Nov 162020
 

It’s when you sniff this understated and really quite excellent agricole from Marie Galante that you gain some sense of how well made both it and the green labelled “standard” blanc 50º are.  The Green Label — my term, not theirs — was good and I really liked it, but this one was a few degrees stronger and a few degrees better and makes a good case for both the utilization of specific cane varietals and a single source of origin.

Briefly, Rhum Island – a company founded in 2017 – issues rhums which are bottled in Saint Martin (a small island south of Anguilla shared by Holland and France, which has no sugar industry to speak of), sourced from distilleries on Guadeloupe and Marie Galante (it varies depending on the bottling). Whether it comes from Bielle, Pere Labat (Poisson), Capovilla or Bellevue (in tis case), is anyone’s guess – as I noted, the guys at the booth who kept filling my glass kept that close to their vests. Perhaps it was/is the distilleries themselves who were shyly demure about their names being used by what is, at end, another indie bottler, albeit from the Caribbean itself. 

In short, however, the marketing blurb tells us that the rhum comes from “red cane”, and is meant to be pure agricultural monovarietal white rhum, initially distilled on column stills at 78% ABV and gradually reduced to 53% ABV, with no additives, no filtration and no ageing.

All that comes together in a rhum of uncommonly original aroma and taste. It opens with smells that confirm its provenance as an agricole, and it displays most of the hallmarks of a rhum from the blanc side (herbs, grassiness, crisp citrus and tart fruits)…but that out of the way, evidently feels it is perfectly within its rights to take a screeching ninety degree left turn into the woods.  Woody and even meaty notes creep out, which seem completely out of place, yet somehow work. This all combines with salt, rancio, brine, and olives to mix it up some more, but the overall effect is not unpleasant – rather it provides a symphony of undulating aromas that move in and out, no single one ever dominating for long before being elbowed out of the way by another.

The palate is crisp and clean and invites one to keep sipping and tasting to see what else can be wrung out, what else can be discovered. If you can believe it, it’s even more interesting than the nose – deeper somehow, more forceful and assertive, making the point less with a smorgasbord of flavours or sharp stabs to the glottis (though both are definitely present), than a sort of firm and complex strength. There were tastes of lemon custard, salt-pimento-flavoured chocolate, sweet herbs like fennel and rosemary, 7-up, candy floss and crushed walnuts and a nice medley of green apples, citrus peel, grapes, and yellow mangoes, around which flitted occasional minerally notes, olives, salt, sweet soya, and at no time, in spite of the strength, does it lose the peculiar delicacy that had also marked its brother. I also enjoyed the finish, which was long and aromatic, leaving behind the memory of bitter chocolate, grass, sugar cane sap, salt, and a herbal vegetable soup and with sweet cane vinegar.

In short, I thought this was a really fantastic white rhum. As I remarked above, it doesn’t say from which plantation / estate on Marie Galante it hails, but my own feeling is that it is not a blend – the tasting coordinates dial in too precisely, it’s too lacking in the smooth, carefully-mixed, please-all-comers anonymity to be a blend, and in any case, what are the chances that a single varietal’s cane is harvested at the same time, crushed to juice at the same time, on multiple estates, and then brought together to form a blend?  No, I’m suggesting this is one estate’s rhum, and I wish I knew which one it was, because it’s one damned fine white rhum, affordable and right tasty, and I really want some more. It’s a blanc rhum to treasure.

(#777)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • The label shown above was changed shortly after April 2019, and the new version looks like this:

Photo provided courtesy of Rhum Island

Nov 052020
 

Reimonenq out of Guadeloupe is not a producer whose rhums I’ve tried much of, and so the initial attack of this Grande Reserve — nuts, nougat, toblerone, vanilla ice cream and sweet white chocolate — took me somewhat off balance.  The Vielli was a rhum aged 7 years, so I expected a bit of agricole-ness mixed up with more traditional aged olfactory components, not something like that, not right off. But there they were, clogging up my nose.  And that wasn’t all – the dourness of the opening was followed by stuff that was a lot more sprightly – dried apricots, pineapples, strawberry bubble gum, acidic green apples, mint, thyme and Fanta.  I mean, it started out relatively solid but became – or at least seemed to become – progressively more lighthearted, chirpy, progressively younger, as time went by. Not in age but in feeling.

Even the texture and taste of it on the tongue channeled some of that dichotomy, the musky and the crisp, balancing between an aged rhum and a more youthful expression. Sweet bubble gum and flowers, dill, hot black tea, no shortage of various citrus fruits (orange, lemon, red grapefruit), green grapes, brine, red olives.  There was even sweetness, marmalade on toasted bread vanilla, a touch of brown sugar, acetones and nail polish, if you could believe it, with a faint whiff of exotic kitchen spices wafting gently behind it all and morphing at last into an aromatic but dry finish, redolent of brine, spices, nail polish and sharp fruits that seemed to only grudgingly dissipate.  

I looked at my glass in some bemusement, checked the labelling. I got all that from 40%? From this? Wow.

I was really and pleasantly surprised by how well it presented, to be honest.  For a standard strength rhum, I expected less, but its complexity and changing character eventually won me over.  Looking at others’ reviews of rhums in Reimonenq’s range I see similar flip flops of opinion running through them all.  Some like one or two, some like that one more than that other one, there are those that are too dry, too sweet, too fruity (with a huge swing of opinion), and the little literature available is a mess of ups and downs.

