Feb 252019
 

Just to reiterate some brief details about HSE (Habitation Saint-Étienne), which 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, who combined the sugar factory with a small distillery, and set up a rail line to transport cane more efficiently (even though oxen and people that pulled the railcars, not locomotives). In 1909, the property came into the possession of the Simonnet family who kept it until its decline at the end of the 1980s. The estate was then taken over in 1994 by Yves and José Hayot — owners, it will be recalled, of the Simon distillery, as well as Clement —  who relaunched the Saint-Étienne brand using Simon’s creole stills, adding snazzy marketing and expanding markets.

This particular rum, then, comes from a company with a long history and impeccable Martinique pedigree.  It is an AOC millésimé – a rum issued in relatively small quantities, from the output of a specific year’s production, considered to be a cut above the ordinary (2005 in this case) and finished in Sauternes casks.

Given that it is nine years tropical ageing plus another year in the Sauternes casks, I think we could be expected to have a pretty interesting profile — and I wasn’t disappointed (though the strength did give me pause).  The initial smells were grassy and wine-y at the same time, a combination of musk and crisp light aromas that melded well. There were green apples, grapes, the tart acidity of cider mixed in with some ginger and cinnamon, a dollop of brine and a few olives, freshly mown wet grass and well-controlled citrus peel behind it all.  

Well now.  That was a pretty nifty nose.  How did the palate rate?

Very well indeed, I thought.  It was a smooth and solid piece of work for its proof point, with clear, firm tastes proceeding in sequence like a conga line – light acetones and flowery notes to begin with, then bubble gum, ripe cherries and plums.  The profile proceeded to display some sharpness and herbals — citrus, cider, well-aged sharp cheddar, a touch of apricots and almost-ripe peaches together with softer honey and ginger. What distinguished it and made it succeed, I think, is the delicate balancing act between sweetness and acidity (and a trace of salt), and even the finish – grapes, honey, cane juice and wet grass for the most part – displayed this well assembled character. It impressed the hell out of me, the more so since I walked in expecting so much less.

The other day I wrote about a similarly-aged, light rum from Don Q, which I remarked as being somewhat too easy and unchallenging, bottled at a low 40%; and while competently made, simply not something that enthralled me.

On that basis, you might believe that I simply disdain any and all such low-proof rums as being ultimately boring, but now consider this 41% agricole from Habitation Saint-Étienne as a response.  It emphatically demonstrates to anyone who believes standard strength can only produce standard junk, that a rum can indeed be so relatively weak and still have some real quality squirming in its jock. And with respect to the HSE 2005, that’s a statement I can make with no hesitation at all, and real conviction.

(#602)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • This rhum should not be confused with the others in the “Les Finitions du Monde” series (like Chateau La Tour Blanche or Single Malt finish labelled as exactly that), which are also 2005 millesimes, but not bottled in the same month, have other finishes, and different labels.
  • According to Excellence Rhum, this 2005 edition is the successor to the 2003 Millesime which is no longer produced.  
  • The outturn is unknown.
  • Nine (9) years aging, plus from 12 months of finishing in Château La Tour Blanche barrels, 1st Cru Classé de Sauternes.
Feb 042019
 

Last October, I ran into Pete Holland of the Floating Rum Shack at the Berlin Rum Fest (literally – I tripped and nearly fell into his shelf of rums, and he saved them by interposing himself so they would not be damaged, even if I was).  Although we, as long-existing rum bloggers, knew of each other — all of us know each other in the Oasis — we had only met once before, so I bee-lined over to see what he was doing. It turned out he was stewarding the line of rums from the cheekily named “That Boutique-y Rum Company” (hereinafter referred to as TBRC) a division of Atom Brands, which in turn runs the Master of Malt online spirits shop (and which also self releases and self reviews the Cornelius Ampleforth rum, if you recall). Pete steadied me, indicated the whole range on display, and asked what I wanted to try.

I looked at all the familiar countries, ignoring most, looking for the unusual, not the standard – something the brand has done that takes us into new territory to awe and enthuse (the way Foursquare has done with the ECS, L’Espirt is doing with its 2019 whites, Rum Nation did with the Supreme Lords, and Velier did with…well, just about everything).  These days, I want something weird, off-kilter, new, exciting, different – and still tasty.

Alongside the Bajan, Mudland, Jamaican and other suspects (all of which had arresting and brightly-drawn, brightly-coloured labels that took Bristol Spirits’ colour scheme out back and whupped it), there was one from Travellers (Belize) and Bellevue (Guadeloupe)…this looked promising.  But after five minutes of chatting, I was having difficulty making a decision so, I asked him: “If you had one rum out of this entire selection you’d want me to try, which one would it be?”

