syrup, produced from natural juice, adding during fermentation about 30% vinasses from the previous distillations: an archaeological example of the method of production of the French colonies, influence of 1785 by the technique developed by the English in Jamaica, the “dunder-style.”
May 012018
 

#507

Almost without warning and with little  fanfare, Oaxaca went from being a small geographical region in Mexico to the source of a fast moving blip in the rumiverse, the Paranubes white rum.  Although there have been occasional comments on the various Facebook rumclubs on the Oaxaca-region blancos before this, my feeling is that the June 2017 Imbibe Magazine article on Paranubes, followed up by the April 2018 Punch article “Hunting for Rum in Oaxaca’s Cloud Forest” was in a large measure responsible for the upsurge of interest in the region, this particular company, and this rum.  That, and the fact that like Rivers Royale, Haitian clairins or Cape Verde grogues, they represent a miniscule, almost vanished proponent of natural rum making, of a kind we don’t see much of nowadays…which is exciting much interest in the rum soaked hearts of the ur-geeks who are always on the lookout for something new, something potent and something pure.

Mostly unknown in the wider world, Mexican white rums like the Paranubes share DNA with agricoles and cachacas – the source of the spirit is fresh-pressed sugar cane juice – but in manufacture and distribution, if the terms could be used for something so relatively grass-roots, they are closer to the Haitian clairins. Locally made by unregistered, numberless small mom-and-pop roadside hoocheries and tiny distilleries (called trapiches), using local materials and old equipment, a different one around every corner and in every region, they are called aguardiente de caña there and are back country white lightning which (again like clairins) is consumed mainly in the neighborhood. There are several other small trapiches in the neighborhood: the story goes that the co-founder of Mezcal Vago, Mr. Judah Kuper was running around Oaxaca with a load of mezcal (and tasting roadside aguardientes as a sort of personal hobby) when he happened to try that of a local distiller and businessman called Jose Luis Carrera, was not just impressed but blown away, and approached him with the idea of exporting it.  This has led to the Paranubes brand being formed.

Mr. Carrera’s little distillery has been in existence for decades, using different varietals of sugar cane free of pesticides and fertilizers, lugging the cane to the trapiche by donkey power and after crushing, fermenting the juice with wild (naturally occurring, not added) yeast and a sort of boiled mesquite bark mix in a couple of 1100 liter pinewood vats (but occasionally a pineapple or two is used in the same fashion of bark is not available – these guys take the meaning of “batch production” seriously). Every day Mr. Carrera takes half of one of the vats and chucks it into the small copper column still (which holds 550 liters) – and then refills the vats in the afternoon. What this means is the vats are a mix of very old and very young fermenting liquids, and since they are only completely emptied three times a year, they end up producing an enormously flavoured spirit that conforms to few markers of the rums with which we are more familiar.

That part is key, because I said that in origin it’s like an agricole, in manufacture like a clairin, but let me tell you – in taste, it’s like those were spliced to an out of left field Jamaican with a steroid-addled attitude.  And even then it seems to exist in its own parallel universe, adding its own distinctive originality to the pantheon of the whites. It started off, for example, with one of the most distinctive series of smell notes I’ve ever experienced: wet ashes from a campfire, rain on hot baked earth, mixed with pickles and gherkins. The oily saltiness of a tequila but without the muskiness.  It’s also vinegary, citrus-y, sharp, acidic, and beneath all that is sugar caned sap, very light fruit, vegetable soup, olives and more brine. And plastic. I mean, wow. Newbies beware, experts be warned – this rum is not the kind that makes sugar cane turn up at your door demanding its juice back.

As if dissatisfied with its own aromas, the rum seemed to feel it had to add even more notes to the tasting when drunk. So, many the above smells made a re-appearance on the palate – ashes (I swear this is almost like licking a stone), olives and brine, lemon rind, gherkins in vinegar to start – before the brininess retreated and additional varnish and turpentine hints emerged, which went right up to the edge of being gasoline.  The sugar cane sap thankfully mitigated that, adding lighter swank, watermelon and lemon to the mix, miso soup, sweet soya and a ton of veggies. It was, really quite a collection of different tastes, and even the finish – long, lingering, with sweet and salt, acetones, cigarette tar and more herbals – completed what was a rum of startling, almost ferocious originality.

All these tastes aside, what did I actually think of it? Well, as noted, I think it may be one of the most unique whites I’ve tried in a long while. It’s different, it’s original, it hews defiantly to its own profile without genuflecting to anything else.  It’s not trying to be a clairin or a Jamaican or a grogue or a cachaca, and has at best a glancing familiarity with the ester bombs of Reunion and Hampden and Worthy Park. Fruits are a bit lacking, sweet and salt combination is fine, and earthy, musky notes are bang on. “Traditional” may be how it’s made, but surely not in its overall taste configuration.  It gets points for being one of a kind, yet be aware that it is not necessarily one you’d appreciate neat. This is a cocktail lover’s dream, one that would drive bartenders into ecstatic fits because it would wake up and make new any old faithful, or kickstart any creation they feel like coming up with.

Paranubes may be one of the first Mexican rums to make a dent in people’s perceptions that Mexican liquor is just mezcal or tequila (and rums like Bacardi, Los Valientes, Mocambo, Prohibido et al).  Locals will know of aguardiente, and Americans and tourists who visit the back country will likely be familiar with it — now it’s the turn of the wider world, not least because it’s available in the US, and may start appearing in Europe as well, with the added cachet of artisanal production, traditional methods, and a taste that is quite simply in its own universe.

Is such pure rum-making an oncoming wave of the future for the independents?  Ask Luca Gargano of Velier and you’d probably get a resounding yes, and if you look carefully at the rums with which he personally associates himself, you’ll see that old-school, artisinal, natural rums are his personal and pet passions – clairins, grogues, Rivers, Hampdens are just some of the varied rums he holds close to his heart. By that standard, he must be frothing at the mouth over the Paranubes. Me, I believe that this simply made, small-batch artisanal rum takes its place immediately in any list of tonsil-shredding whites as one of the most original, potent, pungent, and flavourful rums currently extant.  It’s that interesting right out of the gate, and is tailor-made for those who are looking to dispel boredom, and want to explore the bleeding edge of rums that conform to no rational standard.

(81/100)


Other notes

  • The Paranubes website is massively informative on the method of production – I have drawn upon it to summarize the process here.  It is well worth a read in its entirety.
  • Unaged, issued at 54%
  • Serge Valentin on WhiskyFun, as ever ahead of the curve, rated it 88 last year, very much because he loved its artisinal nature and originality.