Except the Caribbean Journal, which was perhaps overcome with a fit of hyper-enthusiastic vapours when it spoke glowingly of Reimonenq’s 6YO Grande Reserve, and said they made “rum for rum drinkers” (as opposed to mere “special rums” for the proles, apparently), and opined that such a category “…isn’t for everyone, [is] filled with rums of unique character, of sometimes too much strength, of uncanny personality.” Uh-huh. Right. Sure you aren’t working for their marketing department, buddy?

Still, you’d think that anything endorsed so positively – and in the main, reviews of their rhums are more upbeat than negative – should have a rather large footprint, but you’d be wrong – not many reviewers have bothered to try any, except the mastodon of the scene, Serge Valentin (here, here and here to start), and the man who channels his ethos, Marius Elder of Single Cask Rum.  And of course, there’s a few opinions on Rum Ratings, which are too few to make any comments about, but demonstrate the peculiar anonymity of the brand by their sheer paucity and are useful in their own way.

That’s rather odd, because Distillerie Reimonenq has been around since 1916 when it was founded by Joseph and Fernand Reimonenq in the commune of Sainte-Rose on Guadeloupe (the west “wing”, or Basse Terre) and as far as I know, continued under their ownership ever since.  Moreover, they have a wide range of column-still rhums (all cane juice based) that span many ages and many strengths and aren’t half bad.  Indeed, Reimonenq supplies indie bottlers from time to time, most notably Rum Nation, so why isn’t it better known and shown off with pride on social media more often? I don’t know the answer to that.  I do know I’ll be picking a few more of these to look at, and that right quick, as it’s clear I’ve been ignoring them for too long already.

(#775)(84/100)

 

Nov 022020
 

There are quite a few interesting (some would say strange) things about the Rhum Island / Island Cane brand, and the white rums in their portfolio.  For one thing, the rhums are bottled in Saint Martin, only the second island in the Caribbean where two nations share a border – the Netherlands and France in this case, for both the constituent country of Sint Maarten (south side) and the Collectivité de Saint-Martin (north side) remain a part of the respective colonizing nations, who themselves don’t share a border anywhere else.

Secondly, there is neither a sugar or rum making industry on Saint Martin, which until 2007  was considered part of – and lumped in with – the overseas région and département of Guadeloupe: but by a popular vote it became a separate overseas Collectivité of France. Thirdly, the brand’s range is mostly multi-estate blends (not usual for agricoles), created, mixed and bottled in Saint Martin, and sources distillate from unnamed distilleries on Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante. And the two very helpful gents at the 2019 Paris Rhumfest booth — who kept filling my tasting glass and gently pressing me to try yet more, with sad, liquid eyes brimming with the best guilt trip ever laid on me — certainly weren’t telling me anything more than that.

That said, I can tell you that the rhum is a cane juice blanc, a blend whipped up from rhums from unnamed distilleries on Guadeloupe, created by a small company in St. Martin called Rhum Island which was founded in 2017 by Valerie Kleinhans, her husband and two partners; and supposedly conforms to all the regulations governing Guadeloupe rhum production (which is not the AOC, btw, but their own internal mechanism that’s close to it).  Unfiltered, unaged, unadded to, and a thrumming 50% ABV. Single column still.  Beyond that, it’s all about taste, and that was pretty damned fine.

I mean, admittedly the nose wasn’t anything particularly unique – it was a typical agricole – but it smelled completely delicious, every piece ticking along like a liquid swiss watch, precisely, clearly, harmoniously.  It started off with crisp citrus and Fanta notes, and that evocative aroma of freshly cut wet grass in the sun.  Also brine, red olives, cumin, dill, and the creaminess of a lemon meringue pie.  There is almost no bite or clawing at the nose and while not precisely soft, it does present as cleanly firm.

Somewhat dissimilar thoughts attend the palate, which starts out similarly…to begin with.  It’s all very cane-juice-y — sugar water, watermelons, cucumbers and gherkins in light vinegar that are boosted with a couple of pimentos for kick. This is all in a minor key, though – mostly it has a herbal sweetness to it, sap and spices, around which coils something extra…licorice, cinnamon, something musky, bordering on the occasionally excessive.  The rhum, over time, develops an underlying solidity of the taste which is at odds with the clean delicacy of the nose, something pungent and meaty, and and everything comes to a close on the finish, which presents little that’s new – lemon zest, cane juice, sugar water, cucumbers, brine, sweet olives – but completely and professionally done.

This is a white rhum I really liked – while it lacked some of the clean precision and subtlety of the Martinique blanc rhums (even the very strong ones), it was quite original and, in its own way, even new…something undervalued in these times, I think. The initial aromas are impressive, though the muskier notes it displays as it opens up occasionally detract – in that sense I rate it as slightly less than the Island Rhum Red Cane 53% variation I tried alongside it…though no less memorable. 

What’s really surprising, though, is how easy it is to drink multiple shots of this innocent looking, sweet-smelling, smooth-tasting white, while enjoying your conversation with those who nod, smile, and keep generously recharging your glass; and never notice how much you’ve had until you try to express your admiration for it by using the word “recrudescence” in a sentence, and fall flat on your face.  But trust me, you’ll have a lot of fun doing it right up until then. 