Now you could tell that Pete, who is a consultant for the company, not an ambassador, really liked pretty much everything, which is why he kept his glass on the go the entire time from different bottles (under the pretext of helping out the bright-eyed but inexperienced rum chums swirling around the booth). “Yes mon, me drinkin’ de same rum dat me showin’ you, so it gotta be good,” you could easily imagining him saying as he avoided braining passers-by with his tasting glass using graceful moves of the arm, never spilling a drop.  So I was curious what his own favourite was, shorn of the need to sell anything to me.

He hesitated, seeing the trap, but then grinned, sipped again, and then pointed at a bottle off to the side, sharing the same colour scheme as the Enmore and the Bellevue. It was from O Reizinho, a Madeiran outfit of which I knew nothing except that it was from Madeira (which, as an aside, is an EU-recognized agricole producer). “That one.”  And without losing his glass in the one hand, he proceeded to pour me a shot with the other, hefty enough to render me catatonic, then stood back to observe the results (much the way The Sage had done years back when I had tried my first clairin, the Sajous).

Strictly speaking, the rum is not that strong – “only” 49.7%, which is a couple of whiskers away from standard. It was made in Madeira, which intrigued me, as I really enjoyed the Engenho Novo rums made by Hinton and Rum Nation; and it was a pot still rum, an unaged rum, and a “white,” all pluses in my book.  And anyway, how could you not want to sample a rum named “The Kinglet”? I know I did, and not just because of his recommendation.

It didn’t disappoint, starting out with a firm aroma of salt and wax, very powerful.  Earth mustiness, cardboard, loam, olives, bags of salt. Like a clairin, but softer. Fresh and deep, edging “crisp” by a whisker, and while the herbal notes of dill and grass and fresh sugar cane sap were there, they were not so much dominant as coexistent with the other notes mentioned before. A really outstanding set of aromas, I thought, with an excellent balancing act carried off in fine style.

And the taste, the mouthfeel – wow, really nice.  Warm, sweet, dry and fruity, with raspberries, bananas, pineapple, papaya, salt olives all dancing their way across the tongue, without any sharp nastiness to spoil the enjoyment: I like rums north of 60%, of course, but there was no fault to be found in the strength that was chosen here because even at that low power, it thrummed across the palate and still managed to provide a clear demo of all the proper notes.  Excellent sipping dram as long as you’re okay with a not-so-furious amalgamation of sweet-brine-soya-miso-soup admixture. If it faltered some, it was on the finish – and for the same reason the nose and palate were so good, i.e., the muted strength. That didn’t invalidate it (to me), and it was pleasant, sweet, soft, warm, firm and fruity, with just a little edge carrying over to complete the experience.

O Reizinho means “Little King” or “Kinglet” depending on whose translator you use, and is a small distillery perched on a hillside on Madeira’s east coast by Santa Cruz.  It is run by Joao Pedro Ferreira, who returned from a sojourn in South Africa some years back to go into the rum business with his father. They source cane locally, crushing it in one pass only (no messing around with a 2nd pass or adding water) and then let it stand in a week-long fermentation period.  Then it’s run through a wood-fired steam-injected pot still, which on a good day can provide a dozen runs. So French island nomenclature notwithstanding, this is an agricole spirit, and it adheres to all the markers of the cane juice rhums, while providing its own special filip to the style.

Initially, to get things going for the first release, TBRC bought some of those rums from a broker (Main Rum) the way so many new and old independents did and do.  But this one was bought direct from O Reizinho, and the intention in the future is to continue to do so, and to go with both aged and unaged products from this tiny distillery.  If they keep bottling — and TBRC keeps issuing — juice as fine as this, then all I can say is that the future is a bright one for them both, and I look forward to trying as much as I can from TBRC’s extended range of rums generally, and O Reizinho specifically.  They’ve enthused me that much with just this one rum.

(#596)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Batch 1 of this rum is 487 bottles
  • Just for the record, I really enjoyed the brightly coloured, lighthearted design of the labels, which are a nice counterpoint to the minimalist “facts-only” labels currently in vogue. The artist is from the outfit Jim’ll Paint It (FB Link)(Website)- ATOM brands came up with the brief, then Jim brought it to life.  In his work he reminds me somewhat of Jeff Carlisle, who did “Another Night at the Warp Core Cafe.
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)