(#774)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The name of the company that makes it is Rhum Island — this doesn’t show on the label, only their website, so I’ve elected to call it as I saw it.
  • This rhum was awarded a silver medal in the 2018 Concours Général Agricole de Paris
  • Shortly after April 2019, the labels of the line were changed, and the bottle now looks as it does in the photo below. The major change is that the Rhum Island company name has more prominently replaced the “Island Cane” title

Photo provided courtesy of Rhum Island

Aug 172020
 

Mauritius is another one of those rum producing areas that flits in and out of our collective rumconsciousness, and seems to come up for mention mostly (and only) when a blogger checks out a new indie expression (SBS and Velier spring to mind). Cognoscenti might recall Penny Blue, New Grove, Chamarel or Lazy Dodo rums from the graveyard of reviews past, but honestly, when was the last time you saw one yourself, tried one, or even bought one?

St. Aubin is one of the Indian Ocean island distilleries that have been gathering some goodwill of late and should not be left out of anyone’s purchasing calculations, and with good reason: they taste pretty damned good, and they have a long history of both pot and column still production stretching back two centuries. If distribution can be sorted out beyond Europe, and there’s a resumption of the rum festivals where one can find their products, then we can hope their reputation ticks up more than it has so far.  This particular rum is the top of their line, being a limited edition of not only a set number of bottles (2,080) but from a particular harvest (2003), cane juice source, completely copper-pot-still distilled, aged a solid ten years and aimed at a wider audience by tamping it down to 43%.  Based on those specs it’s practically a must-have, 

Certainly the 2003 10 YO does its next-best relative the St. Aubin Grande Reserve (which is itself a combo of 30% pot still 10YO from 2004 and 70% rested 7YO column still juice) quite a bit better, simply by not diluting its own core fully-pot-still essence. This is key to understanding how good the 2003 smells, because it noses cleaner, crisper, even a shade lighter…and quite a bit more is going on under there.  What was, in the other aged expressions, a sort of sweetness is more delicate here, closer to sugar cane sap and sugar water than the slight heaviness often attendant on molasses based rums. There are aromas of flowers, masala spice, cloves and a dash of cinnamon. And leaving it standing to open up, one gets additional hints of coffee grounds, unsweetened chocolate, and a nice delicate vein of vanilla and citrus. 

The oak influence takes on a more dominant note on the palate, which is initially sweet, dry and intense.  There’s bitter chocolate, caramel, cinnamon and a vague grassiness more sensed than actually experienced, plus citrus peel, chocolate oranges, cumin and the slightest hint of cilantro.  Plus some Fanta and 7-up, which I was not expecting, but no entirely unhappy to taste.  The whole drink is clean, crisp and dry, and the gradually emergent and assertive herbals and tart notes make it a pretty nifty neat pour.  Finish is not too shabby – medium long, mostly bon-bons, caramel, light flowers and lemon meringue pie.

The cost of this ten year old rum released in 2014 is in the €140 range (when it can be tracked down – I found that price in the Mauritius duty free, but not much elsewhere) and this is one of those instances where even with the modest strength, I think it worth picking up if you’re in funds.  Because on top of how well it noses and tastes, those stats are impressive – pot still, ten years tropical ageing, cane juice distillate, its own peculiar terroire, something not from the Caribbean….that’s pressing a lot of buttons at once.  Too often we uncritically and unthinkingly fork out that kind of coin for regularly issued blends, just because of the associated name. The new and the unknown needs to be tried on its own terms as well, and here, I think that for what St. Aubin provides us with and what we get out of it, it’s well worth pausing to try, to share, and to buy. 

(#753)(86/100)


A brief history

The Domaine de St. Aubin, named after the first sugar cane mill established by Pierre de St. Aubin in 1819 or thereabouts, is located in the extreme south of Mauritius in the Rivière des Anguilles, and has been cultivating cane since that year – however the date of first distillation of spirits is harder to pin down – it’s likely within a few decades of the original opening of the sugar factory (there are records of the Harel family starting a distillery which is now New Grove in the 1850s, which also makes the Lazy Dodo brand). In the late 1960s the Franco-Mauritian Guimbeau family – who made their fortune in the tea trade for which Mauritius is also renowned – acquired the estate and retained the name, and gradually developed a stable of rums produced both by a pot still (which produces what they term their “artisanal” rums) and a relatively recent columnar still for larger volume agricoles. 

Jun 222020
 

Clement has a stable line of releases that have remained consistent for a long time – the “Bar and Cocktail” range of mixers and the “Classic” mid-level bottlings of the Ambre, Vieux, Canne Bleu and three blancs (40º, 50º, 55º)’. There is also the “Prestige” range consisting of the VSOP, 6YO, 10YO, single cask, Cuvée Homère, the XO, and that famed set of really aged millésimes which comprised the original XO — the 1952, 1970 and 1976.  And for those with more money than they know what to do with, the Carafe Cristal, ultimate top of the line for the company but out of the reach of most of us proles.

Yet oddly, the trio of The Distiller Edition of their rhums, of which I only ever saw a single example (this one) receives little or no attention at all these days, and has dropped from popular consciousness. It seems to be a small series released around 2007 and sold primarily in Italy, perhaps an unrepeated experiment and included a “Cask Strength” 57.8% edition, and a “Non filtre” 43.5% variation. It suggests a tentative strategy to branch out into craft bottlings that never quite worked out and was then quietly shelved, which may be why it’s not shown on Clement’s website.

Photo courtesy of Sascha Junkert

That said, what are the stats? Of course, this being Clement, it’s from Martinique, AOC-certified, column still, aged in American oak, with 1,650 bottles released at a near standard 43.5% (aside from its blancs, most of the the company ‘s rums are in the mid-forties). The tres vieux appellation tells us it is a minimum of four years old, but my own feeling its that it’s probably grater than five, as I’ve read it was bottled around 2005 or so, which fits in with the somewhat elevated nature of its title and presentation (there’s one reference which says it’s 7-9 years old).

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s an awesome undiscovered masterpiece, but it is a cut above the ordinary vieux rhums from Clement which most people have had.  It has a dark and sweet nose, redolent of plums and dark red cherries, caramel, vanilla ice cream and a touch of cinnamon dusted mocha.  Where’s the herbals? I scribbled in my notes, because those light, white-fruit, grassy notes weren’t really that much in evidence. Mind you, I did also smell olives, brine, flowers and a touch of nutmeg, so it wasn’t as if good stuff wasn’t there.

The palate was about par for the course for a rum bottled at this strength. Initially it felt like it was weak and not enough was going on (as if the profile should have emerged on some kind of schedule), but it was just a slow starter: it gets going with citrus, vanilla, flowers, a lemon meringue pie, plums and blackberry jam. This faded out and is replaced by sugar cane sap, swank and the grassy vegetal notes mixed up with ashes (!!) and burnt sugar. Out of curiosity I added some water , and was rewarded with citrus, lemon-ginger tea, the tartness of ripe gooseberries, pimentos and spanish olives. It took concentration and time to tease them out, but they were, once discerned, quite precise and clear. Still, strong they weren’t (“forceful” would not be an adjective used to describe it) and as expected the finish was easygoing, a bit crisp, with light fruit, fleshy and sweet and juicy, quite ripe, not so much citrus this time. The grassy and herbal notes are very much absent by this stage, replaced by a woody and spicy backnote, medium long and warm

Clement has always been a hard act for me to pin down precisely.  Their rhums don’t adhere to any one clear-cut company standard — like, say, Neisson, or Saint James or Damoiseau —  and it’s like they always try to sneak something in under the radar to test you, to rock the barrel a bit. That means that peculiar attention has to be paid to appreciate them – they do not reward those in a hurry. I make this point because although I usually feel a sense of frustrated impatience with the weak wispiness of standard proofed rums, some surpass this limitation and bat beyond their strength class, and I think this is one of these…up to a point. The Distiller’s Edition 2000 is not at the level of intensity or quality that so marked the haunting memories evoked by the XO, yet I enjoyed it, and could see the outlines of their better and older rhums take shape in its unformed yet tasty profile, and by no means could I write it off as a loss. 

(#738)(84/100)


Other notes

  • Over the years, knowing my fondness for stronger rums and the deadening effect these can have on the palate, I have made it a practice to do flights of standard strength first thing in the morning when the palate is fresh and still sensitive to such weaker rums’ profiles.
  • When released, the rhum retailed for about €60, but now in 2020, it goes for more than €300…if it can even be found. 
  • Post will be updated of Clement gets back to me on the background to these limited edition rhums, and what they were created to achieve.
May 112020
 

Saint James. It’s not a name that’s unknown, since it’s the source of one of the oldest surviving rums in the world (the mud-black 1885), the place where rum-swami Luca Gargano started working all those years ago, and where Marc Sassier now hangs his hat. They’ve been around — and have been among the largest Martinique agricole makers — for so long, that they sometimes get passed over in people’s estimation in favour of younger or more exciting or more innovative Martinique operations (like, oh, A1710, or the new parcellaires).  Yet year in and year out, their standard lineup continues to enthrall and impress and demonstrate they’re not laggards by any means.

Saint James divides its range of rums – and they make quite a few – into three main categories.  First, there’s the cocktail fodder, mostly whites like the Imperial Blanc Agricole, Royal Blanc Agricole, Blanc Agricole 55°, Fleur de Canne and that extraordinary pot-still Coeur de Chauffe, plus the Rhum Paille and Rhum Ambre which are young and standard strength low-end blends. At the top of the food chain lie the special “exceptional” editions, the millesimes, single casks, special blends and anniversary editions in fancy bottles which will set you back a pretty penny and provide a handsome adornment to your home bar.  But when it comes to value for money, it’s the mid-level “tasting rhums” in their stable that give most bang for the buck – the Rhum Vieux 3 Ans, the 4-5 YO blend of the Fleur de Canne Vieux, the 7 Year Old, 12 year old, and the best of this series, I think, the 15 year old…which, were it slightly cheaper, might have made it a Key Rum of the World instead of the 12

Because that 15 year old rhum is, to my mind, something of an underground, mass-produced steal.  It has the most complex nose of the “regular” lineup, and also, paradoxically, the lightest overall profile — and also the one where the grassiness and herbals and the cane sap of a true agricole comes through the most clearly.  It has the requisite crisp citrus and wet grass smells, sugar came sap and herbs, and combines that with honey, the delicacy of white roses, vanilla, light yellow fruits, green grapes and apples.  You could just close your eyes and not need ruby slippers to be transported to the island, smelling this thing.  It’s sweet, mellow and golden, a pleasure to hold in your glass and savour

The taste is a similarly striking combination of depth, lightness and flavour. White guavas and pears mix it up with gooseberries and tartly ripe white soursop; there’s caramel, vanilla, dried fruits held in delicate check by some florals and mint, without any becoming overbearing and hogging the show.  There’s so much going on here that it’s difficult to stop and just pick out the highlights.  Salted butter, dates and caramel, almost tequila-like at times, a touch of brine and olives here and there, but it’s all extremely well integrated, leading to a finish that is not particularly long, but quite fragrant with all the flowery and fruity notes of a tropical isle that perhaps exists not so much in reality, as in our fond remembrances and imaginations.

What these tasting notes describe is a top-end, well-aged rhum of a standard lineup. But these words don’t do justice to exactly how — when compared with and against the 7 and 12 YO — it rises above them, and in our esteem. I think Marc Sassier has created a masterful example of a blender’s art that somehow moves beyond being something standard or regular or “same old same old”.

You see, it’s almost received wisdom that rums showing  off any company’s possibilities and street cred, those that build the brand by demonstrating the amazing quality of which they are capable, are the flagships, the uber-expensive halo-rums, the single barrel or single year’s offerings — look no further than the El Dorado 25, Abuelo Centuria, Appleton 50 or even Saint James’s own 250th Anniversary to see that principle in action. But to my mind, the full measure of a producing company is better found in the sometimes unloved mass-market mid-level offerings, made in quantity, priced to move…the aged blends which so often are sadly lacking in any kind of lore or romance. Any run-of-the-mill rum, of any age, that emerges from this kind of assembly-line mentality and process, yet still retains fires of lust, of allure, of sheer quality, is a kind of industrial miracle. As this one is.

(#725)(88/100)

Mar 192020
 

Staying with some of the lesser-known agricoles I’ve delayed writing about for far too long, let’s talk about La Mauny for a bit. This is one of the larger establishments on Martinque, and now owned by Campari, which bought both it and Trois Rivieres in late 2019, ending nearly three hundred years of (various) families’ or witless conglomerates’ control over it. That history is a bit lengthy, so I’ll put it at the bottom and dive right in to the main schtick.

The La Mauny distillery remains one of the largest in Martinique, both for its planted cane area and for its production. Each year, it grinds around 30,000 tonnes of sugar cane , more than half cut by hand, to produce three million liters of agricultural rum. The Heritage 1749 – that date refers to the estate’s founding – is, for all its grandiose titling, something of an entry level rhum, not one of the heavily aged, much-fussed-over badasses that establishes a candidacy for a rhum-halo. It’s 40% ABV, column distilled from cane juice, aged between one and two years in French oak and then given three months in porto casks for a bit of finishing.

Whatever the porto influence was, it didn’t make itself known on the nose, at least not noticeably. The whole thing was relatively mild, and displayed very musky, earthy, loamy initial scents at the beginning…gradually there were replaced with vanilla, caramel, and deep dark fruits, mostly plums and overripe prunes.  The crisp and light grassiness of the sort of agricole rhum with which we are more familiar, was almost entirely absent at this stage, but I had to admit…it surprised me (and that doesn’t happen all that often these days).

Okay so, on to palate.  Straw yellow in the glass, it was softer and less intense, which, for a forty percenter, was both good and bad.  Here the grassy and herbal notes took on more prominence, as did citrus, some tart unsweetened yoghurt, honey and cane juice. The youth was evident in the slight sharpness and lack of real roundness – the two years of ageing had some effect, just not enough to sand off everything that rasped, and additional hints of red grapes, wine and nuttiness showed the porton had done its thing about as well as could be expected. As for the finish, meh – short, slightly sweet, lemon meringue pie, some vanilla, a flower petal or two…and a dark wet earthy aftertaste, very mild, very faint, that took me back to the nose.

To be honest, it’s not really very interesting.  The Porto finish saves it somewhat from being a bore and a dismissive “it’s just another rum” remark.  But even so, I doubt it’ll ever be asked for by name in some upscale joint or to fill out the edges of a home bar. To me, it’s very much like that King of Diamonds rum DDL used to make: a cheap working man’s blue-collar friend, meant to be had in the village or a cheap back-alley cafe with ice, laughter, dominos…and to wash down rough conversations about life, not meandering discussions about the esoteric meanings of Balzac or Baudelaire. That might be a little esoteric for an explanation of how I perceive this young rhum, but it encapsulates what I think of it perfectly.

(#712)(80/100)


History

La Mauny was founded in 1749 when Ferdinand Poulain, count of Mauny (in northern France), acquired the estate via an advantageous marriage to the daughter of a local planter, and established a refinery there. In 1820, with Martinique becoming more important to France after the loss of St Domingue (Haiti), La Mauny invested in a still and began agricole production.  Unfortunately, consistency of ownership proved elusive – a pattern that would not significantly change for the next centuries – and the estate passed through several hands over the succeeding generations because of poor management, financial or production difficulties, or familial squabbles. At various times the Code and Lapiquonne families held ownership, and although the family of Tasher de la Pagerie, whose daughter Josephine married Napoleon, expressed an interest, negotiations fell through.

In 1923 La Mauny was sold to Théodore and Georges Bellonnie who enlarged and brought in new facilities such as a distillation column, new grinding mills and a steam engine. The distillery expanded hugely thanks to increased output and good marketing strategies and La Mauny rhums began to be exported around 1950. In 1970, after the Bellonnie brothers had both passed away, the Bordeaux traders and old-Martinique family of Bourdillon teamed up with Théodore Bellonnie’s widow and created the BBS Group.  The company grew strongly, launching on the French market in 1977. Jean Pierre Bourdillon, who ran the new group, undertook to modernize La Mauny. He began by reorganizing the fields in order to make them accessible to mechanical harvesting and built a new distillery in 1984 (with a fourth mill, a three column still and a new boiler) a few hundred meters from the old one, increasing the cane crushing capacity and buying the equipment of the Saint James distillery in Acaiou, unused since 1958.

The musical chairs of acquisition and disposal, however, were not over. In 1994, Martini and Rossi sold BBS the Trois Rivieres Distillery, where the enormously popular Duquesne rum was also made (note that in 1953, the Marraud de Grottes family who owned Duquesne, bought Trois Rivieres, not the other way round – they then sold to M&R). BBS kept Duquesne and the Trois Rivieres distillery going until 2003, when they closed it and sent its column stills to La Mauny, where TR rhum continues to be made. 

The BBS Group was subsequently bought by the Reunion sugar refining company Quartier Francais in 2007, but they let it go again in 2010 to Tereos (previously Beghin-Say) – all these companies dealt mostly in sugar, but had nothing to do with the spirits industry.  Tereos sold the BBS division and its brands in 2011 to la Martiniquaise, whose speciality was spirits and where the fit was better. But this created a problem, since La Martiniquaise already owned the Saint James, Dillon and Old Nick brands and producing estates, and getting ownership of BBS would give them control more than 60% of rhums produced in the French Islands.  The Competition Authority therefore mandated that La Martinquaise divest part of their portfolio, which they did by selling on BBS to the Cyrille Chevrillon Group (who again, had absolutely nothing to do with rhum – they were into pharmaceuticals, insurance, flowers and printing, for example). The story stops (for now) in 2019, when the Campari Group announced the acquisition of the Trois Rivières, Duquesne and La Mauny brands, for $ 60 million, which is where things lie for the moment.

Sources:


Other Notes

Admittedly, this is something of an obscure rhum and the only other review I found was from that undiscovered treasure of a Japanese site, Sarichiii, run by one of the few ladies in the rum blogosphere.  There is a single notation in Rum Ratings with a score of 3/10, which I’ll include for completeness, but not because I think it’s a review.

Feb 232020
 

Recently we’ve looked at rums from Jamaica, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Japan, India, Australia, Guadeloupe, Haiti and Mauritius (and that’s just since the year began) which goes a far way to showcasing the incredible variety of the spirit.  Today we’ll try something from Martinique – and when one considers the fame of Saint James, home of the near legendary 1885 Rhum (one of oldest rhums I’ve ever tried) and from which I’ve tasted several old editions from the past, well, it’s a wonder I haven’t come here more often to try their current offerings.

At this time, the Saint James lineup consists of five blanc rhums (Imperial, Royal, the 55º, Fleur de Canne and the really quite amazing pot-still Coeur de Chauffe), two basic mixers (Rhum Paille Agricole, Rhum Ambré Agricole), nine more “tasting rhums” which are the aged variants of the 3, Vieux, XO, 7, 12, 15, Cuvee 1765, Cuvee d’excellence and Brut de Fut 2003…and lastly, five “exceptional rhums” (their phrase, not mine), which are special editions, millesimes and so on. 

Today I won’t aim for the stratosphere with some ultra-expensive halo rum from the top end which none but the 1% can afford, but just speak to the mid-range 7 Year Old. All the usual stats apply for a Saint James rhum – AOC certified, cane juice origin, creole still, 43% strength, and nicely tropically-aged in small ex-bourbon casks.  

What’s interesting about Saint James is not only the distinctiveness of their rhum here, but its divergence from what is almost seen as the sine-qua-non of rhum agricole – the grassy, herbal lightness of a cane juice distillate. Nowhere in the initial nose do I detect herbs and green grass and that light crispness – instead, what I smell is  luscious, sweet, and spicy, almost but not quite heavy with fruits. There’s preaches in syrup, pineapple, light anise, unsweetened yoghurt, coffee grounds, honey and vanilla, and later, also some cinnamon. I think you have to admit, for a 7 year old to have all that is really quite remarkable. 

Ah but when sipped, all that changes, and the clodhoppers go away and it dons a pair of ballet slippers.  It’s stunningly fragrant, not quite delicate – that ballerina does have an extra pound or two – very firm and robust in flavour profile.  Just on the first sip you can taste flowers, pears, papaya, honey, vanilla, raisins, grapes, all pulled together with a delectable light and salty note. There are nice citrus hints, a tease from the oak, ginger and cinnamon, and overall, it sips as nicely as it mixes.  The finish is well handled, though content to play it safe – things are beginning to quieten down here, and it fades quietly without stomping on you – and certainly nothing new or original comes into being; the rhum is content to follow where the nose and palate led – fruits, pineapple, spices, ginger, vanilla – without breaking any new ground.

So all in all, a really vibrant piece of tropically aged work, deserving many of its plaudits. I’ve noticed on many a social media post that people throw around the words “gateway rum” and apply it consistently to the oversweetened bestsellers like the Zacapas or some of the traditional Demeraras from DDL.  Here’s one rum where the term really does apply, and what makes it so apropos is that there’s no messing around with the 7 YO Vieux, no enticement or blandishment with additives or fancy maturation or finishing (or those tiresome old made-up backstories).  It’s simply a very good mid range rhum, drinkable, mixable, flexible, and its great quality might just be that it makes you want to go up the ladder to the older rums immediately, just to see what magic Mark Sassier has done with those. Now that’s a gateway that means business, and completely earns the title.

(#704)(83/100)


Other notes

  • The Fat Rum Pirate noted the odd lack of agricole-ness on the nose as well, in his 2018 4.5 star review.
  • It’s completely irrelevant, but Luca Gargano started his rum career working for Saint James as a brand ambassador in the 1970s, before buying Velier.
Nov 282019
 

It must be something about the French – they’re opening micro distilleries all over the place (Chalong Bay, Sampan, Whisper, Issan and Toucan are examples) and almost all of them are channelling the agricole ethos of the French West Indies, working with pure cane juice and bringing some seriously interesting unaged blancs to the attention of the world. Any time I get bored with the regular parade of rums from the lands of the pantheon, all I have to do is reach for one of them to get jazzed up about rum, all over again. í

The latest of these little companies is from Vietnam, which is rife with sugar cane juice (“Nuoc Mia”) as well as locally made bottom-house rice- or molasses-originating artisanal spirits called “rượu” (ruou); these operate in the shadows of any Government regulation, registration or oversight — many are simple moonshineries.  But Saigon Liquorists is not one of these, being the formally incorporated enterprise of two expatriate Frenchmen Clément Jarlier and Clément Daigre, who saw the cane juice liquor being sold on the streets in Ho Chi Minh City and smelled a business opportunity. The fact that one was involved in spirits distribution in Vietnam while the other had both broker experience and knew about the distillation of cognac didn’t hurt wither – already they had a background in the industry.

Photo (c) Saigon Liquorists, from FB

Sourcing a 200-liter single column still in 2017 from China, they obtained fresh cane, then the juice, experimented for three months with fermentation, distillation, cutting, finally got the profile they were after, and rolled out the first Rhum Mia in October that year at a local charity gala. In their current production system, the sugarcane comes from Tien Giang in the Mekong Delta, just south of Ho Chi Minh City, via a supplier who collects it from farmers in the area and does the initial processing. The sugarcane is peeled, and pressed once to get the first juice. That is then vacuum-packed in 5L bags and loaded into refrigerated trucks (this slows down fermentation), which transport the bags the 70km to the distillery.  There fermentation is begun and lasts about five days, before being run through the still – what comes out the other end is around 77% ABV. The rum is rested in inert, locally-made traditional clay vessels called chums (used in rice liquor fermentation in Vietnam) for eight months and then slowly diluted with water over the final two months to 45% – a strength chosen to appeal to the local market where Mia’s initial sales were made. 

The strength might prove key to broader acceptance in foreign markets where 50-55% ABV is more common for juice-based unaged rhums (Toucan had a similar issue with the No.4, as you may recall). When I nosed this 45% rhum, its initial smells took me aback – there was a deep grassy kind of aroma, mixed in with a whole lot of glue, book bindings, wax, old papers, varnish and furniture polish, that kind of thing. It reminded me of my high school studies done in GT’s National Library, complete with the mustiness and dry dust of an old chesterfield gone to mothballs, under which are stacked long unopened suitcases from Edwardian times. And after all that, there came the real rum stuff – grass, dill, sweet gherkins, sugar water, white guavas and watermelon, plus a nice clear citrus hint. Quite a combo.

The rhum distanced itself from the luggage, furniture and old tomes when I tasted it.  The attack was crisp and clean on the tongue, sharp and spicy, an uambiguous blade of pure herbal and grassy flavours – sweet sugar cane sap, dill, crushed lime leaves, brine, olives, with just a touch of fingernail polish and turpentine at the back end, as fleeting as a roué’s sly wink.  After about half an hour – longer than most will ever have this thing gestating in their glasses – faint musty dry earth smells returned, but were mixed in with sugar water, cucumbers and pimentos, cumin, and lemongrass, so that was all good. The finish was weak and somewhat quick, quite aromatic and dry, with nice hints of flowers, lemongrass, and tart fruits.

Ultimately, it’s a reasonably tasty tropical drink that would do fine in (and may even have been expressly designed for) a ti-punch, but as a rhum to have on its own, it needs some torqueing up, since the flavours are there, but too difficult to tease out and come to grips with. Based on the experience I’ve had with other micro-distilleries’ blancs (all of which are stronger), the Mia is damned intriguing though. It’s different and unusual, and in my correspondence with him, Clement suggested that this difference comes from the fact that the sugar cane peel is discarded before pressing which makes for a more grassy taste, and he takes more ‘heads’ away than most, which reduces flavour somewhat…but also the hangover, which, he remarked, is a selling point in Vietnam.

These days I don’t drink enough to get seriously wasted any more (it interferes with my ability to taste more rums), but if this easy-on-the-head agricole-style rhum really does combine both taste and a hangover-free morning after, and if the current fascination with grass-to-glass rums continues in the exclusive bars of the world – well, I’m not sure how you could stop the sales from exploding. Next time I’m in the Real World, I’ll keep an eye out for it myself.

(#680)(76/100)


Other Notes

  • All bottles, labels and corks are sourced in Vietnam and efforts are underway to begin exporting to Asia and Europe.
  • Production was around 9000 bottles a year back in 2018, so it might have increased since then.
  • Plans are in play to distill both gins and vodkas in the future.
  • Hat tip to Reuben Virasami, who spotted me the sample and alerted me to the company.  Also to Tom Walton, who explained what “chums” were. And many thanks to Clément Daigre of SL, who patiently ran me through the history of the company, and its production methods.
Nov 192019
 

Rumaniacs Review #104 | 0677

Unsurprisingly, the 1976 Clément Trés Vieux we looked at a few days ago sells for around €500 or more these days, which to me is a complete steal, because any Velier from that far back is going for multiple thousands, easy.  This, the second-oldest component of the XO sells for quite a bit more – north of €700 (though you can find it for much less in any store that is out of stock, and that’s most of them). And I think that one is also remarkably undervalued, especially since it’s a really good rhum.  How it can still be available nearly half a century after being made, is a mystery.

That aside, the rhum does come with questions. For example, there’s a discrepancy in accounts about how old it is. The author of that great rum book Les Silencieux, Cyril of DuRhum, noted in his 2016 recap of some of Clement’s older rhums, that it was fifteen years old, aged in 200 liter barrels and then bottled in 1985.  But that’s not what Fine Drams said – in their listing they state it was indeed aged for 15 years in this way, but it was then decanted into smaller French oak casks and matured a further six years until 1991 (no other online seller I was able to find makes mention of the age at all). And Dave Russell of the Rum Gallery, who tried it in 2017, also said it was a 21 YO, making no mention of a secondary maturation. Olivier Scars, who reviewed it as part of his tasting experience with the Clement Trio, didn’t comment on it either, and neither Clement’s own site or their US page speak to the matter.  (I’m going with the longer age for reasons I’ll make clear below, at least until the queries sent out start getting answered).

Another peculiarity of the rhum is the “AOC” on the label.  Since the AOC came into effect only in 1996, and even at its oldest this rhum was done ageing in 1991, how did that happen?  Cyril told me it had been validated by the AOC after it was finalized, which makes sense (and probably applies to the 1976 edition as well), but then, was there a pre-1996 edition with one label and a post-1996 edition with another one? (the two different boxes it comes in suggests the possibility).  Or, was the entire 1970 vintage aged to 1991, then held in inert containers (or bottled) and left to gather dust for some reason? Is either 1991 or 1985 even real? — after all, it’s entirely possible that the trio (of 1976, 1970 and 1952, whose labels are all alike) was released as a special millesime series in the late 1990s / early 2000s. Which brings us back to the original question – how old is the rhum?

Colour – Amber Gold

Strength – 44%

Nose – Not a standard agricole opening – there’s more than a touch of Jamaican here with off-notes of rotting fruit, bananas and gooseberries, quite pungent.  But also smoke, leather and more than a touch of brown sugar, even some salty vegetable soup stuffed with too much lemongrass. It does settle down after some minutes, and then we get the herbals, the grassiness, tobacco, spices, and bags of dark fruit like raisins and prunes bringing up the rear.

Palate – Hmmm, quite a bit going on here. Initially a tad sharp and bitter, with raw tobacco, pimento-infused unsweetened chocolate and anise. Sweet and salt, soya, more of that soup, brown sugar, a touch of molasses (what was that doing here?), almonds, tequila and olive oil. And more prunes, black grapes, raisins, providing a thick background around which all the other flavours – salt or sharp – swirled restlessly.

Finish – Medium long. Warm, fragant, with lots of sugar cane sap, sugar water, papaya, squash (!!), watermelon and a pear or two.  It’s really strange that the heavier and salty and musky flavours seemed to vanish completely after a while.

Thoughts – Well, I dunno.  It really is not at all like an aged agricole of the kind I’m used to getting from Martinique. The fruitiness pointed to that secondary maturation noted by Fine Drams, and overall I liked it quite a bit, more than the 1976. It’s well rounded, flavourful to a fault, maintains a good balance between age and youth, and the only hesitation I have is in pronouncing on how old it actually is, or whether it is a true AOC given the divergence from a standard/modern profile of such rums. More cannot be said at this stage until some answers roll in, and in the meantime, I have to concede that even if the background details remain elusive or questionable, this is one fine rhum from Ago.

(#677 | R104)(86/100)

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